Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Last Call

And it looks like with 100% of the precincts counted in the NY-20 special election that Democrat Scott Murphy has edged out Republican Jim Tedesco by a scant 65 votes, with 6,000 absentee ballots still left to be counted.

I wonder, should the final count favor Murphy, will Jim Tedisco keep an eternal recount going all the way until November 2010?

And does anybody else find it rather odd that Tedisco was basically at the courthouse motioning for an emergency court order to prevent Murphy from being declared the winner some nine hours before the polls closed, as if he knew this election would be contested?

Maybe that's just a fabulous coincidence.

Maybe fully grown palm trees come flying out of my ass every Thursday at a quarter to seven, too.

Al Versus Norm, Part 513

As expected, Norm Coleman's shot at catching Al Franken's 225-vote lead just got a stake through the heart.
The court will now review these 400 ballots to make sure they met every single requirement of the law. Some of them will definitely be counted, but an unknown number are simply being reviewed because the court needs the genuine article to figure out an ambiguous point.

Looking at the math, it's very bad for Norm Coleman. Even if all 400 ballots were counted and went more to Coleman, it probably wouldn't produce enough swing to overturn Franken's 225-vote lead. A more likely guess would be that some percentage are counted, and they break to Franken -- after all, the court systematically rejected Coleman's pleas for lenient standards.

Two weeks ago, Norm Coleman's lead trial lawyer predicted that the trial would likely end with Al Franken winning, and with a slightly larger lead than before -- then come the appeals. This new court order certainly seems to corroborate that prediction.

Of course, all this legal kabuki is pointless. We all knew this was going to federal court and to the Supreme Court if Coleman doesn't win. It never mattered if Minnesota was represented by two senators. It only matters that the GOP gets a Supreme Court level legal precedent on voting that favors them.

At worst for the GOP, they cost the Dems a vital vote in the Senate until further notice. If the Dems try to seat Franken, the GOP will go to the mattresses and will force a Constitutional crisis into the Supreme Court's hands anyway, and with the GOP guaranteed at least 4 votes in their favor on any voting precedent, they're willing to risk it.

There's no way Obama can make the Republicans pay on this. It's all win for them. If Al Franken would be the 60th vote overcoming a filibuster on health care, climate change, EFCA (unlikely) or even the budget, then the GOP have scored a huge victory. They win. Only the voters can make the Republicans pay, and the Republicans are doing everything they can to make sure the voters have as little to do with the outcome of an election as humanly possible.

Even if Franken is seated, even if the Supreme Court refuses to hear Coleman's case, I fully believe the GOP would in fact do everything they can to disrupt, stall, and gridlock the Senate until Franken was removed...I can even see GOP governors like Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry and Mark Sanford refuse to comply with any laws passed with Franken in the Senate. The GOP will never accept Franken as legitimate. Ever.

They will attack him and attack him. They will demand he resign and a special election be called. They will attack the Democrats as evil fascists. The rhetoric will run lava hot. And I can see, in that climate of hate and fear and anger, I can see something truly horrendous and tragic happening as a result of a person taking these words too far.

Now, maybe I'm nuts. This is certainly a worst-case scenario. But given where we are in 2009, I think expecting the worst-case scenario is entirely justified.

The Anti-Fix Is In

Here's how Republicans operate in 2009, folks. In New York state, Hillary Clinton's Senate replacement is NY-20 Congressional Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand's now vacant House seat is up for election today, and Republican Jim Tedisco filed an ex parte motion to try to overturn the election's results a good seven hours before the polls have even closed!
Beyond the standard practice of seeking to impound machines, determine validity of affidavit ballots, etc., the Tedisco campaign goes for this grand overreach--and does so hours before the polls even close. (I am not a lawyer, but the ones we have here tell me this is not standard operating procedure--this is a desperate play.)

This filing come on the heels of a report that Tedisco’s own polling has him losing to Democrat Scott Murphy by a narrow margin.

The race has national implications, especially for the Republicans, who see this as an early test of new RNC Chair Michael Steele’s leadership.

