Christopher Hayes | The Nation

Christopher Hayes

Christopher Hayes

Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.

More Thoughts on Specter

After digesting a bit, here's my sense:

1) This is a huge deal psychologically and in terms of the media narrative. Both coverage and polling show the GOP is increasingly a marginalized party, controlled by its most reactionary, zealous members. This really furthers that (largely accurate) impression.

2) The motivation here is pretty clearly expediency: he was going to lose a GOP primary. No way around it. This is the best way for him to keep his seat.

3) Considering that's the case, I don't think the Democrats really owe him anything, in terms of the primary. He's a member of the Democratic party, but democracy doesn't operate with guarantees and a good Democrat (or more!) should primary Specter. If Pennsylvania Democratic primary voters are persuaded Specter shares their values, then he'll win, if not, not. Seeing as how Penn is one of the most heavily unionized states in the union and Specter still says he'll filibuster EFCA, I think Democratic primary voters should have the opportunity to vote for someone who believes in the human right to organize.

4) The basic power dynamics in the Senate remain somewhat unchanged. The fact is that the fulcrum of the entire agenda is a collection of about six or so self-described "moderate" senators: Collins, Snowe, Specter, Nelson, Conrad, Bayh, and it doesn't matter a whole lot what letter they have in front of their name.

All that said, they've got to be happy over in the White House, and pretty damn pissed in the GOP cloakroom.

Specter to Switch Parties!

That's the word from CNN. Specter, of course, has had to bend further and further right to protect his right flank from primary challenger Pat Toomey. Apparently he realized that was a dead end. The GOP base, which makes up primary voters, is getting more and more right-wing. So he's decided to switch parties and become a Democrat, hoping to preserve his political future. He stresses in his statement that:

My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords' switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.

It's possible, indeed likely, that this is merely a semantic shift. Specter will retain his own politics, vote the way he was before and have a D in front of his name instead of an R. He's hoping he'll have a clear path to re-election as a Democrat in a blue state.

But, it's also hard not to think that Democrats are in a much better position than they were 24 hours ago. It also occurs to me that the increasingly right-wing, out of step GOP base really is on its way to further destroying what's left of its party.

This Week on the Hill

Greg Kaufmann gives a run-down of a busy upcoming week on Capitol Hill:

The Rest of the Week

The House and Senate negotiated a final budget resolution Monday night and will vote on it this week. It includes "reconciliation instructions" which would allow healthcare and education legislation to pass the Senate with a simple majority rather than the filibuster-proof 60 votes. It should be fun to watch the histrionics of Republican Sen. Judd Gregg as he does a 180 from his days in the Majority and claims that reconciliation will basically bring down the Republic. (Jon Stewart had a blast with this earlier this month -- worth checking out at the 05:05 mark.)

President Obama's $83 billion war supplemental will also be taken up in Senate Appropriations when Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates testify on Thursday. The bill includes nearly $76 billion for the military and approximately $7 billion for diplomatic efforts and foreign aid.

The supplemental is sure to be a topic that comes up when the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and its 77 members meet with President Obama today -- many members oppose the escalation. Another focus likely will be on the Caucus' determination to only support a healthcare reform bill that includes a public plan option (like Medicare). CPC Co-Chairs -- Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Lynn Woolsey -- recently wrote a letter to Obama outlining that commitment along with the chairs of the Black, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific American Caucuses.

In other CPC news… the fourth forum in a six-part series on Af-Pak policy will be held this morning at 10:00. It's good to see the Caucus ahead of the curve in its commitment to hearings and exploring alternatives.

On credit card reform, the House will take up a bill that -- like the Dodd bill in the Senate -- seems largely designed to allow legislators to tell constituents they took action while avoiding real reform that takes on the banks. I think Senator Bernie Sanders has it exactly right as he continues to fight for an interest rate cap of 15 percent -- the same limit that has applied to credit unions for decades. Last week Sanders asked people to write him about their dealings with the credit card companies -- he's posting some responses online and will read others on the Senate floor. He's received over 1,000 emails and wants more from people all over the country. Fellow-Vermonter and CPC member -- Rep. Peter Welch -- along with CPC members John Tierney and Maurice Hinchey will introduce an amendment to the House bill to cap rates at 18 percent.

