George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

Obama Reportedly in ‘Throw-Down Mode’ on Bush Taxes

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Progressives have plenty of reason to be concerned about the upcoming fiscal cliff negotiations. There was the ugly “grand bargain” Obama reportedly agreed to in 2011, which would have kept all of the Bush tax rates while raising $800 billion in unspecified tax code simplification (yes, this is basically the Romney plan) while cutting deeply from domestic spending, Medicare and Social Security. And even in recent days, top Democrats like Senator Chuck Schumer have been saying they would be willing to “compromise” on the Bush rates, and leave them alone while raising revenue elsewhere.

But the White House is apparently tossing down the gauntlet—on taxes and entitlement cuts. Wednesday morning, The Washington Post reported that Obama’s opening bid on taxes is to raise $1.6 trillion in revenue, via not only the expiration of the Bush rates on earners over $250,000 but also the Buffet Rule, the restoration of the estate tax to 2009 levels, deduction limits and closing tax loopholes.

And at the White House on Tuesday, Obama, Vice President Biden and the president’s economic team met with a coalition of liberal groups and assured them the administration would hold the line on both taxes and protecting safety net beneficiaries, according to several attendees interviewed by The Nation.

“I was actually very pleasantly surprised. I feel like I was not expecting it to be a particularly good meeting,” said one attendee. “I feel like the president was extremely committed on the tax issues, in kind of ‘throw-down mode’ on those.”

“It was clear that you couldn’t get there on the deductions,” said the attendee, thus undercutting the plans floating around Washington in recent days. “There was some exchange on the deductions. I think that was where there was no give…. there was real strength on the amount that needs to be generated by tax increases.”

The liberal groups, mainly unions, think tanks and advocates for safety net beneficiaries, met with Obama and Biden along with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget Jeffrey Zients and economic adviser Jason Furman, according to those present.

It was notable, then, that the meeting included essentially the entire Obama economic team and wasn’t just a glad-handing event with the president. Members of that team have already echoed what was said on taxes in the meeting—Geithner told reporters at a conference later in the day that “I don’t see how you do this without higher rates. I don’t think there’s any feasible, realistic way to do it.”

Of course it’s not just tax rates the liberal groups are concerned about—deep cuts to the safety net are also in play. But Max Richtman, president of the Committee to Protect Medicare and Social Security and who attended the meeting, said he felt reassured by what he heard.

“What I can say with certainty is that I, and I think everybody that was invited, walked out of that room feeling better than they did when they walked in,” Richtman said. “We got a clear statement from the president that he made commitments about protecting seniors and the middle class in the campaign and he’s committed to fulfilling that commitment.”

Social Security has not contributed to the deficit and shouldn’t be slashed in the fiscal cliff negotiations, Richtman told the president and his team, and Obama agreed, according to his account. “He agreed that it was not bankrupt and it should be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations—that if there were changes to Social Security they should be done with the purpose of improving the program, extending the life of the program. That is a big deal for us.”

Richtman also said that he was relatively reassured that Medicare beneficiaries would remain protected under any deal the White House agreed to. “All of the people from the administration seemed to express a commitment to protecting the beneficiaries of Medicare,” Richtman said. “I think if there are any changes, I’m not saying we’d be for them—but they’d be around the edges, and we hope would be on the provider side. At the same time we know that if providers are cut too much, it’s going to lead to access issues for beneficiaries.”

If Medicare was able to negotiate prescription drug prices, it could save substantial money—as much as $156 billion over ten years. Richtman said he raised this issue with the president and his team. “They didn’t say no, they didn’t say yes, but I think I made the strongest case I could for that,” he said.

Other attendees were similarly slightly wary about what’s coming for Medicare cuts—but were quite encouraged by what they heard about Medicaid. “I was heartened on Medicaid, I was unsure on Medicare and Social Security. Meaning that there weren’t clear, definitive, absolutely-never answers,” said one attendee.

“The cuts agenda was really where I was most worried about where we were and where they were [heading into the meeting],” the attendee continued. “And I would not say we got any ironclad commitments on anything, it wasn’t really that kind of a meeting, but it was better than I thought in terms of understanding the issues around the how the Medicaid cuts would be devastating, and why Social Security should not be part of this deal.”

Additionally, attendees described a very proactive approach from the White House on not only delaying harmful cuts but actually investing in the economy as part of any final deal.

