As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Going Big On Stimulus

While many are tearing their hair out about the generally centrist cabinet picks, on the policy side there have been encouraging signs across the board. Between Waxman's ascent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Tom Daschle's HHS and health care czar selection, Max Baucus' release of a comprehensive health care reform document, the strong letter to federal employees calling for major changes to their outfits, and Obama's appearance at a global warming summit calling for sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, there's been a lot of pretty good news. Now in his weekly YouTube address, Obama is going big, calling for a stimulus to create 2.5 million new jobs in two years.

There are no quick or easy fixes to this crisis, which has been many years in the making, and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. But January 20th is our chance to begin anew — with a new direction, new ideas, and new reforms that will create jobs and fuel long-term economic growth.

I have already directed my economic team to come up with an Economic Recovery Plan that will mean 2.5 million more jobs by January of 2011 — a plan big enough to meet the challenges we face that I intend to sign soon after taking office. We’ll be working out the details in the weeks ahead, but it will be a two-year, nationwide effort to jumpstart job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy. We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels; fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.

The cost would be likely to be around $300 billion a year for two years, which approaches what is needed to combat the problem. That money getting cycled through the economy would be a great help.

As long as Obama continues to get the policy right, we'll be okay.

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A New Era Of Comity And Bipartisanship

Somebody forgot to tell Mitch McConnell.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Friday sent a message to Democrats that Republicans are not prepared to bend to a stronger majority.

In a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), McConnell urged Reid to adopt a more conciliatory tone and warned him that Republicans will unite against Democrats if he does not. The letter was signed by all 40 GOP senators and two Republican incumbents who are awaiting the results of elections in Georgia and Minnesota.

This is the Senate GOP that obstructed practically every major bill that Democrats tried to bring up for the last two years. That's not going to stop, regardless of how many Republicans are planted in the Cabinet or throughout the federal bureaucracy. At this point, Republicans aren't interested in winning the next election, they're interested in stopping any popular policy and beating this country into the ground.

"Recently, I stumbled across this analysis of how nationalized healthcare in Great Britain affected the political environment there. As Norman Markowitz in Political Affairs, a journal of "Marxist thought," puts it: "After the Labor Party established the National Health Service after World War II, supposedly conservative workers and low-income people under religious and other influences who tended to support the Conservatives were much more likely to vote for the Labor Party when health care, social welfare, education and pro-working class policies were enacted by labor-supported governments."

Passing Obamacare would be like performing exactly the opposite function of turning people into investors. Whereas the Investor Class is more conservative than the rest of America, creating the Obamacare Class would pull America to the left. Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, who first found that wonderful Markowitz quote, puts it succinctly in a recent blog post: "Blocking Obama's health plan is key to the GOP's survival.""

They have to block health care reform because people will like it. And if government produces, the entire GOP worldview is lost. Bill Kristol said this a long time ago.

The sad thing is that these threats might just work. Reid has an election coming up in 2010 and he'll be thinking about his own political future. And let's just say the Lieberman fiasco didn't exactly inspire confidence about how Senate Democrats deal with the opposition. Now McConnell is trying to set the Congressional agenda:

The minority leader also held an unusually long news conference Friday to reiterate points made in his letter. He said Republicans are not sorry to see President Bush leave office, given his unpopularity, and praised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for running a “fabulous” campaign “under very, very difficult circumstances.”

McConnell pressed Democrats to address the future of Social Security and urged Republicans to defeat ‘card-check’ legislation that would allow workers to bypass secret-ballot elections when organizing unions.

“What I’m saying to the new president and the new administration: ‘Do big things, and do them in the center, and you’ll be surprised at how much support you might have,’ " he said at the news conference.

Otherwise, McConnell warned, his party would stand together and block a far-left agenda.

“You're likely to have very significant unity among Republicans," he said.

(under the Employee Free Choice Act, if 30% of the workforce wants an secret ballot election they get one. Thought I'd put some facts into the mix)

This is what Barack Obama is stepping into. He's going to offer a hand of friendship and Senate Republicans are going to bite it off. They are thoroughly disinterested in compromise. They view it as a threat.

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California Nearing The Cliff

The unemployment statistics for October at the state level were released today, and as it turns out California lost the third-most jobs in the nation at 26,400. Only Washington and Florida lost more. This puts the unemployment rate in the state at 8.2%. This is a 2.5% increase from one year ago, the largest year-over-year increase since 1982, the last major recession. Worse, in regions of the Central Valley, that number is much higher. Unemployment in Fresno County is 11.2%. In San Joaquin County, 11.1%. In Merced County, 11.7%. In Tulare County, 11.8%. And in Stanislaus County, 11.8%. Those are desperate numbers.

The loss of income tax revenue along with the dip in property taxes thanks to cascading foreclosures is leading more cities to the brink of bankruptcy.

Now two more California cities – Rio Vista and Isleton – are considering bankruptcy protection as an option as they face large budget shortfalls and staggering debt.

While experts caution against ringing the alarm bells just yet, they do say tough economic times could push municipalities already on the brink over the edge.

"I think it's quite possible municipal bankruptcies could become somewhat more common but will still be very rare," said Jason Dickerson, budget and policy analyst at the state's Legislative Analyst's Office. "There are more municipalities that will look at what it means."

We need a massive fiscal stimulus as soon as humanly possible. And that needs to include aid to state and local governments, particularly here in California. We are right on the edge.

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Reason To Be Concerned

I find it difficult to argue with Christopher Hayes' assessment of Obama's cabinet selections thus far.

Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one. Remember this is the movement that was right about Iraq, right about wage stagnation and inequality, right about financial deregulation, right about global warming and right about health care. And I don't just mean in that in a sectarian way. I mean to say that the emerging establishment consensus on all of these issues came from the left. There's tons of things the left is right about that aren't even close to mainstream (taking a hatchet to the national security state and ending the prison industrial complex to name just two), but hopefully we're moving there.

And yet, no one who comes from the part of American political and intellectual life that has given birth to all of these ideas is anywhere to be found within miles of the Obama cabinet thus far. WTF?

A few things. I don't think Obama ever presented himself as anything other than a mainstream centrist Democrat. In fact he went out of his way to do so. His policy platform was surely more progressive than John Kerry's in 2004, but in this election it was to the right of his primary contenders, on balance. As the center moved left, as Hayes mentions, Obama kept up, but he didn't exactly stick his neck out. However, his liaison to Congress is progressive Henry Waxman's longtime chief of staff, and his policy director is a former SEIU political organizer. It appears that the sausage-makers are pretty far to the left, which is good. But let's be clear - Obama isn't tilting to the center, he's in the center and always has been. Where his policy is progressive - on health care, the environment, and labor - it's because he's been pushed there, by either events or movement progressives. We have to keep doing so.

The other thing is that it's unclear how much power Cabinet secretaries will actually have. In Bush's White House half of the Cabinet could have telecommuted two days a week. They were given no power beyond making speeches faxed over from the political shop. In Clinton's White House, by contrast, the Treasury Department directed fiscal policy. It's unclear where Obama will fall along those lines, with one notable exception I'll address later in the post.

But clearly, there aren't a lot of encouraging signs. Jim Jones at NSA means that all of the rumored national security picks are pretty hawkish.

Let's say that all of the leading contenders for Obama's national security team end up in his administration. This would give him a core foreign policy team of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, Jim Jones, and Robert Gates. That is, overall, a center-right foreign policy team lacking any clear progressives (at least, foreign policy and national security progressives). All of them, with the possible exception of Jones, supported the Iraq war from the outset. At least two of them, Gates and Napolitano, opposed withdrawing troops as recently as 2007 (although the new agreement with Iraq has rendered that debate moot). Also, two members of this group, Gates and Jones, supported McCain. This team would oversee roughly 60% of discretionary federal budget spending, military operations, and all diplomatic relations.

That all of these people supported the war is particularly depressing for the antiwar movement. While Iraq is largely out of our hands at this point, it doesn't bode well for new conflicts. And at a time where the public is warming to the notion of cutting defense spending as more knowledge about the truly bloated waste in that department, do you really think this team would recommend that?

And hiring John Brennan, the former chief of staff to George Tenet, to run the CIA would be astonishing.

