Thursday, June 24, 2010

Last Call

Parting thoughts tonight from Steve M.:
But is there no mechanism whatsoever -- a prime-time interview, a prime-time speech -- whereby the president of the United States might explain the filibuster to peple, as if he were teaching Civics 101? Explain it, and explain the specific way in which this undemocratic relic of a procedure is being used to block these benefits and thwart majority rule? Why couldn't a president reach out to the public to educate us on how our government works, in the interests of his agenda? Would Ronald Reagan have hesitated to do so? Would FDR? Wouldn't they have found a way?

I know that Obama, while not a professor, taught for a while. Unfortunately, he taught elite law students. I don't think he quite understands how to educate people who really need a basic education in government.

He should imagine what he would say if Malia or Sasha were to ask him to explain why, if he has a majority, he can't get the law passed. And then he should explain it to us exactly the way he'd explain it to one of them.
Seems like a damn good idea to me. After all, aren't Republicans complaining that Obama isn't doing enough to show his leadership?

Third Time's A Disaster

And for the third time, Republicans killed a Senate jobs bill because deficits are more important than jobs, unemployment benefits, tax breaks for businesses or anything else...except this time when the Democrats offered to actually PAY FOR THE SPENDING with some stimulus money and by letting some tax breaks expire, the Republicans still said no.
Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana and chairman of the Finance Committee, who is the primary sponsor of the legislation, said that the bill had been cut back by about $100 billion in response to Republicans’ demands for a smaller package.

In the latest version, the Democrats pared a provision to extend higher Medicaid reimbursement for the states, to $16 billion from $24 billion, and also found offsets in spending to cover the cost.

The legislation would reinstate numerous expired tax breaks, as well as provided an array of safety net spending. To help cover the cost, Democrats also proposed shifting some unspent money from last year’s economic stimulus program, a move that prompted Republican cheers.

Even some Democrats have expressed deep reservations about adding to the nation’s fast-growing deficit. Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats, have joined with Republicans in opposing the bill.

And House Democrats did not include the extra Medicaid money for states in its version of the legislation out of concern for the cost. Senate Democrats restored the money at the urging of governors and state legislatures.

At a news conference earlier on Thursday, Senate Democratic leaders voiced exasperation at the stalled legislation, and Mr. Reid said that if the latest vote failed he would move on to other legislation, beginning with a bill intended to help small businesses create jobs.

“We’re where we are because Republicans have said ‘no’ to helping America,” Mr. Reid said. 
As I said earlier, what's the impetus for the Republicans not to filibuster everything and then blame the Democrats?  They won't pay a price at the polls, only a third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years.  The Republicans are betting they will gain seats, and if Americans have to lose unemployment benefits and the economy is hurt...oh well!  Obama's fault!  Vote GOP!

World Cupdate

Today's action started out with Group F, one of the more exciting groups out there.  Paraguay was looking to win out the group by taking down plucky underdogs New Zealand, while the Italians, held to a pair of draws, tried to salvage their Cup with a win over Slovakia.   It was still anyone's group to advance in, and all four teams were fighting for a spot to move on. Italy was trying to stop Slovakia and advance with a win. The defending Cup champs were in serious danger of not even qualifying for the round of 16.  The Azzurri ran a 3-3-4 battle plan with Pepe, Iaquinta and Di Natale up front, while the Repre's 1-3-2-4 setup featured Erik Jendrisek as the point man.  Both sides got drawn into a physical match early and a number of free kicks went wide, but the Italian defense fell apart midway through the half and Robert Vittek came up with the goal at 25' after a lazy clear by Captain De Rossi, and suddenly the defending 2006 champions were looking at a precipitous fall in just four years.  The Italians seemed to shut down due to shock and ghosted through the rest of the half on auto-pilot.  Half number two resumed with the Azzurri finally playing like they might actually be the better eleven, but somebody forgot to tell the Repre that, and they continued to pound at the stunned Italians.  Finally Italy completely cracked as Vittek scored again at 73' and that actually turned Italy's game on.  The now offended Italians went berserk, playing with everything they had for pride and it was Di Natalae at 80' that scored to make it 2-1.  The Repre would not be denied however and they scored at 89'...only to see Italy's Quagliarella put one right back at 90'.  Stoppage time would determine this one...but Slovakia held on for the 3-2 win.