“I think there were very clear and good signals around the jobs components of this, in terms of both more demand and more spending in 2013 and 2014, given that we’re in a recession, and more of the cuts coming in the out years,” said one attendee. “Also [there was] a commitment to infrastructure and some of the other jobs-related things in the American Jobs Act. That was positive.”

Publicly, meeting attendees sounded very positive notes after the meeting. “We appreciate that the President again promised not to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class and the poor,” said Justin Ruben of MoveOn.Org in a statement. “I was pleased that the President reiterated his commitments to higher taxes on the wealthy, job creation, and protecting middle class and low-income people from any cuts to vital programs,” said Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change, also in a statement. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was also all smiles outside the White House.

Privately, some attendees were a little more candid—but still cautiously optimistic. “The general message was, we don’t want to balance this on the middle class and the poor. The general thrust was right, but they’re not negotiating with us,” said one attendee. There are still of course tough negotiations with House Republicans ahead, and it remains to be seen if Obama will stand firm throughout.

“I’ve been concerned for months that we are headed towards a disaster, in terms of yes, tax increases on the rich, but commensurately bad changes to the entitlements and further cuts on domestic discretionary [side],” the attendee continued. “I’m still worried, because it’s hard to see how you end up on the other side of this without some real damage being done, given the desire to have $4 trillion total [in cuts]. I’m still worried. But I think the president’s opening is at least muscular.”

For more on what a "grand bargain" would mean for low-income Americans, check out Bryce Covert's breakdown here

Leading Banking Committee Democrat Backs Warren

Almost immediately after Elizabeth Warren was elected to the United States Senate, speculation began about whether she would receive a prestigious spot on the Banking Committee. This is a possibility that makes sense given her experience, and terrifies the financial sector: “she will be the banks’ worst nightmare,” an attorney who works in the industry told The Wall Street Journal Friday.

Her colleagues seem to be behind the idea—Senate aides told Reuters there was a “good, but not guaranteed” chance she would get that committee assignment. On Friday afternoon, I spoke with Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the panel, and he strongly endorsed her selection.

Reed stressed that it’s first up to Warren if she wants to be on the committee—she has not actually said that she does. He noted that, as one of the nation’s leading experts on bankruptcy law, she might find the Judiciary Committee equally compelling. “She has some tough choices to make about where she can best use her talents,” he said.

But should Warren choose Senate Banking, Reed is behind her. “I can’t think of anybody that’s come to the Senate with thirty years of detailed knowledge of the industry from the perspective of teaching at law school and doing many other things, and then serving in the drafting of significant aspects of Dodd-Frank from the administration standpoint. So she comes prepared,” he said. “It’s really an abundance of intellectual riches.”

Reed said this suggested Warren would not be susceptible to strong lobbying efforts from the financial services industry. “In some respects it’s better to be dealing with someone who is knowledgeable than someone who does not have that kind of depth of knowledge, and might be swayed not by the facts and substance but simply by the last person to see them,” he said. “She brings a great deal of knowledge to the table. I don’t sense her as someone who is going to leap before she looks very carefully at every issue from every perspective.”

Reed said he expects the committee to tackle several crucial issues in the upcoming Congress, from dealing with the GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to dealing with the implementation of the Dodd-Frank legislation, including the Volcker Rule, setting up and monitoring clearing platforms, derivatives regulation, and the Financial Services Oversight Council.

It will be interesting and perhaps a bit awkward for Warren to take a seat on that committee next to so many Republicans who spend the last several years attacking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Warren’s interim leadership of the new agency. But Reed doesn’t believe that would be an issue. “I think the working relationship would be fine. She’s now a United States senator,” he said. “I think there’s a degree of both collegiality and decorum even in these difficult times.”

For more on Massachusetts’ senator-elect, read E.J. Graff’s “Elizabeth Warren Heads to Washington..

Voters Did Not Choose Austerity

On the top line, it’s pretty simple: Barack Obama ran on an unambigious platform of government investment, higher taxes on the wealthy and a protected safety net. Mitt Romney ran on an equally clear platform of vastly decreased federal spending, including on “entitlement” programs, and lower taxes for everyone (and, though he frequently denied it, mostly the wealthy).

Now, the political conversation turns immediately to the fiscal cliff, which requires big decisions on tax rates and government spending. Obama’s re-election should be a clear enough sign of how voters want this handled, but of course there are hitches: pundits and politicians can invent all sorts of other reasons why Obama was re-elected, and on several occasions during the campaign Obama voiced support for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan, which would lower rates in all income brackets and cut the safety net.