The simple answer to the question - what length do we want to go? - is to abide by the rule of law. Why is that so hard to understand? And yet Brennan and Tenet didn't. They authorized clear torture sessions. Why is such a man even considered for the post under Obama? This man cannot end the taint of Bush-Cheney. He was Bush-Cheney. In fact, if Obama picks him, it will be a vindication of the kind of ambivalence and institutional moral cowardice that made America a torturing nation. It would be an unforgivable betrayal of his supporters and his ideals. It would be an acknowledgment that Tenet himself is not a war criminal, while the facts indisputably prove that he was.

While Brennan will probably institute whatever policy he's given, you cannot totally divorce the beliefs of the individual senior staff from the policy outcomes. I think that ends up looking like an apology.

I think there are some decent picks here, like Napolitano at DHS, and there are rumored names, like co-chair of the Progressive Caucus Raul Grijalva at Interior, which would be solid. Overall, however, there is reason to be concerned.

And that brings me to Hillary Clinton, and the notable exception I mentioned before. It definitely seems like she's going to take the Secretary of State job, passing up a Senate leadership position to be the public face for the American government around the world. Now I've gone back and forth on the Clinton pick - Steve Clemons makes a compelling case. But one of the reasons I supported Obama in the primary over Clinton, in fact the main reason, was his new way of thinking about foreign policy. Ezra Klein notes Samantha Power's memo during the campaign (I thought Power was a sure bet for one of these foreign policy positions):

It was Washington’s conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy. The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress. Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced, and even naïve. Barack Obama defied conventional wisdom and opposed invading Iraq. He did so at a time when some told him that doing so would doom his political future...Barack Obama was right; the conventional wisdom was wrong. And today, we see the consequences. Iraq is in chaos. According to the National Intelligence Estimate, the threat to our homeland from terrorist groups is “persistent and evolving.” Al-Qaeda has a safe-haven in Pakistan. Iran has only grown stronger and bolder. The American people are less safe because of a rash war...Barack Obama’s judgment is right. It is conventional wisdom that has to change.

And then he goes and puts in place at the State Department a practitioner of the very conventional wisdom Power was arguing against, which has real-world consequences in a variety of ways. Clinton's judgment, which Obama's campaign here basically calls flawed, will have the ability to flourish and make decisions with a legitimate impact. Perhaps more important is how Clinton may stack Foggy Bottom with her team of CW fountains, instead of all the Obama foreign policy people who got the war right and flocked to this idea of a new mindset around these issues.

In addition, some Obama loyalists wonder whether the same people who attacked Obama on foreign policy during the primaries can implement Obama’s agenda from State Dept. perches. “Look, Clinton and Obama are both smart people,” said one Democratic official who would not speak for the record, “and I’m sure their one-on-one relationship would be OK. But when you hire a Clinton, you hire more than just that one person, you get the entire package.” If Clinton becomes secretary of state, it’s possible that the fissures between her loyalists and Obama’s would be a significant undercurrent of the administration’s foreign-policy decision-making [...]

Some progressive Obama supporters think the arrival of Clinton at the State Dept. will mean they’ll be frozen out. That would have implications for their advancement in subsequent Democratic administrations.

“Basically, you have all of these young, next-generation and mid-career people who took a chance on Obama” during the primaries, said one Democratic foreign-policy expert included in that cohort. “They were many times the ones who were courageous enough to stand up early against Iraq, which is why many of them supported Obama in the first place. And many of them would likely get shut out of the mid-career and assistant-secretary type jobs that you need, so that they can one day be the top people running a future Democratic administration.”

In the foreign-policy bureaucracy, these middle-tier jobs — assistant secretary and principal-deputy-assistant and deputy-assistant — are stepping stones to bigger, more important jobs, because they’re where much of the actual policy-making is hashed out. Those positions flesh out strategic decisions made by the president and cabinet secretaries; implement those policies; and use their expertise to both inform decisions and propose targeted or specific solutions to particular crises.

Perhaps the biggest reason why you don't see a lot of progressive names in the Cabinet is that they don't have the requisite experience. Previous Democratic Cabinet heads picked their own Third Way, DLC acolytes as senior staff, and progressives never had a way up. There hasn't been a Democratic Secretary of Defense since 1996, for example. If progressives can't get in the door, the same foreign policy consensus perpetuates all by itself. There isn't a progressive bench right now, and these picks make it much harder to grow one.

Which isn't entirely Obama's job - his role is to choose the best people for the job. But don't tell me that there won't be consequences. The job of persuasion to move left on these issues just got harder.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Random Ten

OK, on a late deadline here at work, so this is probably it for the day.

Flashlight - Parliament
Big Heartbreak - The Rosebuds
I Want You (She's So Heavy) - The Beatles
Young Liars - TV On The Radio
The Sound Of Settling - Death Cab For Cutie
C'mere - Interpol
First of the Gang To Die - Morrissey
I May Just Have To Murder James Blunt - Mitch
Soft Serve (live) - Soul Coughing
Think I'm In Love - Beck

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CA-04: Down To 329 Votes

Huge news in the continued counting of Charlie Brown's race against Tom McClintock. The latest round of counting has Brown within 329 votes as the provisionals, which tend to favor Democrats, get counted in the larger counties in the district.

Charlie Brown (Dem) 170,168 49.9%
Tom McClintock (Rep) 170,497 50.1%

There are still tens of thousands of votes left to count, and there's a virtual assurance of at least a partial recount. Tom McClintock has been sending his list these smug reports of the day's counting, telling them how everything's looking great. I haven't seen an update from him in a couple days. Probably because this is shaping up as a replay of the 2002 State Controller race, when the late provisionals put Steve Westly over the top in his race against... Tom McClintock.

Extended races like this cost money to maintain staff and pay lawyers. You can help Charlie out at the Calitics ActBlue page.

...I guess a slew of votes came in from Placer County and widened McClintock's lead in a big way.

"We're not claiming victory, but we just think it's mathematically impossible for (Brown) to win," said Bill George, spokesman for McClintock.
George said the thousands of Placer County votes tallied Friday stretched McClintock's lead from barely 300 votes to 1,793, with only about 4,500 more votes to count in the nine-county district.

Brown spokesman Todd Stenhouse said Brown would not concede, noting that thousands more votes remain to be counted, most of which are provisional ballots that "have been breaking very, very strongly for Charlie."

"We remain committed to the same goals that we've been committed to all along and that is that every vote is counted in this historic election," Stenhouse said.

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California's Sleeping Giant - The Enormous Organizing Opportunity

Here's a great article about how California's field operation helped Barack Obama win the Presidency. It hasn't been much remarked-upon in the traditional media, but I was fairly involved in this operation and I've mentioned some of the details before.

The Obama campaign's directive to the California operation was simple: keep up a presence but don't spend money. Fewer than 20 paid staff members were hired in September (compared with 100s in battleground states), a handful of offices opened and a minuscule budget approved. So it may come as a surprise that the California team actually pulled off what can only be called a field operation coup: on election day, California volunteers got on their own phones and managed to make an astonishing 2 million calls into battleground states -- a number that outstripped the calls made by all other Obama phone banks in all other states, combined. They called from coffee shops, from houses, from parks. They called from baby groups, from pajama parties, from book clubs. In the end, the state logged a total of 10 million calls between Obama's nomination speech and his victory speech. It was a milestone achieved with very little drama, and one that is noteworthy not only because it is unprecedented, but because it nearly took the national campaign by surprise. How it was done may also provide some insight into what lies on the horizon, on the grassroots front, going forward.

10 MILLION calls. Consider also that 4 million of them were in the last week of the campaign, as Chicago realized what a gold mine of volunteering and activism they had in California. In addition, in the last couple weeks the campaign was using predictive dialers that increase the contact rate from 15-20% to around 90%. And that, of course, only includes the volunteers inside the state; hundreds if not thousands went out into the swing states to canvass and organize there.