Meanwhile at the same time, Paraguay's squad took a strong 3-3-4 attack led by Valdez, Cardozo and Cruz, while the All-Whites met the Albirroja's call with their own 3-4-3 formation, headed by Killen, Fallon, and Smeltz.  This game was all offense early, with both teams making several sorties behind enemy lines to try to attack, but neither could wedge it in the cracks.  After having played 2 draws, New Zealand wasn't scared in the least, and Paraguay was having trouble finishing.  The second half however needed the All-Whites to go all out...or go home.  Paraguay would advance with a draw and a Slovakia win, but the New Zealanders would not.  The Albirroja were more than happy to eat the clock here and indeed inhaled minute after minute, dominating the possession time.  Paraguay then went to the bench in order to force the All-Whites into a tempo change and a mistake, and New Zealand followed suit to get fresh legs.  As exciting as the Italy-Slovakia match was...this one was just as boring.  It petered out to a draw, and that meant New Zealand and Italy were going home, with Paraguay winning the group and Slovakia having certainly earned the 2 slot.

That brings up to the Group E action in the late games, group leading Holland taking on already elminiated and pointless Cameroon, and Japan and Denmark looking to see who would join the Clockwork Orange in the next round.  The Indomitable Lions opened up with a 2-4-4 attack plan led by Chupo-Moting and star Samuel Eto'o, while Holland went with a 1-3-2-4 squad led by Robin Van Persie at point.  Holland clearly went with their strongest squad to make a point and try to increase cohesion, but surprisingly the early action was all Lions, and at least the Orange would get a solid workout.  Still, Holland got it together long enough for Van Persie to put one in at 36', and the Orange cruised through the rest of the half.  But the second half wasn't going to be a cakewalk and the Lions opened up from sheer pride, culminating in Samuel Eto'o finding the back of the net at 65' on a penalty kick.  The Dutch started picking up silly cards that could hurt them in the next round and they bunkered up as a result, bringing in subs.  Cameroon, with nothing left to lose, went on the attack, but the experience of the stronger Orange resulted in a Huntelaar goal at 83' and the Dutch team held on to take the 2-1 win and the full 9 points.

Meanwhile, in the game that mattered, Denmark and Japan squared off with both teams wanting a win, and Denmark needing it, while the Samurai Blue simply needed a draw to advance.  The Danish Dynamite opened with their familiar 1-3-2-4 format with Nicklas Bendtner at point, while the Samurai Blue played more defensively with a 1-5-4 old school formation, led by Keisuke Honda.  Denmark lived up to their nickname and started off with an explosive attack.  It took several minutes for the Samurai Blue to recover and counter attack, but counter they did with a solid Keisuke Honda goal at 17' and then Yasuhito with a brutal bender at 30', and the Danes were facing another Hamlet-level tragedy in the making down 2-0 at the half.  The back 45' picked up right where the action stopped, with the Samurai Blue now playing fierce defense and Denmark looking for any opening against the disciplined Japan squad.  But a takedown in the box gave the Danes a shot, literally, of getting back in, and on the PK rebound Tomasson puts it home past keeper Kawashima at 81'.  Time now running out, the Danish Dynamite tried for one last blast to save their Cup chances, but it was Okazaki for Japan who drove home the exclamation point at 88', and Japan's 3-1 win means they will face Paraguay in the Round of 16, while Holland wins the group and will play Slovakia.  One more day, two more Groups to sort out, and four more teams left to qualify...

Why It Won't Work

There's a reason why we're in a housing depression death spiral right now and will continue to be.  Mortgage rates have hit their lowest levels in four decades, and still home sales are plummeting into the abyss.  So why?  There are several reasons:

Banks aren't loaning as much.  With home prices still falling, taking out a new mortgage now when the prospective homeowner could easily end up underwater is not anything banks want to take chances on.  Only the best of the best can get credit these days...especially with rates so low.  The last thing a bank wants to do is loan out a 30 year mortgage at under 5%.  That's great for the homeowner, and lose-lose for the bank.

Millions of homeowners right now are underwater.  Underwater loans can't be refinanced, even with these ridiculously low rates.  Homeowners are trapped for the most part with a mortgage worth more than the house is...last count, well over 15 million Americans are in this hell now.  Obama's foreclosure relief plan is only helping a few hundred thousand of these folks.

Unemployed people don't buy new homes.  With the listed unemployment rate hitting 12-14% in the worst hit states and the effective underemployment rate well above 18-20% right now, people just aren't going to be buying homes or refinancing, since even if you are employed, it's much harder to qualify for refinancing now anyway.