So it’s therefore important to make clear that voters quite consciously chose a different path. The polling data bears that out.

A survey of people who voted in the past election, for both candidates (sample size 1,000; plus or minus 3.1 percent) conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America’s Future found that many individual elements of the Simpson-Bowles plan are deeply unpopular with the electorate.

Here’s their graph. Let’s grant that some of the questions are leading, but are nonetheless completely accurate descriptions of what would happen under Simpson-Bowles:

These things are not just unpopular, but unacceptable among voters by wide margins.

Let’s look also at a few key Senate races where these issues played out. As the Center for American Progress’s Tom Periello lays out in a memo today, the issue of tax fairness was central to multiple races in purple or even red states—and Democrats prevailed.

In Wisconsin, Representative Tammy Baldwin not only supported the Buffet Rule, but she was the lead sponsor of a bill to enact it in the House of Representatives. Her opponent, Tommy Thompson, opposed the Buffet Rule as discriminatory, and as Periello’s memo notes, the US Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads groups spent $3.6 million over the final two months of the campaign to attack Baldwin as a tax-and-spend liberal. She won the race 51-46, and a near-mirror image number of Wisconsin voters said taxes should be raised on those making $250,000 or more.

North Dakota presents and even more interesting case study—illustrating that even some voters who chose Mitt Romney may have done so for reasons other than his approach to taxes and government spending. The state went for Romney 58-38, but Democrat Heidi Heitkamp narrowly won the Senate race over Republican Representative Rick Berg. Heitkamp championed tax fairness and the Buffet Rule, and attacked Berg repeatedly over his vote to cut taxes on the wealthy. Republican outside groups spent half a million dollars in the final eight weeks against Heitkamp to define her as a tax-raiser—and yet, she prevailed.

The lessons of this election are clear: voters want higher taxes on the wealthy, and for the government to invest in the economy, not reduce spending. Politicians of both parties should keep this in mind.

On Tuesday, voters opted for collectivism over the GOP’s “you’re own your own” society. Check out Katha Pollitt’s take here.

In Victory, Obama Aims to Truly Enact an Agenda

President Obama declares victory Tuesday night in Chicago. Photo by George Zornick.

The chief problem of President Obama’s first term was the recalcitrant, sometimes rabid opposition from congressional Republicans and their allies. Such it was, then, that his victory speech Tuesday night—after he achieved a dominating re-election tally—was aimed directly at busting that logjam open:

[E]lections matter. It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty…. But despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America’s future…. We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet. We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this—this world has ever known.…

That’s the vision we share. That’s where we need to go—forward. That’s where we need to go. Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.

Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together…. I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.

Reading between the lines, Obama’s message was this: Republicans declared from day one that their chief goal was to stop me. They didn’t. So now it’s time to actually get some things done. If you think about it, the campaign was largely based on this premise and embodied by the slogan: “Forward.”

In a rational world, this would happen. Last night was, without question, a strong endorsement for Obama’s policies—and a strong rejection of the GOP’s. Obama is on track to destroy Romney in the Electoral College, 332-206, winning every contested state except North Carolina. In each of those states, people were bombarded daily, even hourly, with arguments from each campaign. In every case but one, they chose Obama. He has at present a 250,000 popular-vote lead, which is still bigger than John F. Kennedy’s margin of victory. His Electoral Vote margin was bigger than those of Richard Nixon (1968), Jimmy Carter (1976) and George W. Bush (2000 and 2004).

Moreover, in the Senate races, voters issued a stunning endorsement of Democratic candidates—actually expanding the Democrats’ lead in the Senate by two seats despite the fact that only five Republicans held endangered seats, and the Democrats had to defend many, many more. The GOP won some races it was supposed to, but lost many it wasn’t—including in Missouri and Indiana, where even red-state voters rejected conservative extremism. The Republicans even failed to win a Senate seat in North Dakota, which most Democrats thought was a goner six months ago.

A few too many pundits have been pushing a “split-decision” theme because Republicans held the House, but remember that these races are far more localized, and gerrymandering has wreaked havoc on the system. (Consider, for example, Pennsylvania: Obama carried it 52–47, but voters elected a congressional delegation of thirteen Republicans and five Democrats).

Of course, we don’t live in a rational political world, and Republicans won’t back down—not right away, at least. Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner has already re-iterated his caucus won’t budge on the Bush Tax Cuts, and House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a defiant statement Tuesday night saying that “The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term.”