Read the whole article for a real inside look at the process. There is no question that this could be scaled up to use inside California. The tools are already in the hands of the organizers. And what's more, they were trained to be self-starters:

I have seen it reported that the campaign's field success can be attributed to its vaunted email database of volunteers and donors. My experience tells me that would be inaccurate. While the campaign certainly generated heat by sending out mass emails, the real magic lay in the staff's ability to carry out one of the earliest promises of Barack Obama himself -- individual empowerment. Tapping key volunteers and asking them to reach out to their friends requires personal contact. Yes, that job was made infinitely easier by the advent of Facebook and email, and the campaigns remarkable use of its web site. However the real structure was not created by, nor can be reflected in, a database of names housed by a centralized campaign.

Yesterday, I heard that phone banks are forming in California to call voters in Georgia on behalf of Jim Martin, the Senate candidate who is in a tight run-off race there. I checked around, curious to see if the campaign was officially involved. The answer came back, no. Yet voter files are being sorted, lists are being cut, call sheets printed, data entered. Calls are being made. The idea that a muscle once flexed, can take on a life of its own has intriguing, almost science-fiction-like possibilities. Whether it signals something remarkable in the annals of grassroots politics, or is another false start, like my mother's idea of 'Home Headquarters' in 1970, remains to be seen.

I'm part of one of these weekend phone banks for Jim Martin, tomorrow, in Venice. The details for that one are here. In addition, there are phone banks in Santa Monica all weekend. Contact Deirdre Lightfoot at dlightfulwon-at-gmail-dot-com for more information.

There is really no limit to how these organizers can be used in California - to gain a 2/3 majority, to push progressive ballot measures, to elect a new Democratic governor. It could change the face of California politics for a generation.

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Cabinet Report

Quite a Friday news dump on the Cabinet front.

Timothy Geithner, a Summers/Rubin acolyte and the current chairman of the New York Federal Reserve, looks to be the next Treasury Secretary. I'm not going to pretend that I know a lot about him. Apparently he was the only member of the current "brain trust" who advocated for saving Lehman Brothers, so at least he showed sound, forward-thinking judgment there. But he's not what I'd totally call a progressive economist.

Bill Richardson looks to be the favorite for the Commerce Secretary position. This seems like a slightly less powerful job than UN Ambassador or Energy Secretary, Richardson's roles in the Clinton Administration, so I'm not sure why he would want it. Also, I always considered Richardson to be more progressive on foreign policy issues than domestic ones (he wanted a balanced budget amendment), so that bugs me as well. His energy policy was excellent in the primary, however, so hopefully he can bring corporate America along on green issues.

• There are scattered reports that Hillary Clinton will accept the Secretary of State position. I've gone back and forth on this one, and I'll have a much longer post on this later.

• And retired Marine Gen. James Jones is the pick for National Security Advisor. Politically he's an independent, but he supported McCain in the election, and was offered deputy staff positions in the Bush Administration. On the other hand, he didn't TAKE the positions with Bush, and he wrote a very well-regarded report about the Iraqi security forces earlier this year. He has been a critic of the war and of Don Rumsfeld's management style at the Defense Department.

As I said, I'll have more analysis later, but the nickel version is that I think there's some reason for progressives to be concerned.

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The Guy Has Some Stones

I seriously hope that nobody is trying to rehabilitate Roger Stone as he attempts to repent over what he helped impose on the world. The guy was actively pushing the 'Whitey' tape as recently as this year's Republican convention, for crying out loud.

The capstone of Stone’s career, at least in terms of results, was the “Brooks Brothers riot” of the 2000 election recount. This was when a Stone-led squad of pro-Bush protestors stormed the Miami-Dade County election board, stopping the recount and advancing then-Governor George W. Bush one step closer to the White House. Though he is quick to rebut GOP operatives who seek to minimize his role in the recount, Stone lately has been having second thoughts about what happened in Florida.

"There have been many times I've regretted it,” Stone told me over pizza at Grand Central Station. “When I look at those double-page New York Times spreads of all the individual pictures of people who have been killed [in Iraq], I got to think, 'Maybe there wouldn't have been a war if I hadn't gone to Miami-Dade. Maybe there hadn't have been, in my view, an unjustified war if Bush hadn't become president.' It's very disturbing to me."

He doesn't regret crap. He's looking to disappear Bush like the rest of the GOP. Stone saw the opportunity to increase his power as a prize GOP ratfucker and fixer and he took it. Now their golden boy, the man the party establishment plucked from the Governor's mansion in Austin and lined up behind en masse for years, revealed himself to be an incompetent dullard with a knack for ruining everything he gets his hands on. And we're supposed to let that stain, the blot on the records of all these willing dupes who backed him, to be washed out? Hell no.

Stone voted for Bush in 2004 as well (“John Kerry was an elitist buffoon”) but he pulled no punches in his assessment of the last eight years. Stone's own political philosophy is libertarian, and he says it conflicts with Bush's penchant for expanded executive power.

“I think across the board he's led the party to its current position, which means losing both houses of congress and now the White House,” Stone said. “How can you be conservative and justify wiretapping people without a warrant? We're supposed to be the party of personal freedom and civil liberties. Big brother listening in on your phone calls—I got a problem with that.”

Give me a break. Not one Republican member of the House or Senate raised an objection to the illegal wiretapping program ever. Not one time. And neither did scummy operatives like Stone. Hell, Stone bragged about doing his own surveillance during the Brooks Brothers riot:

“We set up a Winnebago trailer, right over here,” Stone said when we got out of the Jaguar and walked about a block away from the Clark center, on First Street. “I set up my command center there. I had walkie-talkies and cell phones, and I was in touch with our people in the building. Our whole idea was to shut the recount down. That was why we were there. We had the frequency to the Democrats’ walkie-talkies and were listening to their communications, but they were so disorganized that we didn’t learn much that was useful.”

Oh, by the way, Stone was apparently a reluctant warrior in the recount fight. He was just paying off debts:

That Stone joins Matthew Dowd, Scott McClellan, and Colin Powell in the group of disaffected ex-Bushies shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Stone advised Donald Trump on his prospective bid for the presidency in 2000. According to Stone, he didn't even want to get involved in the 2000 race at all until the GOP's recount head, James Baker III, called him up and asked him for his help. Stone said that Baker had helped him out in 1981 by getting Reagan and Bush to lend support to New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, whose campaign Stone ran. He owed him a favor.

“In this business, if you don't pay your debts you're finished,” Stone said.

This is horseshit. And really dangerous horseshit besides. These people are running away as fast as they can from a legacy they helped create, and there is absolutely no reason to allow them to do so. Those dead American soldiers and Iraq children are YOUR children, Mr. Stone. You helped cause them, you helped send them to their deaths, and there is no way anyone should allow you to airbrush your own conscience. And in 5 or 10 or 15 years when you and the whole dirty cabal is back with some other empty suit, the REAL vessel of conservatism, we're all going to remember who you backed the last time. George W. Bush is yours. You bought him and you own him. And you can't take him to the return window.'s Karl Rove terribly concerned about illegal political activities inside the Obama White House, extreme use of executive power, replacing US Attorneys like Patrick Fitzgerald (!) and overly political Administration appointments.

Karl Rove is concerned about that.

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Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life For Me

Like most people, I'm completely gobsmacked that Somali pirates can take over a giant oil tanker and plunder enough to make $150 million a year in ransoms. But as Matt Yglesias notes, this is a failure of policy as well as just something to snicker at.

In particular, at the end of the day it’s not easy to fight pirates at sea. The ocean is extremely large, boats move around, and circumstances are generally unfavorable to law enforcement. You need to fight the piracy on land. If you tried to run a pirate ring out of San Diego, you wouldn’t get very far — there are police in southern California. But Somalia has, obviously, been in a state of political chaos for a long time now. And when the country looked like it was heading for a measure of political stability under the Islamic Courts Movement, the US decided it would be smart to back an Ethiopian invasion-and-occupation of the country that ultimately wound up resulting in more chaos than ever. But whatever you think of the past, going forward you would ultimately want to solve this issue on land. In other words, by creating some kind of political stability in Somalia.

Interestingly enough, it's the Islamists who are stepping into the vacuum and claiming that they will now fight the pirates. If they succeed they will have the trust of a nation and probably a free hand to regain power, until we decapitate them again. That would be a mistake. It would be far better to create stability rather than let anarchy reign. That means that you make peace with those who can keep it.