Congress failed to help before and won't help now.  The one easy thing Congress could have done was cramdown relief, allowing judges to adjust mortgage rates in foreclosure cases on a case-by-case basis.  That failed to even make it out of the House...twice.

Any of these could have scuttled the recovery, but all four means we're in real trouble heading into 2011.

The Cult Of McChrystal

If Marc Ambinder's actually right, then our Afghanistan problem is now much, much bigger than one general.
Beginning in the early afternoon, a cadre of military and civilian soldiers loyal to Gen. Stanley McChrystal began to spread rumors throughout the capital city: that ground commanders in Afghanistan were threatening to resign ... that the CIA's chief of station in Kabul had stepped down ... that the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), William McRaven, was irate and wanted to step down ... that commanders of the "special mission units" like McRaven's former subordinates at DevGru (SEAL Team Six) would refuse taskings from the National Command Authority ... that buried secrets were about to be exposed, like who actually leaked the McChrystal Afghanistan review to Bob Woodward.

First, though a lot of officers who hitched their careers to McChrystal are indeed quite angry, no one has resigned, the CIA's station chief remains in place (though he's quite close to McChrystal) and McRaven isn't going anywhere. Second, it is meaningful and endearing that so many people are loyal to McChrystal. They revere the man. Third, such behavior, while in one context explicable, is precisely an argument in favor of President Obama's decision to remove McChrystal. The war is about more than one man. No deviations from the mission are acceptable. There is politics in war, and there are now numerous ways to complain; there is no question that after eight years doing God knows what in service to the country, frustrations had built up. But for those who talked to Rolling Stone, no matter how well-intentioned they were, no matter what they've done, their decision to open up to the magazine suggests that they had not learned, or had forgotten, the cardinal rule: your power is a trust that has been established by civilian politicians accountable to voters, and it is maintained by these politicians. No matter how well you've done, you will, at the end of the day, be held accountable to those who are held accountable to the republic itself.
Really?  All of Stan's buddies were going to jump ship and throw down with Obama too?  All of these big, bad ass operators were going to go all Ed Harris in The Rock?  Really?  Why the hell isn't Sec. Gates cleaning some house then?  Cause it certainly seems like there's a friggin mutiny on our hands here, and that's just unacceptable all the way around.

A lot more people than McChrystal need to get checked up from the neck up or given the boot altogether.  This banana republic crap has to go.  There is no place for this in a civilian government like the US.

Steve Benen Finally Gets The GOP Plan

Scorched Earth 101 seems simple enough to me and anyone else who's been reading for the last, oh, eighteen months, but even beltway inside types like Benen are starting to finally notice that the Republicans don't give a damn if the economy collapses as long as they can blame Obama.
For weeks, Senate Democrats have tried to pass what's called the "tax-extenders bill" -- a key economic package that extends unemployment benefits, maintains popular tax breaks, protects doctors from Medicare cuts, and boosts state aid to prevent massive job layoffs in the states. The country needs this bill to pass, but Republicans won't let it come up for a vote.

In the hopes of finding a compromise, Dems have repeatedly scaled-back the measure, watering it down and removing worthwhile investments. The GOP has responded by insisting the reductions aren't enough, and that they still won't allow a vote.
It now appears Republicans are going to win this fight -- and Americans will lose.
What's the downside for the Republicans here for not cooperating?  Nobody's assessing any penalties so far.  But it finally looks like somebody starting to.
In the real world, this means millions of jobless Americans will lose their already-modest benefits, and hundreds of thousands of workers will be laid off over the next year, including teachers, police officers, and firefighters. All of this will happen because Republicans are more concerned about the deficit -- a deficit they created under Bush/Cheney -- than the economy.

It's unpleasant to think about, and I really hope it's not true, but it may be time for a discussion about whether GOP lawmakers are trying to deliberately sabotage the economy to help their midterm election strategy. After all, these same Republicans have supported deficit-financed tax-extenders before -- there's no credible reason to change course now. On the contrary, with the economy struggling to break through, the need for this package is more obvious, not less, if your goal is to actually improve economic conditions.
Really?  Why would Republicans want to improve economic conditions with a Democrat they can blame in the White House and midterm elections they want to win?  Why would they ever allow any legislation at all to pass at this point when they can filibuster everything and say "The Democrats failed!  Government has failed!  Vote for us!"

It's probably far too late for Benen to be sounding this alarm here, but it should be at least noted.  the Republican Party does not want the economy to improve.  They want to win.  Those are mutually exclusive things to Republicans.