For Democrats, a Murphy victory would hold the seat vacated by the promotion of Kirsten Gillibrand to the US Senate.
In other words, Tedisco clearly believes he's going to lose the election before the voting is even over, and is in fact already preparing the Norm Coleman eternal recount playbook, ostensibly to deny anyone the seat until the election goes to the Supreme Court. And should this process take "years" then so be it! Democrats can't win an election fairly, you know. Murphy clearly stole the election, and of course that's a great way to raise doubts in the minds of the still voting residents of NY District 20.

That's how Republicans roll, baby. Either they win or everybody loses. This is so laughable on its face that it's pathetic. Dday adds:
Why not? It's working for Norm Coleman. In fact, given that success I'd be surprised if Republicans acknowledge losing an election ever again.

The Guy Nicknamed "Bibi" Wears The Pants In This Relationship

I could have told you this was coming quite some time ago, but now our wonderful Israeli Prime Minister friend is telling our President exactly what the hell he needs to be doing.
In an interview conducted shortly before he was sworn in today as prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu laid down a challenge for Barack Obama. The American president, he said, must stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons—and quickly—or an imperiled Israel may be forced to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities itself.

“The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told me. He said the Iranian nuclear challenge represents a “hinge of history” and added that “Western civilization” will have failed if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

In unusually blunt language, Netanyahu said of the Iranian leadership, “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.”

History teaches Jews that threats against their collective existence should be taken seriously, and, if possible, preempted, he suggested. In recent years, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has regularly called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and the supreme Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, this month called Israel a “cancerous tumor.”

But Netanyahu also said that Iran threatens many other countries apart from Israel, and so his mission over the next several months is to convince the world of the broad danger posed by Iran. One of his chief security advisers, Moshe Ya’alon, told me that a nuclear Iran could mean the end of American influence in the Middle East. “This is an existential threat for Israel, but it will be a blow for American interests, especially on the energy front. Who will dominate the oil in the region—Washington or Tehran?”

So, we arrive at the impasse, the heart and soul of Obama's Presidency outside the US: Either Barack Obama is in charge of our foreign policy in the Middle East, or Benjamin Netanyahu is.

Which is it Mr. President? The fact that an honest observer of American/Israeli relations would have to stop and ask themselves that question at this point is the problem.

[UPDATE] Matt Yglesias sums up the problem:

You can’t fly from Israel to Iran without going over Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq and every discussion of this I’ve ever heard specifically says the Israelis would need to go through Iraq. It would of course be possible for Israel to do that without American approval. But none of those three countries would conceivably give Israel permission to use their airspace for this mission and the United States is committed to the defense of all three. In practice, the fact of an Israeli attack would be read throughout the region as proof of an American green light, especially were the attack not swiftly followed-up by a sharp curtailment of American aid. And for Americans, that’s really the point—as long as Israel is the biggest winner in the U.S. aid sweepstakes, Israeli actions are inevitably seen as the actions of American proxies, and if we can’t get Israel to respect our interests then we need to revisit that relationship.
Understand also that the second Israel does this (and the timeframe Israel is talking about is in "months") our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan evaporate in a matter of hours. Baghdad and Kabul will fall overnight. The Al-Malaki government in Iraq and the Karzai government in Afghanistan will collapse, and quite frankly the act almost certainly will destabilize Pakistan President Zardari's fragile government as well, and "destabilized nuclear Muslim country" is exactly the nightmare we're trying so badly to prevent. Even Dubya understood this and refused to green light Israel.

India will not allow nuclear Pakistan to fall apart, and they have nukes too. Same goes for China and Russia...and things start to get really, really ugly from there.

Somebody needs to make it plain to Israel that they're risking WW III here. So why is he doing it? There's not a winning play to be made by bluffing here, not after rattling the sword for the last two years.

Which honestly leads me to believe that he's not bluffing. He's either crazy or stupid, and either one should scare the shit out of all of us.

What Are We Doing Tonight, Brain?

Conversation overheard at GOP HQ: "Well, we're not making a lot of headway against Obama here. We need to attack the President harder!"

"Oh I know! Let's go with the Scary Obama Cult meme again only this time we'll implicate Dubya too cause everybody hates him now and we'll show how Obama is WORSE THAN BUSH!"

(Le sigh.)