...that said, if the pirates want to buy Citigroup that's OK with me. As long as my ATM card still works. (warning: parody ahead!)

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The Headless Horsemen

With job losses soaring, the stock market crashing, and now even commercial banks like Citigroup nearing failure, this is a really, really bad time to have almost no political leadership worth a damn. Paul Krugman delivers the sobering tale about the last interregnum with a potentially catastrophic effect on the global economy.

There is, however, another and more disturbing parallel between 2008 and 1932 — namely, the emergence of a power vacuum at the height of the crisis. The interregnum of 1932-1933, the long stretch between the election and the actual transfer of power, was disastrous for the U.S. economy, at least in part because the outgoing administration had no credibility, the incoming administration had no authority and the ideological chasm between the two sides was too great to allow concerted action. And the same thing is happening now.

It’s true that the interregnum will be shorter this time: F.D.R. wasn’t inaugurated until March; Barack Obama will move into the White House on Jan. 20. But crises move faster these days.

How much can go wrong in the two months before Mr. Obama takes the oath of office? The answer, unfortunately, is: a lot. Consider how much darker the economic picture has grown since the failure of Lehman Brothers, which took place just over two months ago. And the pace of deterioration seems to be accelerating.

Most obviously, we’re in the midst of the worst stock market crash since the Great Depression: the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index has now fallen more than 50 percent from its peak. Other indicators are arguably even more disturbing: unemployment claims are surging, manufacturing production is plunging, interest rates on corporate bonds — which reflect investor fears of default — are soaring, which will almost surely lead to a sharp fall in business spending. The prospects for the economy look much grimmer now than they did as little as a week or two ago.

This is absolutely frightening, especially because we're headed into the holiday shopping season, which retail banks on every year, and if it craters as much as expected, you're just going to see massive layoffs.

There isn't much room to just whistle past the graveyard and hope an Obama Administration can make it all better come January 20. Dammit, somebody on Capitol Hill has to lead. We don't have the time to waste.

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Looks Like The Background Is In Focus, Too.

Not knowing much about how turkeys are slaughtered, I'm not even sure what the guy is doing in the background while Sarah Palin blabbers on about herself after an event where she "pardoned" a turkey. But the fact that it's perfectly framed, with the makeshift slaughterhouse completely visible behind her, makes me think that the cameraman has a wicked sense of humor. And maybe was an Obama voter.

"Certainly we'll probably invite criticism for even doing this, too -- but at least this was fun."


And kudos to John Aravosis by referencing the WKRP Turkey Drop.

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GA-Sen: Barack Hits The Radio

Sen. Obama appears in a 60-second radio spot for Jim Martin's Senate race in Georgia:

UPDATE, 6:30 pm: Barack Obama has cut a new 60-second radio ad in support of former state Rep. Jim Martin's Senate campaign in Georgia. In the ad, which was obtained by The Fix moments ago, Obama thanks everyone who voted for him on November 4 and then adds: "The elections aren't over....I want to urge you to turn out one more time and help elect Jim Martin to the United States Senate."

A radio ad is not a personal visit by the president-elect but Martin's campaign will gladly take it.

I think he needs to go down there.

You can listen to the radio ad here, as well as donate to keep it on the air. We'll be making calls for Martin this weekend in Venice, CA, if you are interested email msblucow-at-mac-dot-com. They've also set up a tool to make phone calls from home through the website.

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Steinberg's Game Of Chicken

We figured that when Darrell Steinberg assumed the leadership post in the Senate, there would be less accommodation and more risk-taking from the Democratic caucus. Well, this potential deal floated in today's LA Times would certainly fit that description.

State lawmakers began moving toward a deal this week to close California's deficit with the help of steeper car fees that would cost many drivers hundreds of dollars annually, according to people involved in budget talks.

Under the plan, GOP lawmakers -- most of whom have signed anti-tax pledges -- would vote to triple the vehicle license fee that owners pay when they register their cars every year in exchange for a ballot measure that would impose rigid limits on future state spending. Motorists' annual license fees would rise from 0.65% of the value of their vehicles to 2%. For a car or truck valued at $25,000, the increase would be $336.

The higher fees would generate $6 billion annually, helping to fill a budget gap that is projected to reach nearly $28 billion over the next year and a half.

The proposal is being championed by incoming state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). Democrats and advocates for the poor have opposed strict state spending limits, saying they would cripple government services.

Steinberg may be gambling that voters would reject the limits, as they have in the past.

This would be a simple restoration of the VLF to the levels put in place by Pete Wilson (yes, Wilson; the increase, which was meant to occur during poor economic times, only triggered under Gray Davis). It is not a progressive version or a "feebate," and it does not increase for higher emission-producing cars and trucks. So it's not the best way to restore the VLF, in my view.

And the exchange, a ballot measure to restrict state spending, is a long-sought Yacht Party agenda item. I'm guessing it would be substantially similar to the version voted down in 2005. A spending cap is simply a way to ratchet down government and eliminate needed services which the public has said time and again they not only want, but are willing to pay for.

I understand Steinberg's reasoning on two levels:

(1) It's probably correct that Democrats and unions would fight like hell to stop a ballot measure with a spending cap. These are tough economic times, however, and they're projected to continue in the near future, so cutting spending may look more attractive to voters.

(2) This would be a stake through the heart of Yacht Party rhetoric about taxes. You can see the effect of what this would do by just listening to talk radio:

Prospects for the plan, however, immediately began to dim after details were published on the Los Angeles Times website. Angry phone calls from constituents, advocacy groups and talk radio hosts prompted lawmakers to publicly distance themselves from the proposal.

I mean, this came out on the same day when Senate leader Dave Cogdill wrote an op-ed entitled Cut, Don't Tax. And Arnold Schwarzenegger made cutting the VLF the signature piece of policy in his platform in the 2003 recall election. For him to reverse it just 5 years later would be humiliating.

Ultimately, Republicans are probably too spineless to agree to this - they'd fear primary elections in 2010, although directly after an election would probably be the best time to pull this off, with the most distance between now and the next election. But Democrats should think hard about this as well. Is it really worth having to fight a ballot measure that would cripple the state? It may well be, especially considering there's probably no other way to raise needed revenue.

It's quite a gamble.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mukasey Collapses

The Attorney General was giving a speech when he collapsed, and it's unclear whether or not he regained consciousness.

More as we get it...

...Now that it looks like Mukasey is in stable condition, let's just note that he was giving a speech defending the Administration's torture policies when he was struck down and collapsed.

There's a point to be made there...

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The Last Straw

Outside of the murder of thousands of innocent American citizens, I was all set to ease up on Al Qaeda in this new climate of bipartisanship and unity. But then Ayman al-Zawahiri goes and calls Barack Obama a House Negro. I guess literally translated he said "house slaves," but the English subtitles that Al Qaeda helpfully provided said "House Negro."

For a legitimate analysis of this speech, go to Juan Cole (basically Zawahiri was calling Obama a pro-white slave, which is crucially wrong). But I'm going to just shake my head and wonder, "If we can't trust the terrorists to be tolerant of all races, what hope do any of us have?" By the way, Ayman, you're not exactly Aryan yourself. And neither are 99.9% of all Muslims who have experienced the sting of discrimination.

I think Cole's final thoughts are on point:

It is absolutely clear toward the end of the video that al-Zawahiri is petrified of Obama's popularity and is very afraid that he will be a game-changer in relations between the Muslim world and the United States. Hence his flailing around talking about house slaves, as though Obama were not (as of Jan. 20) himself the most powerful man in the world, catapulted into his position by nearly half of American whites (who voted for him in higher proportions than they did for Clinton and Kerry).

Al-Zawahiri has seen a lot of Muslim politics, and if he is this afraid of Obama, it is a sign that the new president has enormous potential to deploy soft power against al-Qaeda, and al-Zawahiri is running scared, trying to pretend it is still the 1960s, when it just isn't.

(Strangely, Zawahiri and McCain, through the focus on Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground, share this error!)

There is certainly a desperation in the Al Qaeda leader's speech, a recognition that moderate Muslims can be pushed back to the side of the West in this struggle. The fact of Obama's skin color and his policy on diplomatic engagement disarms a major element of Al Qaeda's propaganda, that the US punishes minorities and ignores the world. More than anything, Al Qaeda detests open societies, which is among the promises of an Obama victory. They fear the change he represents.