But Obama isn’t planning to neutralize them with just a speech. Look at the second-term goals he laid out: “Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We’ve got more work to do.” Progressives will be underwhelmed by that list of goals, and they should be. (Though he also mentioned slowing global warming, reducing inequality and fixing the broken voting system).

Crucially, though, these issues seem designed to drive deep wedges into the Republican Party and finally break the back of their uncompromising opposition. Will Republicans actually kill immigration reform, after Latinos flocked to Obama by wider margins on Tuesday than in 2008 and guaranteed his re-election? I highly doubt it. Obama could receive significant Republican support for a major initiative, something that never happened in his first term. It would drive a perhaps lasting wedge into the GOP, openly pitting the hardcore members against those inclined to compromise. Moreover it will break their bond with the base, which expects them to oppose all things Obama, always.

Ditto the tax reform—in almost every likely scenario, Grover Norquist’s iron grip on the Republican Party will have to be loosened. The Bush tax rates expire if Congress does nothing, so obstruction won’t work, and it seems inevitable Republicans will have to let the top rates go. The same goes if the president is able to enact deficit reform with Republican support, thus co-opting their key issue. (This needs to be done in a way that doesn’t harm those who depend on the safety net—much, much more on this to come from us in the months ahead). Once these things happen and the GOP can’t say no to every single thing, maybe we can get to the rest of the really progressive, and necessary, measures.

But all these political maneuverings aside—and even if one doesn’t buy into Obama’s strategy here—last night’s victory was also a triumph over some truly destructive politics.

I admit, I was, and am, one of the cynics Obama was referring to in his speech. One that often believes “politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests.” But standing on a chair in the media section last night, watching through camera risers and the elevated smartphones of thousands of joyful people as America’s first black president give a triumphant victory address, I admit to being overwhelmed, and hopeful.

“I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love,” Obama said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

After seeing the GOP spend most of the day actively trying to exclude people of color from the voting process, and after watching the defeat of domestic policies that would have devastated the poor and disabled, it was an emotional moment for me to hear that. Moreso because the first two elections I was invested in saw cynical, divisive and truth-averse Republicans—exceeded this year in each measure by Mitt Romney—triumph, and proceed to “create their own realities” to the grave detriment of the country.

Not everything will change. It’s quite warranted to remain skeptical of how much Obama can achieve. The abhorrent civil liberties policies, the extralegal drone strikes, are unacceptable problems likely to continue. But there’s good reason, at least, to believe the country will do what Obama promises over the next four years: move forward.

For more forecasts of the next four years, check out why Obama’s big win could mean bold decisions from the Oval Office.

Obama Campaign Believes Early Vote Has Put Them Over the Top

McCormick Place in Chicago is outfitted for President Obama’s planned speech tomorrow night, after the results of the election are known. Photo by George Zornick.

Chicago—As President Obama barnstorms the country with high-wattage celebrities, designed to maximize news coverage of rallies where he delivers his closing argument for re-election, campaign staffers in Chicago are projecting serious confidence about the final results. The convention center at McCormick Place is a flurry of activity as it is outfitted for a speech from Obama tomorrow night, and early voting tallies have campaign officials sure that it will be a victory address, and not a concession speech.

“The math is clear. Our opponent is losing among early voters in nearly every public poll in every battleground state,” OFA national field director Jeremy Bird told reporters late Monday afternoon. “We’re confident a big showing on one day can’t match the votes we’ve already banked over the last month.”

In North Carolina, for example, Romney must win 65 percent of the voters tomorrow in order to carry the state. In Iowa and Colorado, he needs 59 percent of the voters tomorrow; 58 percent in Nevada, 55 percent in Florida and Ohio, and 52 percent in Virginia and Wisconsin.

And it’s not just as simple as having gotten more Democrats to vote—OFA has specifically targeted sporadic voters for early voting. These are people the campaign believes would be less likely to show up to the polls on Election Day itself, so it uses the days, and in some cases weeks, of early voting to persuade them to turn out.

Bird said that in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina and Nevada, 1.4 million Democrats who didn’t vote in the midterm elections have already cast ballots this year—compared to 840,000 sporadic Republican voters.

This disparity is no doubt why Republican officials in swing states have tried to cut down on early voting—from Ohio, where Secretary of State Jon Husted tried to stop early voting altogether until the Supreme Court intervened, to Florida, where Governor Rick Scott is refusing to extend early voting hours after Floridians waited in lines as long as six hours to cast a ballot. This is something prior Republican governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist did, and Crist called Scott’s hard-line stance “indefensible” this weekend.

Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told reporters today that only 49 percent of Floridians have already voted, compared with 55 percent in 2008—which she blamed on a shorter early voting window.

Still, campaign officials remained upbeat about their ability to navigate the Republican early-voting speed bumps. “We’re doing everything we can to alleviate [the lines], and we have folks on the ground on the field side of things who have been out there with entertainment and making sure people are staying in line,” said Bird.

The campaign is also sending out massive legal teams to patrol swing states and ensure that there are no dirty tricks, like intimidation of minority voters or confusing instructions from Republican-trained poll volunteers. “We have a great legal team on the ground making sure that everybody’s following the law and there’s no shenanigans from the other side,” Bird said.

This weekend, the Obama campaign put out a blistering memo to reporters detailing all the voter suppression schemes being cooked up by the Republican Party this year, from Nathan Sproul’s work for the RNC to the efforts of True the Vote. The memo, written by OFA general counsel Robert Bauer, pulled no punches in characterizing these efforts as an explicit strategy. “The Romney for President campaign’s plans to mislead voters have to be viewed in this context: not as extraordinary, but instead a sadly predictable contribution to the Republican Party’s institutionalized policy and practice of vote suppression,” he wrote. “Attacking the right to vote has a long history within the Republican Party.”

Some campaign officials say it’s a fine line to walk when it comes to talking about voter suppression—they want voters to be on the lookout, but at the same time they try to maintain a consistently positive tone about efforts to combat it. They fear that giving the issue too much attention might discourage voters who come to believe the system is rigged.

This is the state of the campaign in these final hours: concerned only about projecting confidence and monitoring the voting process. There are no more new ads, nor new campaign themes. Most of the action is now out in the battleground states, and Chicago is relatively quiet—someone unaware would have no idea the campaign is based here, as the cold and gray city seems to just be going about its business.

But that will change tomorrow, when Obama and the first family arrive. Obama has already voted early, and unlike Mitt Romney, won’t be campaigning tomorrow. Bird said he’s sure the president “will try to get in a game of hoops at some point,” before watching the returns at his home in Hyde Park. But come tomorrow night—assuming we know the result—all eyes will be on Chicago when Obama takes the stage at McCormick Place.

Check out the Romney campaign's last pitch in Ben Adler's latest.

Getting Progressive Candidates on the Record Against Safety Net Cuts

Politico has a very interesting story this morning that gave voice to what a lot of progressives in Washington have been nervously worrying about: the possibility that a freshly re-elected President Obama could sell his base down the river only weeks after the election during fiscal cliff negotiations. (Liberals fear grand bargain betrayal if President Obama wins.)

The concern is that he tried it before: Obama reportedly offered House Speaker John Boehner a deal during the debt ceiling negotiations that would have made all Bush tax cuts permanent while also raising $800 billion in additional tax revenue, and also cut both Medicare and Social Security benefits. Just last month, he told the Des Moines Register editorial board that “I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time.”

Optimists would point out that Obama has nevertheless taken a much more progressive approach since the dark days of the debt ceiling debacle. He released a debt plan last year that was much, much better than what he offered Boehner—it repealed Bush top tax rates and largely stayed away from safety net benefit cuts.

But ultimately, Obama cannot implement a deal alone. He has to get members of his own party to vote for it in Congress—so regardless of the president’s disposition, there are many pressure points in Congress for progressives who want to keep Democrats from cutting the safety net.

To that end, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has been seeking out Democrats running in tough races and getting them on board with a no-cuts agenda, in exchange for valuable financial and logistical support.

At least eight House candidates are receiving PCCC support, along with four Senators or Senate candidates: Sen. Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and now Representative Shelley Berkley, whom PCCC endorsed on Monday.

On a call with volunteers this week—joined, quite notably, by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—Berkley re-stated her position on safety net cuts:

“As far as Social Security, my opponent is on record as wanting to privatize Social Security. I am opposed to that. There is a reason that FDR passed Social Security in 1935. That’s because older Americans, after they retired, they had no income, no way to survive, and their life expectancy was cut short. Same thing with Medicare. There was a reason in 1965 that we passed Medicare. Older Americans were dying and it wasn’t of old age. They were dying for lack of healthcare. So now we’ve created Medicare, created Social Security, I am going to stand and fight for both of these programs. They are very important to seniors and future generations of seniors.