Senator Dick Durbin continues this week to try to win over banks and credit card unions in order to allow bankruptcy judges to modify the principals of mortgages. The longer this goes on, the more infuriating it is that loan modifications are done on a voluntary basis by banks. (Even though modifications are better for both homeowners and the banks than foreclosure.)

Speaking of banks sucking... Sen. Chuck Schumer is holding his first hearing on immigration reform this Thursday. The star witness? Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. According to CongressDaily Greenspan will "assess the economic impact of [immigration] legislation." In his opening statement Schumer should explain why the American people should trust Greenspan to assess the economic impact of anything.

Other notable happenings on the Hill…. Pakistan-Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke will testify about the Administration's Pakistan strategy before the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. The House Armed Services Committee will also hear from Administration officials on Wednesday regarding counterinsurgency efforts with Pakistan. The House (Select) Intelligence Committee will receive a closed briefing on Afghanistan the next day.

Workplace safety gets a fresh start after eight years in the wilderness. The Senate HELP Committee looks at incentives for workplace safety, and the House Education and Labor Committee holds two hearings -- on OSHA penalties as deterrents to safety violations and improving OSHA enforcement.

Wednesday there is a Senate Judiciary hearing on "Restoring Fairness to Federal Sentencing: Addressing the Crack-Powder Disparity". It's great to see this still on the radar -- but haven't there been a ton of hearings on this? It's disappointing that this isn't a markup of an actual bill that takes corrective action. On the other hand, the same committee will markup the "State Secrets Protection Act" and "Improving Assistance to Domestic and Sexual Violence Victims Act".

Finally, a hearing on the VA Meeting Veterans' Mental Health Needs… The House Financial Services Committee will once again markup a Predatory Lending Bill (it did so last session as well but the Senate failed to act)…. Representatives of 16 nations responsible for 80 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions gather in DC to try to get a jump on curbing climate change…. On Wednesday, President Obama will hold a prime time news conference marking his 100th day in office.

Of course both the House and Senate will hold hearings on the federal response to the Swine Flu, surgical masks optional.

Is Obama Our Nixon?

My final weekly 100 Days column is in the magazine this week, and up on the web here. For the foreseeable future, we're going to convert the column to a biweekly one, so I can do some more feature reporting. (We'll have to come up with a new name. Suggestions welcome in comments.)

I've had some interesting exchanges with readers and friends about this Notes on Change column, and wanted to expand and clarify one of the points. A number people have said they found my tone somber, even pessimistic. But while I've found much of the last three months frustrating, I've also started to come around to a view about Obama and his role in the story of American progress that's a bit different, I think, than the prevailing CW among left-liberals in the District.

The standard view I encounter is that the left has a once-in-a-generation (maybe once in a century) opportunity to enact its agenda, and if we don't do it now, and quickly, we're sunk. I'm sympathetic to this view because it's true that crisis really does create opportunity, because conservatism really is as discredited as its been in decades, and because the American constitutional system is so unruly and hostile to change that electoral alignments like the one Democrats currently enjoy are rare.

But there's also the possibility that we're at the beginning of a long era of social democratic ascendence. I think both demographic trends and the nature of the kinds of social, economic problems we're facing make that fairly likely. That's why I wrote that:

I wonder, though, if we won't look back and see him as a figure similar to Nixon. I don't mean we'll see him as a tragic, corrupt man driven by his pathological attachment to sundry resentments but as a president whose visionary understanding of a new political dynamic didn't translate into policy changes on a sufficient scale. The ship of state was subject to many of the same inertial forces during Nixon's time as well, and despite Nixon's genius in harnessing the power of the culture wars, when it came to domestic policy, he more or less maintained, even expanded, the liberal state.

