Monday, January 5, 2009

Franken, My Dear, I Don't Give A Damn

The good news: Al Franken has been declared the winner in the Minnesota Senate Race. The bad news is that Norm Coleman has already vowed to sue and take this to the Supreme Court if necessary (something I discussed last month). The weird news? The Wall Street Journal's editorial board screaming that Coleman was robbed by basically lying about the circumstances of the recount procedure.

Who better to take that electoral nonsense apart than's Nate Silver?
There are 25 precincts with more ballots than voters? I'm not sure this is actually true. There were certain precincts with more votes counted during the recount than there were on Election Night -- which is not surprising, considering that the whole purpose of a hand recount is to find votes that the machine scanners missed the first time around. I have not seen any evidence, on the other hand, that there are precincts with more votes than voters as recorded on sign-in sheets. And the Coleman campaign evidently hasn't either, or it presumably would have presented it to the Court, which rejected its petition for lack of evidence.

Also, note the weasel-wordy phrase "by some estimates", which translates as "by the Coleman campaign's estimate". There is no intrinsic reason why Franken ballots are more likely to be duplicated than Coleman ballots, especially when one significant source of duplicate ballots is military absentees, a group that presumably favors the Republicans. Coleman, indeed, only became interested in the issue of duplicates once he fell behind in the recount and needed some way to extend his clock. Before then, his lead attorney had sent an e-mail to Franken which said that challenges on the issue of duplicate ballots were "groundless and frivolous".
Nate delivers the goods on this the whole thing.

Coming Up Aces

When the Double G speaks on matters legal, I tend to listen. So his glowing approval of Obama's choice of Dawn Johnsen to head the DoJ's Office of Legal Counsel pretty much means Barry has slammed one out of the park and put the Good Guys firmly on the scoreboard.
The Office of Legal Counsel, inside the Justice Department, is probably the most consequential federal government office that remains relatively obscure. The legal opinions which it issues become, more or less automatically, the official legal position of the Executive Branch. It was from that office that John Yoo, Jay Bybee and others did so much damage, issuing now-infamous memoranda that established the regime of lawlessness that has dominated our political institutions over the last eight years. Other than Attorney General-designate Eric Holder and Obama himself, there is probably no official who will have a more significant role in determining the extent to which the Obama administration really does reverse the lawlessness and legal radicalism of the Bush years.

Today, as The Boston Globe just reported, Barack Obama announced several new appointments to key DOJ posts, including Dawn Johnsen to head the OLC. Johnsen is a Professor of Law at Indiana University, a former OLC official in the Clinton administration (as well as a former ACLU counsel), and a graduate of Yale Law School. She's become a true expert on executive power and, specifically, the role and obligation of the OLC in restricting presidential decisions to their lawful scope.

It's that John Yoo memo that set the tone of the Bush administration's legal bankruptcy, literally following the famous Nixon quote "If the President does it, it's not illegal." Dawn Johnsen is a clarion signal that Obama will reverse course on the growing monstrosity that is Executive Privilege.
Perhaps most importantly -- and most impressively -- of all, this is what she wrote in Slate on March 18, regarding what the next administration must do about Bush's serial lawbreaking:

I felt the sense of shame and responsibility for my government's behavior especially acutely in the summer of 2004, with the leaking of the infamous and outrageous Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel Torture Memo. . . .

The same question, of what we are to do in the face of national dishonor, also occurred to me a few weeks ago, as I listened to President Bush describe his visit to a Rwandan memorial to the 1994 genocide there. . . .

But President Bush spoke there, too, of the power of the reminder the memorial provides and the need to protect against recurrences there, or elsewhere. That brought to mind that whenever any government or people act lawlessly, on whatever scale, questions of atonement and remedy and prevention must be confronted. And fundamental to any meaningful answer is transparency about the wrong committed. . . .

The question how we restore our nation's honor takes on new urgency and promise as we approach the end of this administration. We must resist Bush administration efforts to hide evidence of its wrongdoing through demands for retroactive immunity, assertions of state privilege, and implausible claims that openness will empower terrorists. . . .

Here is a partial answer to my own question of how should we behave, directed especially to the next president and members of his or her administration but also to all of use who will be relieved by the change: We must avoid any temptation simply to move on. We must instead be honest with ourselves and the world as we condemn our nation's past transgressions and reject Bush's corruption of our American ideals. Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation's honor be restored without full disclosure.

I first read these posts of Johnsen's a few weeks ago when a reporter asked me about my reaction to the possibility that she might be appointed to head the OLC. Beyond these articles, I don't know all that much about her, but anyone who can write this, in this unapologetic, euphemism-free and even impolitic tone, warning that the problem isn't merely John Yoo but Bush himself, repeatedly demanding "outrage," criticizing the Democratic Congress for legalizing Bush's surveillance program, arguing that we cannot merely "move on" if we are to restore our national honor, stating the OLC's "core job description" is to "say 'no' to the President," all while emphasizing that the danger is unchecked power not just for the Bush administration but "for years and administrations to come" -- and to do so in the middle of an election year when she knows she has a good chance to be appointed to a high-level position if the Democratic candidate won and yet nonetheless eschewed standard, obfuscating Beltway politesse about these matters -- is someone whose appointment to such an important post is almost certainly a positive sign. No praise is due Obama until he actually does things that merit praise, but it's hard not to consider this encouraging.

Not only that, but it's a very good sign that Obama may indeed be considering going directly after Bush's lawbreakers. Somewhere in his undisclosed location, Dick Cheney may actually be scared for the first time in eight years, and all I have to say is about damn time.