I will promise you without fear of contradiction, I will do everything in my power to strengthen and protect Medicare and Social Security and it’s going to be a cold day in the middle of August in the Nevada desert before I do anything that’s going to harm those two essential programs.”

PCCC has provided 433,000 volunteer calls in support of their Senate candidates and raised over $1.3 million for them. MoveOn and the AFL-CIO are also organizing around a progressive grand bargain push. This is all crucial, because a massive, $30 million “Fix the Debt” campaign, backed by Wall Street money, will be pushing hard from the other direction.

October Jobs Report: There’s Work to Be Done

The US economy added 171,000 jobs in October, beating economists’ predictions of 125,000 new jobs and, if not adding a boost to President Obama’s re-election campaign, at least denying Mitt Romney any real ammunition.

The unemployment rate ticked up a statistically insignificant 0.1 percent, to 7.9 percent, which is a full point lower that what it was one year ago. The slight increase was a result of more people entering the workforce looking for work—which is a promising sign. (Though, even with the increase, the labor force participation rate hasn’t been this low since the early 1980s.)

Other good news: the economy is clearly improving from where it was earlier this year. The August and September numbers were revised upwards, meaning 173,000 jobs were added on average per month over the last four months, compared with 67,000 in the previous quarter. Manufacturing added 13,000 jobs in October, stopping a slide the previous two months (when 13,000 and 14,000 manufacturing jobs were lost) and overall this year factory employment is up 189,000 jobs. Virtually every sector saw gains: the professional services, retail and hospitality all ticked upwards as well. There have now been thirty-two straight months with private-sector job creation.

Alas, the public sector continues to suffer. Last month it lost 13,000 jobs. State and local payrolls do not seem to be recovering from the downturn’s brutal losses, remaining at best stagnant. There was other bad news as well: today’s report showed an alternative unemployment rate—that is, including people who are working part-time while looking for full-time work—to be 14.6 percent. That’s 5.8 percent higher than the start of the recession, and it means that altogether, 23 million people are unemployed or underemployed. Long-term unemployment is also still deeply troubling: 40.6 percent of the 12.3 million unemployed have been looking for work for twenty-seven weeks or longer, far surpassing any recent pre-recession historical benchmark for those measures.

As far as the presidential election goes, this report is much more blip than game-changer: it shows steady, but insufficient, progress. Both campaigns can work with that. Said Obama in Ohio this morning: “We’ve made real progress, but we’re here today because we know we have more work to do.” Meanwhile, Romney put out a statement promising better than just sluggish growth: “When I’m president, I’m going to make real changes that lead to a real recovery, so that the next four years are better than the last.”

Where the candidates agree—and where they are both right—is that this level of job growth is simply not good enough. At this rate, it would still take a decade to reach full employment. Widespread economic pain for millions of families shouldn’t be allowed to persist for that long, certainly in a country with as many resources as the United States.

Where the candidates differ sharply is their approach to fixing that problem. Obama has laid out his plans: stimulative measures like the American Jobs Act, which analysts say would add 2 million jobs to the economy. In interviews, he has also made it clear that infrastructure investments will be a top priority in his second term. Romney’s approach, meanwhile, is austerity: dramatically reduced federal spending and a balanced federal budget. He also wants lower taxes and less regulation.

Next week’s election is a clear referendum between these to very different approaches—one that, by most analyses, Obama will win. In an ideal world, Tuesday’s vote would settle the question and Obama could aggressively move forward with implementing his approach. The situation demands it; sub-200,000 job monthly growth cannot be the norm.

The recent history of gridlock in Washington suggests it won’t be so easy—but Obama should act aggressively on his mandate of investment, and cement the country’s rejection of austerity.

Greg Mitchell writes that the October jobs report destroys right-wing claims that the numbers are “cooked.”

Did Mitt Romney Break the Law by Failing to Disclose Delphi Investments?

We now know, thanks to Greg Palast’s recent scoop in The Nation, that Mitt Romney reaped a large financial windfall from the auto bailouts. Romney didn’t talk up this shrewd investment while touting his business experience on the campaign trail, for obvious reasons—he is a strong critic of those bailouts.

But while Romney had ample political reasons to conceal his investment, he apparently had no legal justification for doing so. Federal law requires that candidates disclose stock holdings that are affected by government action—and Romney’s million-dollar (at least) investment in a hedge fund that bought up Delphi stocks surely fits that bill.