However, beyond the symbolism, which is significant, this also has to be about policy. To truly capitalize on this moment to marginalize terrorist extremists, we need to end practices like this:

UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 19--The United States, the world's largest international aid donor, is among the worst at promoting the independence, impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian aid deliveries to needy populations, according to a survey by a Madrid-based nonprofit group that monitors donors' performance.

The Development Assistance Research Associates (DARA) Humanitarian Response Index 2008 measures how effectively the world's 23 largest donors deliver aid. The United States ranked 15th in overall effectiveness and only 13th in the level of generosity measured by the size of its economy.

But it ranked near the bottom, 22nd, when it came to adherence to principles and guidelines established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to ensure that political considerations don't exclude worthy recipients of aid.

DARA's findings reflect what it called the United States' use of humanitarian assistance to achieve military or political goals in eight crisis zones the group studied, including Afghanistan, Colombia and the Palestinian territories.

A more progressive counter-terrorism strategy not only takes into account the role of local law enforcement and intelligence in disrupting plots, but it treats the world less like pieces on a chess board and more like equals. And in this context, the security benefit to seeking real humanitarian goals and reducing poverty is incalculable. In other words, less missile strikes and more bowls of rice, schools and bridges. We must lead with our values because that's the best way to show countries the world over that this Administration is really different.

Spencer Ackerman had a great piece on what a progressive counter-terrorism policy would look like that is well worth your time.

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Richard J. Leon Puts The Nail In Bush's Coffin

You may know by now that a federal judge ruled today that five Algerians held at Guantanamo for seven years were detained unlawfully and must be released immediately. The prisoners included Lakhdar Boumediene, for whom the Supreme Court case Boumediene v. Bush, which invalidated a section of the Military Commissions Act and forced these habeas corpus challenges to be heard in federal court, was named. Essentially, the ruling held that the Justice Department and intelligence agencies failed to make their case that these prisoners planned to travel to Afghanistan to fight coalition forces, a claim which was based on a single classified source.

Obviously it's a significant development that these five prisoners, who were held illegally without charges for seven years in a cage at Guantanamo, can now be presumably set free, pending a potential appeal. But what's even more significant is the judge who issued the ruling. Richard J. Leon of the Federal District Court in Washington is an appointee of George W. Bush. Glenn Greenwald has a small sketch about him:

Judge Leon is a Bush-43 appointed Judge known as a right-wing ideologue and known for ruling in favor of the Government and for expansive executive power. He was Deputy Chief counsel for the Republicans on the Iran-Contra Committee in 1987, was Special Counsel to the Senate Banking Committee for the Whitewater investigation, and worked for both the Reagan and Bush 41 Justice Departments. That Judge Leon -- of all judges -- ruled that there was no credible evidence to suggest that these detainees are "enemy combatants" is as compelling a sign as one can imagine that there is no such evidence.

History Commons notes that Judge Leon was the original judge in the Boumediene v. Bush case - and incredibly, he argued that the prisoners did not have habeas rights.

District Judge Richard J. Leon dismisses a lawsuit by seven Guantanamo detainees challenging their detention: a French citizen, an Algerian, and five dual Bosnian-Algerian detainees. He rules that foreign nationals captured and detained outside the US have no recognizable constitutional rights [REUTERS, 1/20/2005; BBC, 1/20/2005] and that last year’s Supreme Court ruling (see June 28, 2004) does not entitle Guantanamo detainees with the right to sue in US courts. Foreign citizens, captured and detained outside the US, according to Judge Leon, have no rights under the Constitution or international law enforceable in US courts. [LOS ANGELES TIMES, 1/31/2005] “To the extent that these non-resident detainees have rights,” Leon writes, “they are subject to both the military review process already in place and the laws Congress has passed defining the appropriate scope of military conduct towards the detainees.” He adds that the “extent to which these rights and conditions should be modified or extended is a matter for the political branches to determine,” not the judicial branch. “[T]he petitioners are asking this court to do something no federal court has done before: evaluate the legality of the executive’s capture and detention of non-resident aliens, outside the United States, during a time of armed conflict.”

If there is any judge in the country that George Bush could have hand-selected for the task of protecting his warped theories of executive power, it would be Leon. However, while the judge certainly has an ideological cast to his rulings, in this case he followed the rule of law. He was not empowered to rule on the legality of the capture and detention of the Algerians, in his view, prior to the clarification by the Supreme Court; afterwards, he treated it like a normal habeas hearing. In fact, he sought to expedite their review so that the cases didn't fall into what he called "the black hole of transition" - the fact that a change in executive leadership among the agencies dealing with these cases would inevitably slow down the process. Not only that, but in his ruling (read from the bench) he asked the government not to appeal:

The judge, in an unusual added comment, suggested to senior government leaders that they forgo an appeal of his ruling on freeing the five prisoners. While conceding that the government had a right to appeal that part of his ruling, Leon commented that he, too, had “a right to appeal” to leaders of the Justice Department, Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies, and his plea was that they look at the evidence regarding the five he was ordering released. “Seven years of waiting for our legal system to give them an answer to their legal question is enough,” he commented.

Senior leaders of the government, he went on, will have “more than enough opportunity” to test the novel issues at stake in defending against an appeal of his ruling in the case of ben Sayah. He said he was appealing to those leaders “to end this process” for the five.

(ben Sayah was the only of the six to be denied release in the hearing.)

When you hold the rule of law in nothing but contempt, and seek to use the courts to hide your mistakes, these are the grave consequences. And the fact that the White House couldn't rely on their own appointee to absolve them of blame in this matter is devastating. But there's a human aspect to this as well - the shocking treatment of the detainees while at Guantanamo, detailed here and here. For those who have followed human rights abuses throughout the so-called war on terror, the information is familiar: hooding, shackling, psychological and physical torture. As Greenwald says in his wrap-up:

We haven't just imprisoned people with no evidence in cages for years. We've kept them encaged under often brutal and extreme conditions, many in unbroken solitary confinement for years. Today, a federal court ruled that for 5 of these men, there is no credible evidence that they did anything wrong, and if most of our political class -- which supported the Military Commissions Act-- had its way, they wouldn't have even had this hearing at all.

We can expect the government to continue this fight, despite Leon's pleadings. They would rather treat these prisoners as waste to be discarded, so that nobody ever learns the true nature of their crimes. And they were aided and abetted by a supine Congress which took the consensus view that the past ought to be buried and everybody let off the hook in the spirit of unity. It took a far-right federal judge, appointed by Bush, to do the job they wouldn't - to strictly interpret the law and let no man above it.

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Good News Bad News

The good news is that the Senate passed an extension of unemployment insurance and the President will sign it. The bad news is that, the way that the market and the economy is going, it won't much matter...

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Deep Thinkers

Just to add to my assessment of the pervasive influence of know-nothing Dominionism on the right, here's Daniel Henninger, a columnist paid money by the Wall Street Journal, a working writer for a newspaper with an economic focus, blaming the financial crisis on greeters who don't say "Merry Christmas" at shopping malls:

This year we celebrate the desacralized "holidays" amid what is for many unprecedented economic ruin -- fortunes halved, jobs lost, homes foreclosed. People wonder, What happened? One man's theory: A nation whose people can't say "Merry Christmas" is a nation capable of ruining its own economy.

One had better explain that.

Yes, one had.

It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

Feel free: Banish Merry Christmas. Get ready for Mad Max.

Got that, secular progressives? Deregulation, predatory lending and corporate greed had nothing to do with this. It's you and your atheist friends who are promoting anarchy and the destruction of morals. If there were only crosses on top of Wall Street skyscrapers, the investment bankers and hedge fund managers inside wouldn't have given in to the temptation of greed. Your 401 (k) might have been saved if you practiced Lent this year.

Thanks a lot, heathens. Good luck heating your home with those Bibles you like to burn.

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Automakers To Spin Their Wheels

After it appeared that a compromise deal was reached by some key Senators on providing $25 billion in loans to the auto companies, as it turned out that deal was based on taking away the money guaranteed to them in exchange for making fuel-efficient cars, which is simply a bad trade-off, so the Democratic leadership scuttled it, and put off a final vote until GM, Ford and Chrysler come up with a business plan for success.