In The End, It's Always A Liberal's Fault

John Yoo applied his legal gymnastics to l'affaire McCrystal and comes up with "Liberals in the observatory with the candlestick" claiming that it's Democrats that undermined the civilian authority of the Commander-In-Chief.
Congressional Democrats spent the Bush years undermining this fundamental principle of constitutional government. True, civilian-military relations had already been on the wane. Generals overtly fought President Bill Clinton's effort to integrate gays in the military. Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, published a 1992 editorial opposing intervention in Bosnia. Other military officers successfully resisted a large intervention in Haiti in 1994 to stop human rights abuses and blamed civilian leaders for the humiliating 1994 withdrawal from Somalia after the deaths of 18 American soldiers. 

Military resistance reached a crescendo under President George W. Bush. Fueled by Democrats eager to add kindling, generals openly feuded with Defense Department officials over the number of troops needed for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In 2006, in what has come to be known in the American military as the "revolt of the generals," dozens of senior retired officers publicly called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Military lawyers publicly opposed the administration over the use of military commissions to try al Qaeda leaders and whether the Geneva Conventions governed counterterrorism operations.
Liberals in the media and Congress eagerly joined the chorus for Mr. Rumsfeld's head. They manipulated the generals' revolt to support their opposition to the administration's Iraq and terrorism policies. They undermined the president's ability to receive forthright, confidential military advice. Presidents won't trust generals who may run to Congress or the press at the first sign of disagreement with the military's consensus advice. They traded short-term political gains against Mr. Bush for the Constitution's promise of long-term political stability.
Now the bill is coming due, and it will cost Democrats more dearly than Republicans. Scholars have observed that the officer corps has become increasingly conservative in the last few decades, the result of self-selection and the end of the draft, Republican Party outreach, and the disappearance of the national security wing of the Democratic Party. Soldiers who have risked their lives for their nation on the fields of Afghanistan and Iraq do not like to hear elected politicians calling their wars unjust or devising the fastest way to withdraw. 
Yoo's projection fantasies are impressive, but they boil down to "When the Generals said that it was a bad idea to go to war, the Commander-In-Chief has total power and to hell with the generals, when the generals make fun of Joe Biden, clearly they know better than the President."

I also like how John Yoo speaks for all soldiers when he says "Soldiers who have risked their lives for their nation on the fields of Afghanistan and Iraq do not like to hear elected politicians calling their wars unjust or devising the fastest way to withdraw. "  I know soldiers who have been to the Sandbox and back who say just that, the the wars are complete bullcrap, that good people died for no good reason, and that we need to get the hell out as soon as possible.

Oh, and Yoo still doesn't have any idea how to "win" Afghanistan...nor does he have any idea what victory or even a metric towards victory is supposed to look like.  Nobody does.  That's the main reason why we need out.

Appropriate Appropriations

All this austerity hysteria has finally gotten to the point where something actually useful might happen:  reining in defense spending.
Liberal Democrats for years have called for cuts to the massive defense budget to no avail. Even after Democrats regained control of Congress in 2007, their few attempts at reining in defense spending have proven futile, partly because of opposition from centrist Democrats hawkish on defense issues.

Now that opposition is softening amid rising concern about the nation's fiscal future and the fact that defense makes up more than half the country’s discretionary spending.

“We are going to have to adopt the philosophy that nothing can be off the table,” said Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), one of the first members of the class of 2008 to be admitted into the Blue Dog Coalition. “And that is increasingly becoming the dominant view of the Blue Dogs.”

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), a centrist who is the House's top defense appropriator, believes his panel can reduce the Pentagon's budget top line somewhat without affecting military readiness, according to Dicks's chief of staff, George Behan.

“He expects that the Defense subcommittee will be recommending a bill that represents a modest reduction from the amount requested by the president,” Behan said.
The good news is maybe we won't have to axe so many social programs if we get rid of military pork.  The better news is that the Republicans will probably throw a screaming hissy fit over this, proving they were never serious about deficits anyway.  The long, long, long shot is that somebody might ask "Hey do you know how much money we can free up if we weren't fighting these stupid wars?"

I wouldn't count on the last one, but the other two are a pretty distinct possibility.

If It's Thursday...

New jobless claims down 19k to 457k.  Continuing  claims down 45k to 4.55 million.  Not bad...but not good either.

Still a long way to go.  Still no real evidence of recovery.

Scott Brown Is The New Snowe Queen

Getting anything done in the Senate requires at least one Republican, and increasingly that Republican is shaping up to be Scott Brown, our new de facto Senate Majority Leader.
In the battle between Scott Brown and Russ Feingold over financial reform, Scott Brown appears to be winning.