Conservatives had to wait for Reagan to start the revolution. We are, I believe, at the beginning of a long era of progressive ascendance. It may be that this is the last administration conceptually handcuffed by the residual dogmas of late twentieth-century conservatism.

One way of reading this as a glum prediction about how much Obama will be able to accomplish, but what I dwell on is that change really is going to be a long process and that the arrow of history is pointing in our direction.

The Nefarious Al Gore

Scalise, Sleaze, and the Nefarious Al Gore

Al Gore was on the Hill to endorse the House climate bill at an Energy and Commerce hearing. He was armed as always with the latest science, opening by announcing that new data shows the Artic ice cap may be about to completely disappear "if nothing is done to curb emissions of greenhouse gas pollution. For most of the last 3 million years, it has covered an area the size of the lower 48 states."

Republicans, no longer able to argue with Gore on the merits -- even the New York Times revealed that an association of Big Polluters buried its own scientific report affirming man-made global warming fourteen years ago -- desperately tried to cast aspersions on the Nobel Peace Prize-winning messenger.

"I think it's really important that no suspicion or shadow fall on the foremost advocates of climate change legislation," Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn told her fellow Tennessean. "So I wanted to give you the opportunity to kind of clear the air about your motives…." (see 2:38:45 of webcast)

Blackburn proceeded to ask Gore if he knew of "a capital firm called Kleiner Perkins", and feigned surprise when the Vice President called her bluff and said with a chuckle that he is a partner. She noted that the firm had invested $1 billion in 40 companies that would benefit from cap-and-trade, and asked Gore whether he would "personally benefit" from the legislation.

Gore reassured her that all profits he receives from investments in a clean economy, his book, the documentary -- all go into his non-profit Alliance for Climate Protection to educate on this issue. "And Congresswoman, if you believe that the reason I have been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don't know me," he said.

"No sir, I'm not making accusations," she said, as -- to her dismay -- an audience that knew better laughed. "I'm asking questions…."

But it was Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise who honed in on a stunning conspiracy. (see 2:08:45) It seems Gore met with former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay in the White House back in his VP Days. Scalise charged that Gore "knew him well enough to help devise this trading scheme", and he accused Gore of having "interests with Goldman Sachs" (which Gore denied). Undeterred, Scalise defended his thesis: "When you see the types of people involved in wanting to set up this kind of scheme you can see why so many of us are concerned about turning our energy economy over to a scheme that was devised by companies like Enron and some of these Wall Street firms…."

Yes, Steve. We can see why so many of you are concerned. If there's one thing Republicans have proven time and again it's that you are determined to use government to keep our economy scheme-free. Thank goodness you are there to protect us from the nefarious Al Gore.

Whitewashing Torture In Front of the CIA

Ok, I understand these are hard-working civil servants. A lot of themdo wonderful, conscientious, vital work, etc. I understand theimportance for a new president to show he supports them, "feels theirpain," etc. But his whitewashing of the past was pretty disgusting.He said something to the extent of "mistakes that were potentiallymade in the past." Sorry. That's not good enough. Not at all. Forcingwater down someone's throat to trigger the drowning reflex six times aday every day for a month is not a "mistake potentially made in thepast," and no degree of euphemism, spinning or wanting to "lookforward" makes it anything other than a war crime.

This Week On The Hill

Congress is back from recess today and so is Capitolism. Greg Kaufmann previews what's on tap:

Recess is over, some big fights ahead -- like the budget, healthcare, and energy policy -- and we'll see some of that playing out this week.

For starters, there's the FY10 budget. The House passed its version, so did the Senate, and now negotiations for the final bill begin. Expect to hear continued talk about whether to include "reconciliation instructions" which would allow the Senate to pass the bill with a simple majority, instead of needing 60 votes. Another issue will be whether to include an absurd Senate amendment to cut the estate tax for the wealthiest Americans.