Democratic leaders in Congress sidetracked legislation to bail out the auto industry Thursday and demanded the Big Three develop a plan assuring the money would make them economically viable.

"Until they show us the plan, we cannot show them the money," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a hastily called news conference in the Capitol.

She and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Congress would return to work in early December to vote on legislation if General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC produce an acceptable plan [...]

The chief executives of the Big Three automakers appealed personally to lawmakers for the loans this week, and warned that their industry might collapse without them. In testimony, they said their problem was that credit was unavailable, and not that they were manufacturing products that consumers had turned their backs on.

But whatever support they found sagged when it became known that each of them had flown into Washington aboard multimillion dollar corporate jets. Reid observed that was "difficult to explain" to taxpayers in his hometown of Searchlight, Nev.

Yeah, that was just "horrible PR 101." Not only flying corporate jets on the short hop from Detroit to Washington, but all flying SEPARATELY from what was probably the same airport.

These are definitely scary times in Michigan, so they'd better get someone extremely smart to write those business plans. And line one should say "OK, after we fire all of our current executives..."

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So Much To Fix

I've got a good first task for Henry Waxman in his new perch at the House Energy and Commerce Committee; deal with the lawlessness at the EPA. First they have steadfastly refused to regulate global warming pollution despite a Supreme Court order to do so. More recently, they are set hazardous new air quality rules:

The Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing new air-quality rules that would make it easier to build coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and other major polluters near national parks and wilderness areas, even though half of the EPA's 10 regional administrators formally dissented from the decision and four others criticized the move in writing [...]

The proposal would change the practice of measuring pollution levels near national parks, which is currently done over three-hour and 24-hour increments to capture emission spikes during periods of peak energy demand; instead, the levels would be averaged over a year. Under this system, spikes in pollution would no longer violate the law.

While Waxman is at it, he can reform the Department of the Interior, which is trying to gut the Endangered Species Act:

The Bush administration is "close" to finalizing a regulatory overhaul of the Endangered Species Act to allow federal agencies to decide whether protected species would be harmed by agency projects, according to the Interior Department [...]

For more than 30 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service have reviewed any federal plans that could potentially protect endangered animals or plants. Under the administration's proposed rule, these independent scientific reviews would no longer be required if the agency in question determined that its activities would not hurt the imperiled species.

I know that the out-of-control federal agencies are going to be Barack Obama's purview, but Waxman can fix up some legislation to deal with this crap, particularly on the EPA issues (Interior may be a separate jurisdiction).

He's going to be busy.

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Iraq In Fragments

Hey, how's that status of forces agreement going in the Iraqi Parliamen-

A session of Iraq’s Parliament collapsed in chaos on Wednesday, as a discussion among lawmakers about a three-year security agreement with the Americans boiled over into shouting and physical confrontation [...]

In a departure from protocol, security guards were present in the room, both because of the tension and because several Iraqi government officials were in attendance to answer questions about the agreement. Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign affairs minister, said the guards were unarmed.

As soon as the session began, politicians in opposition to the pact stood up in the hall and volubly argued that the ratification process was unconstitutional because a law governing the passage of international agreements had not been approved. Supporters say such a law is unnecessary because Parliament has already ratified numerous agreements without one.

For the next two hours, the Parliament speaker, Mahmoud Mashhadani, lashed out at the objectors and refused their demands to change the Parliament agenda. He then invited Hassan al-Sneid, a Shiite lawmaker, to begin the second public reading of the agreement, a matter of parliamentary procedure.

As Mr. Sneid began reading, witnesses said, Sadrists and other opponents of the agreement continued to trade shouts with lawmakers who supported it. Then, Ahmed Masu’udi, a Sadrist lawmaker, approached the dais. Mr. Masu’udi said later in an interview that he was simply trying to reach Mr. Mashhadani to persuade him to stop the reading; several other witnesses said Mr. Masu’udi tried to attack Mr. Sneid. The security guards rushed toward Mr. Masu’udi, who said that they grabbed him and struggled to push him away. At that point, witnesses said, the hall was filled with shouting, lawmakers rushed toward the front and the session ended in chaos.

Legislators poured out of the hall and into the cafeteria. There, shouting and accusations continued among the lawmakers, quickly attracting a company of security guards, who surrounded the cafeteria and tried to keep away the journalists and other onlookers who had gathered.

Well that sounds healthy! Good thing we won't have anything like that in this country, because the Bush Administration has decided that the agreement needs no Congressional approval and won't even release the text of the agreement, although it has been made available in Iraq and translated into American newspapers. By the way, a perusal of the withdrawal language in the agreement yields very little in the way of loopholes:

Admitting to the performance of Iraqi forces, their increased capabilities and assuming full responsibility for security and based upon the strong relationship between the two parties the two parties agreed to the following:

All U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011.

All U.S. combat forces are to withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and towns not later than the date that Iraqi forces assume complete responsibility of security in any Iraqi province. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from the above-mentioned places is on a date no later than the 30 June 2009. The withdrawing U.S. forces mentioned in item (2) above are to gather in the installations and areas agreed upon that are located outside of cities, villages and towns that will be determined by the Joint Military Operation Coordinating Committee (JMOCC) before the date determined in item (2) above.

The United States admits to the sovereign right of the Iraqi government to demand the departure of the U.S. forces from Iraq at anytime. The Iraqi government admits to the sovereign right of the United States to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq at anytime.

The two parties agree to put a mechanism and preparations for reducing the number of U.S. forces during the appointed period. And they are to agree on the locations where the forces are to settle.

The issue in Iraq is that the Sadrists consider three years to be too long. But there's no question that all troops would have to leave Iraq by the timeline in this agreement if it's signed.

The reason that Prime Minister Maliki wants a three-year window is that it gives him time to build up his personal militia while using the US military as a proxy force in the interim. This is essentially an agreement to keep Maliki on as a strongman, which is why our drawdown should be accelerated to force reconciliation.

And finally, here's the conservative argument about Iraq these days, which is wholly out of touch with reality or relevancy:

Thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions in taxpayer funds have been expended to provide Iraqis the opportunity to live freely. And this despite the facts that (a) the U.S. interest in Iraqi democracy remains tenuous (our interest was the elimination of Saddam’s terror-mongering, weapons-proliferating regime), and (b) Americans were assured, when the nation-building enterprise commenced, that oil-rich Iraq would underwrite our sacrifices on its behalf. Yet, to be blunt, the Iraqis remain ingrates. That stubborn fact complicates everything.

How dare they not be thrilled about the deaths of 500,000 of their citizens, destruction of all their major cities, and internal displacement of maybe four million. Don't they know how WE feel?

Conservatives really do make a virtue of selfishness. It's appalling.

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And Say, Do You Want To, Make A Deal?

Ultimately, I do believe that universality is a key to driving down costs in the health care market. But you can definitely take it as a sign that an individual mandate may not be the way to go when the insurance industry is asking for it.

WASHINGTON — The health insurance industry said Wednesday that it would support a health care overhaul requiring insurers to accept all customers, regardless of illness or disability. But in return, the industry said, Congress should require all Americans to have coverage.

The proposals, put forward by the insurers’ two main trade associations, have the potential to reshape and advance the debate over universal health insurance just as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office.

In separate actions, the two trade groups, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, announced their support for guaranteed coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, in conjunction with an enforceable mandate for individual coverage.

What's important here is what's missing, as Ezra Klein notes. If you are forced to buy health insurance and the insurers won't make it affordable, that's not really a positive for the individual. Guaranteed issue must be combined with community rating (baseline insurance at the same cost for everyone in a community) for the mandate to work. And that's not what the industry is proposing.

I e-mailed Robert Zirkelbach, AHIP's spokesman, to ask if this proposal had a community rating provision:

"the proposal we issued yesterday was for guarantee issue combined with an individual mandate.

We also need to take steps to ensure coverage is affordable for all. There needs to be an adequate safety net and we should provide tax credits to low and moderate income workers. We also have to address the key medical cost-drivers that drive up the cost of coverage."

In other words, no. At least not yet.