Zandar's Thought Of The Day

If I'm a GOP strategist, I'm telling my clients to keep their mouth shut on the automakers until Obama makes his decisions. Fair or unfair, there's no way GM and Chrysler can come out of this without shedding tens of thousands of union jobs and auto dealership workers in Blue and Purple states -- job losses that now will be laid at Obama's feet. State GOP officials in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana have to be salivating at this point.

The Right Thing To Do

Both fiscally and socially, more and more companies are doing the right thing. Walgreens is offering free health clinic care to the uninsured:
Walgreen's said patients who lose their job and health insurance after March 31 will be able to get free treatment at its in-store Take Care clinics for respiratory problems, allergies, infections and skin conditions, among other ailments. Typically those treatments cost $59 or more for patients with no insurance.

Hal Rosenbluth, chairman of the Take Care Health Systems division, described the plan as something close to an experiment: He said Walgreen isn't sure of patient demand or how much providing the services might cost the company.

It's likely to generate more attention for the clinics, however. Rosenbluth said a typical Take Care patient tells eight other people about his or her experience. So far, about 30 percent of Take Care patients were new customers to Walgreen.

The program is expected to last through the end of 2009. Walgreen runs 341 Take Care clinics in 35 markets around the country, including Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Cleveland.

And Ford and GM are following Hyundai's lead to help unemployed keep their cars.
Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. are offering payment protection plans to help reassure consumers who may be putting off buying a new car because of worries about losing their job.

The offers come as auto sales have been battered by the recession and tight credit, reaching their lowest levels in 27 years.

Ford said Tuesday it will cover payments of up to $700 each month for up to a year on any new Ford, Lincoln or Mercury vehicle if consumers lose their jobs. The program runs until June 1.

Hours later, GM said it will make a similar offer. GM's new CEO, Fritz Henderson, said the company will make up to nine car payments of $500 each for customers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

Customers must qualify for state unemployment to be eligible for the program. The program starts April 1 and runs until April 30.

I'm hoping to see more and more companies take the lead in becoming good corporate citizens. These are the companies people will choose to do business with when the economy finally does stabilize.

Pile Of Crap

More dim economic news out today on housing and consumer confidence. The Case-Schiller index hit a new monthly and yearly decline record in home prices for January, and consumer confidence is still in a deep, deep hole at an index of 26. It's looking more and more like Helicopter Ben's efforts to re-inflate the housing bubble is failing due to all the holes in the balloon.
“It’s wrong to place too much hope on what the Fed would be able to accomplish in pushing rates lower,” says economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “There’s a limit to what they can realistically do.”

That’s apparent in what some call the inevitable bounce back in rates since the Fed's announcement at the March 19 FOMC meeting that it would increase its planned purchase of GSE and MBS debt as well as finally begin buying longer-term Treasuries.

The yield on the 10-year note went from roughly 3.00 percent down to 2.50 percent, but has slowly climbed back to around 2.75 percent. Thirty-year mortgage rates, which track the 10-year yield, have moved accordingly.

“Rates are historically low, but the expectation is that interest rates should be much lower than they are,” says Manhattan Mortgage Company CEO Melissa Cohn.

Then again, Nouriel Roubini actually sounded almost...positive today.

Things might only be somewhat horrendous instead of biblically disastrous.

The Village Car Tune Caper

Needless to say, most pundits agree that GM and Chrysler should have faced bankruptcy back in the Bush administration, but since Barack Obama actually did something about it, the Village now hates his ass more than ever, staring with the LA Times:
President Obama's plan to save failing U.S. automakers -- and make them the instruments for creating a cleaner, greener transportation system -- marked a major step across the line that traditionally separates government from private industry.

His announcement Monday of a new position on bailing out Detroit went beyond a desire to be sure tax dollars were not wasted in bailing out struggling companies. It put the Obama administration squarely in the position of adopting a so-called industrial policy, in which government officials, not business executives or the free market, decided what kinds of products a company would make and how it would chart its future.
The Wall Street Journal:
GM's CEO Rick Wagoner got the Presidential boot over the weekend, and GM was given two months to reorganize, or get forced into a "quick and surgical" bankruptcy. For once, we agree with Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who called Mr. Wagoner "a sacrificial lamb." The Administration needed someone to take the fall to sate the anticorporate furies it has helped to unleash. Mr. Wagoner wasn't solely responsible for GM's bad business decisions, but only recently did he promote the kind of radical restructuring the company has long needed. We only wish someone in Washington would also be shown the door, starting with those at the Federal Reserve whose oil-price bubbles also helped to break the car makers.