Now, unions and good-government groups are calling on the feds to investigate Romney’s oversight.

Thursday afternoon in Toledo, Ohio—where the story has received significant play in local media—United Auto Workers president Bob King joined Palast and Service Employees International Union vice president Tom Woodruff to call upon the US Office of Government Ethics to look into Romney’s financial disclosures and their failure to list the Delphi investments. Along with several groups like CREW and Public Citizen, the union leaders also sent a letter to OGE demanding a formal investigation.

“The American people have a right to know about Governor Romney's potential conflicts of interest, such as the profits his family made from the auto rescue,” said King. “It’s time for Governor Romney to disclose or divest.”

As Palast reported, a trust in Ann Romney’s name listed “more than $1 million” invested with Elliott Management, run by hedge fund guru and GOP mega-donor Paul Singer. (That’s the minimum amount of disclosure required by law, so it could have been much more than $1 million.) Singer subsequently snapped up large amounts of stock in Delphi at pennies on the dollar, and then, along with other hedge funds, demanded that the government assume pension responsibilities and bail the company out—or they would shut it down, thus crushing General Motors as well.

The government acceded, Delphi became lucrative again and then went public, and Elliott Management and its investors—including Romney—reaped enormous rewards.

Under any rational interpretation of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, these are holdings that a presidential candidate would need to disclose, because they can be affected by government action. The Romney campaign doesn’t argue that they are not, but rather that, since Ann Romney’s trust is “blind,” there is no disclosure requirement.

Today’s letter points out, however, that Ann Romney’s trust is blind in name only. Romney himself has said that “the blind trust is an age-old ruse, if you will. Which is to say you can always tell a blind trust what it can and cannot do.” Moreover, this is not a federally recognized blind trust of the sort Romney would be forced to create if he won the White House. If it was, he would have never been able to reap his windfall from Delphi, the letter points out.

Whether or not Romney broke the law will come down to this question of how blind this trust really is, and Romney at least has some plausible deniability there. But no doubt this is a story his campaign doesn’t want to see playing out in Ohio five days before the election.

Through the Back Door, a Late Money Surge for Akin

Big-dollar donations from outside groups and the national party dried up for Representative Todd Akin after his heinous remarks about “legitimate rape.” But now, with only days before the election, the faucet has suddenly been turned back on. And thanks to our opaque campaign finance system, we don’t know who is behind the late money—and it seems quite likely the groups who publicly swore off supporting Akin have reversed their stance.

Yesterday, a group called Now or Never Political Action Committee announced it would dump $800,000 into the race on behalf of Akin, while Akin’s campaign and the Missouri Republican Party announced a $700,000 ad-buy for the final stretch.

This additional $1.5 million is truly notable because it dwarfs the support Akin has seen so far—as we noted recently, the outside groups that stood by Akin have been doing so with much smaller contributions. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund has spent $114,773 on an e-mail campaign and also raised $390,000 from members, which it donated to Akin's campaign, according to Matt Hoskins, the group's executive director.* Freedom’s Defense Fund, the only Super PAC to really get behind Akin since his remarks, kicked in $201,562 to date. So this is a significant late push.

At the surface level, the late push seems rather innocuous—that, indeed, the national party and big outside groups like Crossroads GPS are still sticking by their word not to support Akin.

But a closer look reveals that these very groups are probably coming to Akin’s defense through back doors. Reporters quickly noted that Akin’s campaign and the state GOP probably don’t have the money on hand to make a $700,000 ad buy, since combined they declared about that much money at the October 17 FEC filing deadline, and have been spending quite a bit since.

That means they either raised a heck of a lot of money in two weeks—possible, but unlikely, and not consistent with what the Akin campaign has been saying it raised—or, they are getting support from the national party. Legally, only national committees can lend that support to Akin’s campaign and the state party.

The Republican National Committee has denied it, leaving the NRSC as the only suspect—and it suspiciously refuses to comment about whether it is indeed the source of the money. (Remember, the NRSC floated the idea of supporting Akin in late September, but NRSC chairman Senator John Cornyn then went on the record and ruled it out again).

So it’s an overwhelming likelihood that the NRSC has gone back on its word. Is the same true of Crossroads GPS and other big-dollar conservative groups that swore off Akin? Examining Now or Never PAC’s finances suggests yes.