Not to mention the intimation that they'll keep raising their rates and let government pick up the bill through tax credits.

Considering that the insurance industry is a useless, inefficient middle man that does practically nothing to make people more healthy, I don't think they should be in the business of making ultimatums. But the fact that they're at the table means that they know change is coming and they had better try to get something out of the deal than scuttle it. Hopefully, their attempts at negotiation will be met with hardline opposition unless they capitulate on price.

We have a long way to go on health care reform, and there are a lot of elements we need to make sure are included (public option and a mandate that insurers pay a hefty amount of their premiums on treatment being at the top of the list). But more than anything, this is an acknowledgement by the insurance industry that they're going to have to make a deal.

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Chairman Waxman

I guess Henry Waxman, a key ally to Nancy Pelosi, wouldn't have made the move to unseat John Dingell if he didn't count the votes.

Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) has ousted Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (Mich.), as Democratic lawmakers voted 137-122 Thursday morning to hand the gavel of the powerhouse panel to its second-ranking member.

This, more than anything, could be the biggest change in the federal government in 2009 and beyond. Waxman's Safe Climate Act sets the targets needed to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. It now becomes the working document in the House for anti-global warming legislation. And his constituency doesn't include a major polluting industry.

From a policy standpoint, it's a major progressive victory.

And the balance of power in the Congress moves once again to the Left Coast. In fact, right to my doorstep!

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State Budget, Local Impact

If you want to know why Speaker Karen Bass is talking very loudly about a federal bailout for California, you just have to read the local papers.

The Merced Sen-Star:

At Tuesday’s board meeting Superintendent Terry Brace explained the district will lose $3.5 million under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget plan.

If that passes, the district’s three percent reserve will be pushed to the limit to cover expenses. Brace said the aim will be to maintain educational programs first. After that, “we want to cut things and not people,” he said.

The Hanford Sentinel:

Kings County officials implemented a hiring freeze Tuesday as one of several measures to circumvent anticipated funding cuts from the state in the midst of a faltering economy. The county had already been on a limited or "soft" hiring freeze since July 1, the freeze affecting only positions that won't affect the basic level of service. No reduction in staffing levels were being considered.

County Administrative Officer Larry Spikes says it's a necessary measure to protect the county's fiscal health in light of the worsening state budget crisis underscored last week by the governor's call for a special session to close the deficit. Never before in California history has a governor called an "extraordinary session" so late in the year.

The Modesto Bee:

Efforts to close an $11.2 billion state budget deficit have shaken up the state's Healthy Families program, which provides health care to about 13,300 children and pregnant women in Stanislaus County.

Next month, the state is preparing to freeze enrollment in the program, which provides medical, dental and vision care to children whose families earn too much to receive Medi-Cal but can't afford private insurance. If the Managed Risk Medical Insurance Board approves the proposal Dec. 17, families trying to enroll children will be placed on a waiting list at least until June 30.

This is what's happening in this state, at precisely the wrong time. During an economic downturn, with the attendant job loss, people need more services, not less. It's the perverse cycle of constrained state budgets with their balanced budget amendments that they need to cut back precisely when they should be expanding. In a downturn, government must be the spender of last resort, yet the state Constitution doesn't allow it. And cutting the budget to get it in balance during this greatest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression would be an absolute disaster. And frankly, the Yacht Party isn't going to agree to anything sensible.

It would be better for all involved if the entire Democratic caucus decamped from Sacramento to Washington and sat outside Nancy Pelosi's office until a stimulus package with aid to state and local governments passed. Otherwise, the local stories are going to get worse and worse.

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Cabinet Report

I should just do a daily roundup of this or something. So Penny Pritzker is likely to be the Secretary of Commerce. Her experience appears to be that 1) she's rich and 2) she's Barack Obama's friend. Well, OK. Doesn't much thrill me.

However, Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security is an excellent choice. We lose a governorship (the next in line in Arizona is a Republican), and the popular Napolitano would be a great candidate against John McCain in the 2010 Senate race. But her talent is too much to pass up. I think having someone with experience as a border governor is going to be a big lift to our border security efforts, which will be more humane. Her background in consumer protection issues as state attorney general might mean that we'll actually test the food and drink and toys coming into the country - after all, that's "homeland security" too, isn't it? I hate the term "homeland security," actually, but clearly protecting the ports and chemical plants and nuclear power plants and all sorts of elements that the Bush Administration left unprotected would be a good start.

OK, there's today's cabinet report...

UPDATE: Looks like Pritzker's turned it down, owing to business dealings that would make her less confirmable.

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Shedding Jobs

Today is new jobless day, and last week there were 542,000 new claims, a 16-year high. We're in a terrible spot, a spiral downward. Small businesses have trouble getting credit, they let people go; as job security lessens and money tightens, retail sales decrease; retail stores cut workers and the greater economy shrinks; causing more job loss and a move away from investment.

This is just awful. But a small measure of help could be on the way today.

The United States Senate will vote this week -- and very likely today -- on a bill that will extend unemployment insurance benefits by seven weeks for the jobless whose benefits have run out and a total of 13 weeks for those in states with an unemployment rate higher than six percent.

The bipartisan legislation -- cosponsors include Republicans Coleman, Smith, Snowe and Specter -- passed the House in October and will go immediately to President Bush's desk for his signature if passed this week.

"It all comes down to Main Street Americans who want to work, who want to pay their bills, who want to take care of their families; their well-being is tied to the well-being of our economy and our Nation," said Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in fighting for the bill on the Senate floor Monday. "Unemployment insurance is the mechanism by which Americans looking for jobs but who have lost their jobs can sustain their families, can keep their financial commitments, can afford the tools needed to find a new job."

Senate Republicans can show that they give a damn about the regular person today. This passed the House 368-28. And funds from unemployment insurance extensions go directly into the larger economy. Hopefully they'll do the right thing today.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Religious Right? I Don't See Any Religious Right.

Kathleen Parker wrote an op-ed today calling out the "oogedy-boogedy" theocratic wing of the GOP and "armband religion" as impeding conservative electoral prospects for a generation.

Here's the deal, 'pubbies: Howard Dean was right.

It isn't that culture doesn't matter. It does. But preaching to the choir produces no converts. And shifting demographics suggest that the Republican Party -- and conservatism with it -- eventually will die out unless religion is returned to the privacy of one's heart where it belongs [...]

But, like it or not, we are a diverse nation, no longer predominantly white and Christian. The change Barack Obama promised has already occurred, which is why he won.

Among Jewish voters, 78 percent went for Obama. Sixty-six percent of under-30 voters did likewise. Forty-five percent of voters ages 18-29 are Democrats compared to just 26 percent Republican; in 2000, party affiliation was split almost evenly.

The young will get older, of course. Most eventually will marry, and some will become their parents. But nonwhites won't get whiter. And the nonreligious won't get religion through external conversion. It doesn't work that way.

This has sent conservatives into a tizzy, as they demand, DEMAND to know what Parker is referring to. The author of "Liberal Fascism," who has never ascribed bad motives to a political party in his life, has a representative comment.

What aspects of the Christian Right amount to oogedy-boogedyism? I take oogedy-boogedy to be a perjorative reference to absurd superstition and irrational nonsense. So where has the GOP embraced to its detriment oogedy-boogedyism? With the possible exception of some variants of creationism (which is hardly a major issue at the national level in the GOP, as much as some on the left and a few on the right try to make it one), I'm at a loss as to what Kathleen is referring to. Opposition to abortion? Opposition to gay marriage? Euthanasia? Support for prayer in school?

Hey, can I offer a piece of evidence?

The California Supreme Court will take up various legal challenges to the constitutionality of Proposition 8, with oral arguments to begin around March and a decision expected by next May. I'm sure we'll see a host of arguments between now and March, but the amicus brief on behalf of the Lord is a new one. It's a PDF, but here's the opening statement:

Acting on behalf of the Almighty Eternal Creator, who is holding sole ownership to His creations, all planets, including the earth and everything above, below and on it, myself as His heiress, and the Kingdom of Heaven World Divine Mission (also known as Rebuild My Church Divine Mission), a Non-Profit Corporation in the State of California, submit this Amicus Curiae brief to the address the legal standard for granting "yes" on Proposition 8, passed with 52% of California voters votes, as the State of California Constitution Amendment: "Marriage between one man and one woman only!"