Sacking a CEO for appearance sake was the easy part. Good luck trying to get the unions to make concessions on wages and legacy costs, and bondholders to agree to reduce the debt burden. A senior Treasury official told us the Administration isn't holding its breath and considers "surgical bankruptcy" the likeliest outcome. In that event, "a shiny new GM" would emerge, said the official, who didn't want to be identified. Asked why GM wasn't forced into Chapter 11 immediately, the official said the Administration wanted to avoid "years of uncontrolled chaos" and needed time to set the stage for "the more surgical process."

David Brooks in the NY Times:
And yet by enmeshing the White House so deeply into G.M., Obama has increased the odds that March’s menacing threat will lead to June’s wobbly wiggle-out. The Obama administration and the Democratic Party are now completely implicated in the coming G.M. wreck. Over the next few months, the White House will be subject to a gigantic lobbying barrage. The Midwestern delegations, swing states all, will pull out all the stops to prevent plant foreclosures. Unions will be furious if the Obama-run company rips up the union contract. Is the White House ready for the headline “Obama to Middle America: Drop Dead”? It would take a party with a political death wish to see this through.
USA Today:

But critics said the president overstepped by forcing Wagoner out.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the move was "a power grab." That level of federal control over GM "should send a chill to the people in this country," he said.

GM should never have gone to the government asking for help, said Gerald Meyers, former CEO of American Motors.

"It was a terrible mistake, pleading poverty and going to Washington asking for money," Meyers said.

The company could have survived without government help if Wagoner had been willing to search out alternative forms of financing, similar to the recent investments in Daimler by the sovereign fund of Abu Dhabi, he said.

Dana Milbank at the Washington Post:
When Obama, preceded by a sales team of a dozen economic aides, entered the Grand Foyer yesterday morning, he offered assurances that "we have no intention of running GM." But, in the rest of his 18-minute speech, he sounded as if he was doing just that. He ordered up "a better business plan" from GM and asserted that "Chrysler needs a partner to remain viable." In both cases, the restructuring "may mean using our bankruptcy code."

The idea of bankruptcy may be "unsettling," Obama allowed -- so he came equipped with a sales pitch worthy of Madison Avenue. "Some of the cars made by American workers right now are outperforming the best cars made abroad," Obama declared, tossing in phrases such as "unsurpassed around the world" and "some of the finest cars the world has ever known."

No credit? No problem. "We are working intensively with the auto finance companies to increase the flow of credit to both consumers and dealers," Obama pledged.

The Village universally hates it. It's funny. Of the five articles tearing into Obama as the First Used Car Salesman, only one bothers to mention Bush's December 2008 bailout of the auto industry and his requisite punt to Obama, and that was, ironically enough, the WSJ. Folks, Obama got stuck with this mess and is trying to do what he can to clean it up.

Let him work.

The New Reality

Despite wishful thinking from wingnuts, the reality is that Americans are not blaming Obama for the economy's problems, and in fact overwhelmingly approve of his efforts to fix it.
When it comes to assessing responsibility for the nation's economic plight, 80 percent said they put a "great deal" or a "good amount" of blame on banks and other financial institutions for taking unnecessary risks. The same percentage said they blame large corporations for poor management decisions. About seven in 10 blame consumers for overextending themselves with debt and the Bush administration for not vigorously regulating the financial industry.

Criticism of the banks, large corporations and consumers is roughly comparable across the political spectrum. But there is clear disagreement over whether Obama bears any of the blame, with Republicans far more likely to say yes than are Democrats or independents. Republicans, however, were as apt to blame the Bush administration for lax regulation as they were to target Obama for not doing enough to fix the problems.