More people like Dawn Johnsen, please.

The Other Shoe Is Dropping

The housing depression has been bad enough, but far less attention has been paid to its corporate counterpart in commercial real estate. The bad news is that the commercial real estate market is plunging almost as badly as the residential one, and it too is about to hit crisis mode.

Vacancy rates in office buildings exceed 10 percent in virtually every major city in the country and are rising rapidly, a sign of economic distress that could lead to yet another wave of problems for troubled lenders.

With job cuts rampant and businesses retrenching, more empty space is expected from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles in the coming year. Rental income would then decline and property values would slide further. The Urban Land Institute predicts 2009 will be the worst year for the commercial real estate market “since the wrenching 1991-1992 industry depression.”

Banks and other financial companies have not had the problems with commercial properties in this recession that they have had with residential properties. But many building owners, while struggling with more vacancies and less rental income, will need to refinance commercial mortgages this year.

The persistent chill in lending from banks to the credit markets will make that difficult — even for borrowers who are current on their payments — setting the stage for loan defaults.

The prospect bodes ill for banks, along with pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds and others holding the loans or pieces of them that were packaged and sold as securities.

Jeffrey DeBoer, chief executive of the Real Estate Roundtable, a lobbying group in Washington, is asking for government assistance for his industry and warns of the potential impact of defaults. “Each one by itself is not significant,” he said, “but the cumulative effect will put tremendous stress on the financial sector.”
The commercial real estate market collapse is the main reason why I believe recovery in the economy is several years off. Even if the residential market turns around in 2010, the commercial market still has a long way to go to daylight. Ten percent vacancy rate is horrifying, and it's going to get far worse, causing another round of bad bank problems and massive corporate defaults on property, triggering another round of bailout cash pleas for the business sector.

It's going to get far, far worse before it gets better.

Change Of Heart

It's truly impressive to consider the number of Bush administration employees that are screaming publicly that the Executive Branch is simply too powerful now that a Democrat is in charge and are fully expecting Obama to roll over on this.

It's even more impressive that somebody like John Bolton is asking for his old job to be nerfed completely, along with the entire State Department.

Of course, considering Hillary Clinton is actually wanting the State Department to do something other than lie to the world about who has WMDs, that's got Bolton and his ilk pretty scared...scared enough to want to suddenly have all the power in Washington back in Congress where the GOP can block anything and everything and call the Democrats naughty names if they refuse.

The most impressive thing is that the GOP's plan will almost certainly work because the Dems fold every time.

In Which Zandar Answers Your Burning Questions

TPM's Josh Marshall asks:
Can someone help me come up with an argument for why the Obama stimulus plan isn't turning out to be a painful joke? he references the news that Obama's stimulus package contains $300 billion in tax cuts.

The answer of course is "I got nothin', bro." It is very much a painful joke. As I said yesterday, the most likely outcome is that the GOP will insist on passing the tax cuts immediately, and will then block spending with enough Blue Dog Democrat interference in the House and/or Senate to assure that anything that does pass will simply fail to help the economy. Obama will take the blame for it, and by the time November 2010 rolls around the economic picture will still be so bad that the Dems may even lose control of one or both chambers, assuring that what recovery we do have will be targeted at the top instead of the bottom up.

In other words, the Dems still don't have enough of a working majority to deal with the completely repudiated conservative economic garbage of the last 25 years because Washington is still run by the Village Centrists who want the status quo of Reagan/Bush "trickle-down" nonsense.

If the Dems can't find their spines in 2009 and run the country like voters actually put them in charge of things, we're looking at far, far worse times ahead.

[UPDATE] Paul Krugman weighs in and nails it cold.
What this says is that there’s a reasonable economic case for including a significant amount of tax cuts in the package, mainly in year one.

But the numbers being reported — 40 percent of the whole, two-year plan — sound high. And all the news reports say that the high tax-cut share is intended to assuage Republicans; what this presumably means is that this was the message the off-the-record Obamanauts were told to convey.

And that’s bad news.

Look, Republicans are not going to come on board. Make 40% of the package tax cuts, they’ll demand 100%. Then they’ll start the thing about how you can’t cut taxes on people who don’t pay taxes (with only income taxes counting, of course) and demand that the plan focus on the affluent. Then they’ll demand cuts in corporate taxes. And Mitch McConnell is already saying that state and local governments should get loans, not aid — which would undermine that part of the plan, too.

OK, maybe this is just a head fake from the Obama people — they think they can win the PR battle by making bipartisan noises, then accusing the GOP of being obstructionist. But I’m really worried that they’re sending off signals of weakness right from the beginning, and that they’re just going to embolden the opposition.
For Pete's sake, if Krugman the economist can clearly see the politics in this and how it plays out, it's got to be patently obvious to everyone. I don't think this is a head fake. I think Obama is walking right into the Clinton Triangulation Trap(tm) and somehow thinks he's smart enough to come out ahead.

Why the hell is Obama going at this from a position of weakness? What makes him think the GOP has any respect for his position or his agenda when they just stopped publicly calling him all but a secret Muslim terrorist only two months ago? They will not stop until they get everything they want: another Bush trillion dollar plus tax cut for the rich and especially for corporations. If they don't get it, they will destroy the entire spending package and the economy along with it. If they do get it, they will destroy the economy and finish the most massive transfer of wealth in history and eliminate the middle class.

Obama's already playing like he's lost, and he's not even President yet.


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