Later on, there's this section:

After a night full of dreams, before dawn on November 11, 2008, before I woke up in the morning, the Almighty Eternal Creator ordered me, saying "You explain to them the consequences that follow each and all of their actions. Once they understand, they will listen!"

These two matters (gay-lesbian and abortion) are just a couple of many major cases where people are exercising their free-will rights for wrong purposes. This has gone on for a hundred-thousand years and has contributed heavily to extreme weather, global warming, financial crisis, recession, global hatred, lying, violence, war and murder, serious sickness and diseases - often for the purpose of gaining rights for wrong purposes, power and money.

I mean, if you want to deny that a non-trivial part of your coalition is out in la-la land, go ahead. But ultimately, conservatives are responsible for giving this kind of nonsense talk a presentable forum and a place in their party. They made a devil's bargain and now they're trying to act like the Dominionists in their midst are perfectly normal.

I don't know how right Parker is (the economic royalists and the neocons can shoulder some of the blame), but let's not pretend that the religious right is rational and benign. And let's not pretend that their desire to mandate their views of morality on the whole society, to use hate as a wedge to divide and sow fear, to define what you do in the privacy of your home and with your body, hasn't caused revulsion among a fairly large segment of the population who can't stand being constantly told how to think and act.

John Cole has an additional bill of particulars.

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Building The Cars Of The Future

For the moment, it appears that the auto industry bailout is dead.

WASHINGTON – The Senate's top Democrat has called off a planned vote this week on a $25 billion auto industry bailout. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that he wanted to figure out some way to help Detroit's struggling Big Three but that efforts to do so had stalled.

The White House and congressional Republicans rejected Democrats' plan to dip into the $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund to finance loans to U.S. automakers.

Obviously this wasn't a favorable environment, with 49 Republicans and a skeptical GOP President in the lame-duck session and an unpopular bailout of the financial industry in the rear-view mirror. Treasury was against it from the beginning, and the public was uneasy about it as well. The White House's quick fix, to allow carmakers to access federal loans by dropping their requirements on fuel-efficient vehicles, was a non-starter and the opposite of what we should be doing.

The financial bailout and the proposed auto industry overhaul are very different beasts. With the auto industry you have millions of factory jobs on the line, as well as the support industries that feed them. Believe it or not, autos are made here with a far cleaner process than those made abroad, too, so allowing, say, the Chinese to buy GM, would have dramatic consequences for climate change, not to mention the fact that losing GM would mean losing the Chevy Volt, which is the most promising electric car in production, using a lithium-ion battery instead of nickel, which is the key to a sustainable transportation future. And from an economic standpoint, you're looking at a near-total decimation.

Still, this problem is really sad and really difficult. While Wall Street got a $700B bailout, the auto industry is looking for a bridge loan because auto sales just crashed in October from a run rate of around 16 million vehicles to 10 million vehicles. That's not something that can really be managed away in a short period of time, it's the equivalent of demobilizing a small war. That's overhang of factories, management, people, capital, and expertise of six million vehicles a year. The auto industry reaches into every community in America, with car dealerships, supply chains, and parts makers sustaining millions of jobs a year. Beyond that, as Wes Clark notes, there's the national security element of electrifying our armed forces, a project the auto industry is moving forward.

Yes, the auto industry has been badly managed, and labor has fought against reasonable environmental regulations. And the management doesn't really 'deserve' a bailout. But what's going on here is not a normal market failure; auto companies have done done surveys which show that consumers will not buy from companies in bankruptcy, and GM is going to be in chapter 7 not chapter 11, which means full liquidation. People won't buy from a company that looks like it'll go bankrupt, but a company without customers will go bankrupt. That's a feedback loop we don't want to see, because liquidation of the auto industry will probably cause a depression. Millions of retirees with pensions and health care will lose it, consumers with domestic cars will lose benefits associated with those cars, the secondary car market will be destroyed, and consumers will lose confidence about all major consumer purchase.

In other words, the auto industry, and really the entire economy, is in the midst of the same dynamics that take hold in a bank run. I just read Paul Krugman's The Return of Depression Economics, and this is the scenario that he draws out in economies system-wide. The temptation here from policy-makers is to cut the baby in half, which is the wrong strategy. Either the government should decide to defend the auto industry at all costs, and tell consumers their car purchases are safe, or the government should let the auto industry die. A bridge loan must be accompanied by a government guarantee,because without it the industry is just in limbo and the underlying confidence problem remains.

If it sounds unfair, well, tough. Liquidating the industry is a terrifying scenario, even if it was only GM, which is the closest to collapse right now. And let's be clear about what the right really means when they claim to want to allow the carmakers to fail - it's not about "letting the market rule" or "not rewarding failure", they're talking about union-busting.

All this screaming about bankrupting GM has everything to do with a conservative philosophical imperative that the free market will set all these things right, that unions are bad and they are an affront to free enterprise. It's a moral position not a rational one, and it persists despite all evidence to the contrary. It should have been thoroughly discredited by this point, but alas, some continue to cling to it. The problems being suffered by the auto companies right now are nothing more than a shock doctrine opportunity to destroy the UAW to them. They either have not come to terms with the fact that one in every twelve jobs in this country have income that is tied to the Big 3, or they simply don't care.

Or, like Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, they come from right-to-work states that would benefit from Detroit's demise. Shelby may carp about "the uncompetitive structure of [the Big Three's] manufacturing and labor force," but as Marcy Wheeler notes, his state is home to the non-union plants that make M-Class SUV, GL-Class SUV, Pilot SUV, Santa Fe SUV, plus engines for Tacoma and Tundra pick-ups and Sequoia SUVs.

Not exactly a vision in green.

This is the time to use this crisis to boldly push forward green technologies that change how we get people from point A to point B. But the US auto industry can be a part of that solution rather than an impediment to it. And in order to accomplish that we need more than oversight, but a clear vision, buttressed by a say in management decisions, of how Detroit can go forward. As Jeffrey Sachs says here, we can support the auto industry and support our own future at the same time.

This is an opportunity to embark on a major industry restructuring to position the United States to lead the world in producing cars that get 100 miles or more per gallon. This achievement is closer than many suppose, with the pathbreaking plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt set to arrive in 2010 and several new hybrid models on the way. American-made fuel-cell cars may be a large-scale reality within a decade. Success would dramatically improve energy and national security, climate security, and U.S. global competitiveness, and a public-private partnership is needed to bring about this transformation [...]

And a transformation of the type that's required for long-term sustainability of the automakers will require both the market and government. Public policies and funding are needed to support the research and development of high-performance batteries and fuel cells and, especially, to modernize the national power grid and other infrastructure. These are steps that individual auto companies (and even the industry as a whole) could not accomplish on their own.

Some want to see the industry punished for its neglect of energy and environmental realities, but we should acknowledge that the SUV era reflected poor judgment across society. Yes, the industry ignored warnings about energy insecurity and climate, but so did the public and politicians. Rather than kill the auto industry, and destroy the U.S. economy in the process, we should fix the industry with a sense of national responsibility and purpose. (We should also fix our ramshackle health-care system, which has burdened the industry and the economy with punitively high costs.) [...]

We face an unprecedented financial calamity, energy crisis and environmental threat. A vibrant, growing U.S. automobile industry should play an essential role in solving all three. The technologies that will win the day are in sight; industry has already made important advances. A partnership with government is vital and should begin this week.

Sadly, conservatives have won this round. I hope the carmakers are still alive when we have the numbers to set this right.

John Amato has more.

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Lovable Loser

House Republicans apparently think that losing 50 seats over two cycles is change they can believe in, as they signed up John Boehner as Minority Leader for two more years, resisting a challenge from Dan Lungren.

While Randy Bayne considers this a bright spot for Bill Durston and his effort to beat Lungren in 2010, I have the opposite view. Being Minority Leader would have put a major target on Lungren's back. Now he can slink back into quiet anonymity and not raise the ire of his constituency, which is rapidly growing more Democratic.

On another note, how can House Republicans possibly think that Boehner has done a good job these last two years to warrant a return engagement? Fortunately, that's their problem.

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