Since it is a Super PAC, Now or Never does actually have to disclose donors. The group, based in Kansas City, Missouri, and run by a local lawyer, mainly has “small” donors who contribute $250,000 or less. But it late September it received two contributions totaling nearly $2 million from a group called Americans for Limited Government, which appears to be supporting a bulk of Now or Never’s activities.

Americans for Limited Government is a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” group that does not have to disclose donors. We do know that in the past, it has received well over $4 million from the Center to Protect Patients Rights, another massively-funded 501(c)(4) about which we know very little—though it does appear to have some connection to the Koch brothers.

In short, the entire operation is a black box. We ultimately have no idea where the Now or Never PAC money now supporting Akin came from. Did the same donors that normally support Crossroads GPS instead give to Americans for Limited Government? Perhaps, but in any case, this seems like an obvious back-door way for super-wealthy conservatives to fund Akin when they had previously claimed they would not.

Still—if you are worried that the race will suddenly tilt to Akin, don’t be. This is a lot more money than Akin has seen, but still very small in comparison to what McCaskill and her allies have been spending.

A $700,000 push from the NRSC is nice, but in October alone the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spend $2,580,231 on the race, and is likely to still match or exceed Akin’s final push. The additional $800,000 from Now or Never PAC is surely helpful, but there are the myriad liberal groups like Planned Parenthood, American Bridge, Majority PAC, NARAL and others still chipping in to back McCaskill.

Moreover, a late $1.5 million push from groups supporting Akin—which, again, is likely to at least be matched—probably can’t move the needle far enough for Akin. RealClearPolitics, which has a conservative trend in its polling averages, has McCaskill up by 5. Nate Silver gives her just over a 90 percent chance of winning.

* This story has been updated to reflect the money raised by SCF for Akin. 

Tom Englehardt wrote about money's supersizing effect on American politics.

Progressives to Chamber: Show Us the Money!

Post by Nation DC intern Nick Myers

The US Chamber of Commerce’s disingenuous ad campaign is close to its goal to spend $100 million to influence next week’s elections. The Chamber has already spent more than $1 million per race against seven of the top ten candidates it has bought ads in opposition to this year.

According to OpenSecrets.org, the Chamber has used more than $27 million to attack Democratic and progressive candidates for Congress, and that number is sure to go up before Election Day. Among it‘s top targets: the Chamber has dropped $2.3 million opposing Sherrod Brown, $1.8 million opposing Tim Kaine, $1.3 million opposing Tammy Baldwin, and $900,000 opposing Martin Heinrich. 

But for all it spends, the Chamber isn’t required to disclose where it got the money, thanks to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That’s why pro-disclosure advocacy groups delivered 30,000 petition signatures to the Chamber’s Washington, DC, headquarters this month, one day before the FEC’s deadline for spending reports. The signatures were presented as birthday gifts — the Chamber celebrated its 100th anniversary this year — at a rally organized by Public Citizen, US PIRG, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, small-business people and others.

“Giant corporations and super rich individuals are trying to buy the election,” said Public Citizen President Robert Weissman after the rally. “The chamber is the primary funnel for secret donations from big business.”

Two Chamber representatives stood steely-faced and without comment as Brian Eister of Occupy D.C. led the rally’s human microphone in demanding that the conservative lobbying group disclose its roll of secret donors.

Though freedom of speech must indeed be kept sacred, the absence of information on who is saying what seriously damages American democracy. Yes, some of the Chamber’s donors have themselves reported their contributions — including Coca-Cola, Dow, Intel and Merck, according to a report by The Washington Post’s Carol Leonning — but it is impossible to know precisely who is buying the election under current laws.

During a media event preceding the rally, Maine small business owner Melanie Collins took issue with the Chamber’s claim that it represents small businesses, calling it “small business identity theft.” Having already poured in millions to try and influence the state’s races, including ads targeting independent senate candidate and former governor Angus King, Collins said her voice and the voice of other small businesspeople is drowned out.

“The Chamber doesn’t speak for small business and it doesn’t speak for me,” she said. “That ain’t right.”

Blair Bowie with US PIRG emphasized the need for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and stop organizations like the Chamber from unaccountable spending before it became the “the new normal.” Eister, who said more than 2 million have already signed a petition supporting the repeal of Citizens United, said after the rally that he and other activists intend to “take to the streets” sometime around the decision’s three-year anniversary on January 21.

“The voice of the people is being drowned out by extraordinary amounts of corporate money, which is corrupting our political process and impeding truly representative governance,” he said.

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