One of the biggest disappointments of Senate budget debate was the approval -- by a vote of 67-31 -- of a Republican amendment to prevent reconciliation from being used for a cap-and-trade bill. Good luck finding 60 votes to pass any proposal with teeth. In the House, Reps. Henry Waxman and Edward Markey will give it their best shot, and we'll hear some of their ideas this week as the House Energy and Commerce Committee holds four days of hearings on Waxman and Markey's draft of energy/climate legislation -- the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

In the Senate, Democratic leaders continue to try to negotiate with banks in order to pass a bill allowing bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages -- including principal reduction. The Senate will also take up anti-fraud legislation on the floor today. Among other things, the Leahy-Grassley bill increases the number of FBI agents working on mortgage fraud, and funds fraud prosecutors for the FBI and DOJ.

The House Financial Services Committee will also be looking at mortgage fraud -- legislation addressing predatory lending -- CongressDaily reports that it's tougher than legislation passed in the last Congress… which is a good thing, since federal prosecution of predatory lending seems next to nil.

Speaking of lending, the banks still aren't doing it. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that "the biggest recipients of taxpayer aid made or refinanced 23% less in new loans in February, the latest available data, than in October." Should make for an interesting TARP report from Secretary Geithner to the Oversight panel on Tuesday. (Just last month Dr. James Galbraith testified at Sen. Sherrod Brown's hearing -- Lessons from the New Deal -- that "a first lesson of the Depression is that stuffing banks with money does not solve a credit freeze.") Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Simon Johnson will probably offer some good alternative approaches on Tuesday at a Joint Economic Committee hearing: "Too Big to Fail or Too Big to Save?"

The nukes will be in town this week -- they seem to hang around just as long as the low-level waste they don't know what to do with. Thursday's Senate Finance Committee hearing is dubiously titled "Technology Neutrality in Energy Tax", and it looks like the Nukes will ask for new tax credits similar to the ones offered for clean energy in the Recovery Act.

Ways and Means will be looking into health insurance market reforms on Wednesday, including a public option for coverage. Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus and Ranking Member Grassley will hold a "roundtable" on Reforming America's Health Care Delivery System. Aetna, Blue Cross, and the Pacific Business Group on Health will be at said round table, among others.

Some notable hearings this week: on Wednesday, Secretary Clinton testifies on the Administration's foreign policy priorities before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. General Petraeus will appear before House Appropriations on Friday, and I would think the Obama Administration's $83 billion war supplemental will be at least part of the discussion.

Tuesday the Congressional Progressive Caucus holds its third "forum on Afghanistan -- "…How is the President's military strategy increasing or decreasing security locally and regionally?" -- which should offer some good arguments both for and against escalation.

Also on Tuesday, former Clinton Attorney General-nominee, Zoe Baird, will be on the Hill for a hearing chaired by Senator Ben Cardin on "Protecting National Security and Civil Liberties: Strategies for Terrorism Information Sharing." (It's a busy week for Cardin, he will also chair a field hearing this morning on the health of the Chesapeake Bay -- the nation's largest estuary with a watershed that is home to more than 17 million people.)

Secretary Hilda Solis will testify tomorrow on "Green Skills Training for Workers", and in other labor news, Rep. Dennis Kucinich will chair a hearing this Thursday on enforcing the rights of guest workers.

Finally, hearings on a "Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights", "Newspaper Competition", and "Secrecy [after] Bayer's Fatal Chemical Plant Explosion" should all be interesting. And I think this has to be a first: a closed hearing for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on "Global Climate Change". Looks like the intelligence community is taking global warming seriously even if Republicans still aren't.

21st Century Imperialism?

Laura Dean asks:

Secretary Gates tells us: the 2010 defense budget cuts will "profoundly reform how this department does business." Well alright, but whom do we look to to help usher in this new era of military responsibility?