Senate staffers tonight are hammering out the shape of the so-called Volcker rule, which would limit insured financial firms' ability to take speculative bets with their capital, or prohibit it altogether.

Brown for weeks has been seeking a carveout in the legislation--originally authored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR)--that would allow banks to invest a portion of their profits in hedge and private equity funds. And as the 60th vote for financial reform, his demands carry a lot of weight. Enter Feingold, who opposed financial reform from the left. After discussions with, and public pressure from, pro-reform groups, Feingold has toyed with the idea of changing his vote from 'no' to 'yes', becoming the new 60th vote and robbing Brown of his leverage--if the Volcker rule survived loophole free.

Multiple sources tonight say that in all likelihood the hedge fund loophole (known as a 'de minimis exemption') will be included in the offer that the conference committee considers this week. 
What, you thought that some of the richest people in the country were actually going to close the casino for THE richest people in the country?  You're mad.  Of course hedge funds are going to gamble with trillions.  America doesn't have a manufacturing base anymore, we gave that to China.  American consumers are tapped out on debt, they can't help.  So the ultra rich have to turn to the Big Casino to get paid in Great Recession America, and there are no bigger whales than hedge fund managers lording over trillions in retirement cash.

Somebody's got to make money in this country, right?

StupidiNews Focus: General Disarray Edition

HuffPo's Sam Stein has one of the most notable pieces on the McChrystal aftermath:  apparently being involved in the Pat Tillman cover-up or in torture allegations in Iraq wasn't enough to get McChrystal fired...but making fun of VP Joe Biden was completely unacceptable.
McChrystal was the head of Special Operations command in Afghanistan when Army Ranger and former football star Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. He approved the paperwork awarding Tillman a Silver Star for dying in the line "of enemy fire" -- and he was "accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions" contained therein, according to an investigation -- despite knowing (or at least suspecting) that Tillman had died in an episode of fratricide. That episode barely registered with the public or, for that matter, Congress, when McChrystal went before the Senate Armed Services Committee waiting to take over control in Afghanistan. The one person who questioned whether more answers were needed was journalist Jon Krakauer who had just penned a book on Tillman's death and thought the general's explanations were "preposterous" and "unbelievable."

The second episode was even less well-known. Years after the Tillman death, McChrystal was mentioned several times in a report by Human Rights Watch which documented the abuse and torture of detained prisoners at Camp Nama in Iraq. A soldier, quoted anonymously in the findings, recalled seeing McChrystal at the facility "a couple of times." It was also reported that the general himself said there was no way that the Red Cross would ever be allowed through the door at Nama -- where treatment of detainees was so bad, it earned the nickname Nasty Ass Military Area.

"It is not easy to say what his role was accurately because the entire program of detention and interrogation going on there remains highly classified," said John Siston, an author of the Human Rights Watch report. "But HRW was able to learn enough to say that he was in the chain of command that oversaw the operations of that special task force and the interrogation unit that took care of the detainees that that special task force detained."

Nama, like Tillman, never played a role in McChrystal's quick ascendancy through the military ranks. Indeed, one of the most ignored nuggets in the Rolling Stone piece involved the general and his staff prepping for tough questioning on both of these topics, only to discover that Congress didn't care.
In May 2009, as McChrystal prepared for his confirmation hearings, his staff prepared him for hard questions about Camp Nama and the Tillman cover-up. But the scandals barely made a ripple in Congress, and McChrystal was soon on his way back to Kabul to run the war in Afghanistan.
Congress it seemed was more invested in moving forward than looking back. And so it was that McChrystal became embroiled in a career-threatening controversy only after the Rolling Stone piece raised questions as to whether his shaky relationship with civilian leadership would compromise the Afghan mission.

It wasn't an unworthy basis for the general's dismissal though it may have fallen a bit short of the official definition of insubordination (but not by much). But it was telling for some that after dodging several other bullets, it was an article in a music magazine (and not even a cover article at that) that did the trick.  
The reality is McChystal never should have been promoted and never kept in his position by Obama, either.  He should have been gone after the whole Tillman affair.  Instead he got promoted.  It was overlooked by both Obama and Congress...but not dissing the Veep!

The even larger problem is that with Petraeus running the business as usual flag up the pole in Afghanistan, it signals that Obama has no intention of changing our strategy there or wrapping things up.  We'll stay in Afghanistan as long as Obama's president...and his successor's term as well.


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