Obama maintains a strong hand in his dealings with congressional Republicans. The public prefers his approach to that of the Republicans by more than two to one. But the percentage of independents siding with Obama has dropped 12 points, to 50 percent. Many of those independents in the new poll said neither has the upper hand in the economic debate. About a quarter of independents align with the Republicans on this question.

I wonder offhand just how many of these "independents"are in fact just disillusioned Republicans who have bolted from the Big Stupid Tent since the last election?

I'm guessing there's a lot more of them than there were six months ago. Even the die hard lifer Republicans have turned against Dubya, pretty much assuring that his legacy is that of "The Asshole Who Wrecked America" and will be for a long, long time.

This is also a big fat warning to Evan Bayh and his Sensible Centrist obstructionist buddies trying to wreck Obama's budget: the people prefer Obama by 2 to 1 to the Republicans. You'd better think about picking the right side in this fight, and soon.

[UPDATE] Bonus wingnut stupidity: Why should we care what America thinks when only Wall Street's opinions should matter?

The Road To Car Tomb, Part 3

It took less than 24 hours for Chrysler and GM to telegraph their moves in the post-Obama auto industry. Chrysler is making every effort to join with Italian automaker Fiat, but many analysts remain skeptical, and even the Obama administration is hinting strongly that Chrysler will be opting for bankruptcy reorganization:
Chrysler LLC may face an “impossible goal” in completing an alliance with Fiat SpA and meeting an Obama administration deadline to erase debt and win more union concessions by April 30.

Chrysler got its blueprint for the next month yesterday from President Barack Obama’s task force, which said that $6 billion in new aid hinges on “extinguishing the vast majority” of outstanding secured debt and new givebacks from the United Auto Workers.

Meeting those requirements would require help from lenders, which haven’t negotiated in the three months since Chrysler got its U.S. loans and have little incentive to do so because they would be paid off first in bankruptcy. Even Obama’s autos panel suggested Chrysler might fare better by reorganizing in court.

It is an impossible goal,” said Sheldon Stone, a partner at Amherst Partners LLC, a restructuring firm in Birmingham, Michigan. “The likelihood is that the 30-day period is going to allow Chrysler to get their house in order for a bankruptcy.”

Meanwhile, GM's new CEO is making no effort to hide where he sees the company going in 60 days: straight to bankruptcy court.
General Motors's new chief executive told CNBC that filing for Bankruptcy may be the best option for the struggling automaker.

In a taped interview to be aired tonight on NBC Nightly News, Fritz Henderson said that because of greater demands from the Obama administration to restructure, GM is considering the bankruptcy option. The auto giant previously had ruled out such a move, saying it would discourage people from buying GM cars.

Henderson's comments came after President Obama bluntly rejected turnaround plans by GM and Chrysler and demanded that both companies make fresh concessions in order to get more federal aid.

Henderson, who was GM's president and chief operating officer, was named the new CEO after the government forced the resignation of CEO Rick Wagoner on Sunday. GM's board is also being restructured.

Henderson told reporters that the company would still prefer to restructure outside of court, but the level of support Washington is offering would help the company quickly restructure through bankruptcy.

So, that's basically it then. It's looking like the Big Three will become the Big One in a couple months, and the irony is government restructuring to make GM and Chrysler leaner and meaner could actually end up putting Ford at a major disadvantage:
Ford Motor Co., the only U.S. automaker not taking federal aid, could lose its competitive edge if President Barack Obama is successful in slimming down General Motors Corp. with lower labor costs, debt and dealers.

Obama gave GM 60 days to come up with a new strategy to cut costs with its union, slash debt with bondholders and reduce dealers and brands. If GM does all that, it may have significantly lower costs than Ford, said Lexington, Massachusetts-based auto analyst John Wolkonowicz of IHS Global Insight.

“This really pulled the rug out from under Ford,” said Wolkonowicz, a former Ford product planner. “The government wants to have GM survive as a leaner and greener company and Ford is going to need further restructuring in order to compete.”

It's conceivable that there may not be any major American automakers by the end of the year. What will replace the Detroit automakers? How will it affect the rest of the US car and truck market? This is uncharted stuff here, folks. Then again, these days there's a lot of uncharted stuff going on.


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