At the Middle East Institute last week, David Kilcullen, the widely discussed "counterinsurgency theorist" presented his book, The Accidental Guerilla. On the face of it, David Kilcullen and his ilk seem a welcome alternative to the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney. An anthropologist by training he advocates (convincingly) for "large scale civil military assistance" with the military serving primarily to protect the population while living among them to allow for more informed and targeted deployment.

The dangers with the Kilcullens of the world though, are perhaps the very things we admire about them: their emphasis on cultural competency and a humane approach, their nuanced understanding of the region.If implemented his strategies would mark a shift from a military occupation to a primarily civilian one. Indeed the very vocabulary bandied about at the MEI last week, "a systemic presence," and "living among the people" conjured images of the more benign provincial governors of the British Raj and the specter of colonialism looms ever larger as the objectives become qualitative and a fixed date for withdrawal recedes.

At present, immediate withdrawal does not seem to be an option, nor am I convinced it should be. But whatever new strategies we pursue, the last shred of difference between the US and former imperial powers is time. Without specific time limits on our presence in either Afghanistan or Iraq we run the risk of reviving a form of government that the world has just spent half a century recovering from.

Why Is Goldman Paying Back The Government?

A reader emails to make a very interesting point about Goldman's plan to issue $5 billion common stock in order to pay back its TARP funds:

You've probably seen the news about Goldman Sachs: The investment bank, after posting $1.7 billion in profits, is planning to pay back its TARP money so it can escape from compensation restrictions.

Last fall, Goldman also raised capital from Warren Buffett, who got a sweet deal: $5 billion worth of preferred shares paying a 10% annual dividend.

The TARP money, on the other hand, is $10 billion with an annual yield of 5% - that's a much better deal for Goldman.

So shouldn't Goldman pay Buffett back first, which Goldman can do with a 10% penalty (i.e. it would cost Goldman $5.5 billion to pay back Buffett early)?

That would leave the firm with more equity on its balance sheet and roughly the same annual dividend payments on the preferred shares. Better for the shareholders, the bondholders and the firm as a whole.

Of course Buffett's money comes with no executive compensation restrictions, and that's the key. Goldman in its announcement this morning said it would set aside $4.7 billion in salaries and bonuses. That's 50% of its quarterly revenues, a higher proportion than last year.

The key here is that Goldman executives feel it is really important to pay themselves and their employees lots and lots of money - so important that they'd rather ditch the great deal they have with the U.S. Treasury than give up the no-strings-attached deal with Buffett.

Maybe they're right: without the possibility of high pay, the business will disintegrate, as the smart people who work at Goldman head for the exits. And Goldman did make smarter decisions than the idiots at Citigroup and Merrill Lynch.

Still, it's pretty striking to see the lengths Goldman is going to ensure that they can still pay loads to executives and bankers.

Wonder what Goldman's institutional investor shareholders think about this.

The Viability of Protest Politics

I liked Richard's treatment of the New School occupation. I'm not sure what is in me, or our culture, or the generational attitudes of post-baby booms progressives, but I have a visceral cringe reaction to a lot of protest politics. I'm not quite sure why that is, though I suspect part of it has to do with being pretty skeptical about their efficacy. In my political life it's hard to think of mass protests, actions of civil disobedience playing a crucial role in any recent progressive victories. Indeed, some of largest and moving actions I've been around: the anti-war marches and the immigrant rights marches, were absolute successes as actions and expressions of a collective progressive political demand, but it's hard to say they succeeded.

But it's also hard to think that we're going to overcome the massive power of entrenched interests without some sustained collective form of politics in the streets. The longer I am in Washington, the more I know that to be the case.

That's part of the reason I've been so enthusiastic about A New Way Forward, which Zephyr wrote about here. Right now we have this strange situation in which there's a tremendous amount of frustration, anger, rage, and populist backlash in the country, but none of it organized enough to make concrete demands.

There's a vacuum in our politics that some kind of mass protest movement might fill, but I just don't know a) what it will look like b) whether it would simply meet the same fate as the anti-war and immigrants' rights movements. Thoughts fellow Notioners?

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