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George Zornick | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

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

McCaskill's First Debate Tars Akin As Extreme

Even before his infamous comments about “legitimate rape” demolished his political standing, even among Republicans, Rep. Todd Akin was the man Senator Claire McCaskill wanted to run against—she went so far as to run radio ads during the GOP primary calling him the “true conservative” in the race. During a Friday afternoon debate in Columbia, Missouri, we saw why.

The first question of the debate was naturally about the “legitimate rape” remark. Akin lamely tried to brush it off, saying “I don’t believe this election overall is about talk” before moving to his boilerplate points. But McCaskill brilliantly used the question as an on-ramp to her fundamental strategy: painting Akin as too extreme for Missourians.

“I think Congressman Akin’s comments open the window to his views for Missourians,” she said. “I believe his view is extreme and out of the mainstream. But there’s other extreme views.” McCaskill then ticked off a litany of far-right, Tea Party positions held by Akin, before concluding with the perfect rejoinder to Akin’s insistence that the election isn’t about talk: “So it’s not what he said that’s the problem, it’s what he believes that’s the problem.”

During that response, and in the hour that followed, McCaskill dinged Akin for the following radical positions:

  • “He wants to abolish the minimum wage, the floor for the middle class in this great country,” charged McCaskill. That’s true—Akin has said “I don't think the government should be setting the prices or wages on different things.”

  • “He wants to do away with student loans. Think what would happen to Columbia, Missouri if the only ones who could get student loans were the rich kids,” said McCaskill. Also true—Akin said that federal student loans are “the equivalent of the stage-three cancer of socialism.”

  • “He wants to privatize Medicare, privatize Social Security,” said McCaskill. (True and true).

  • “He is one of a handful, I think there were four or five members of the United States Congress, who voted to eliminate the child nutrition program.” (True, in 2004 Akin was only one of five members to vote against that program in the House, though opposition to it has become more mainstream within the GOP in recent years).

  • McCaskill also blasted Akin for wanting to “eliminate the Department of Education,” which is true. He also wants to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department, for good measure.

McCaskill concluded the debate by once again summarizing Akin’s radical policy choices, saying things like “Cut veteran’s benefits, but give another tax cut to Tom Brady.” (That’s a particularly sharp, local dig to make, as Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl by defeating the beloved St. Louis Rams, who haven’t been good since. Also, demagoguing Tom Brady is generally a great idea anytime and anywhere).

Akin, unaware of the strategy or unwilling to combat it, actually helped McCaskill out by rattling off a litany of whacky positions most often heard from the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh—saying that Obamacare wanted to use death panels (without using that phrase exactly, but slamming the IPAB board which would “ration care”); hitting the Obama administration for a non-existent plot to take people’s lightbulbs; charging falsely that Obama won’t meet with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, and so on.

In 2010, Tea Party extremism cost Republicans Senate seats in purple states that the should have won, especially in a wave year—think Sharron Angle’s defeat in Nevada, or Joe Miller’s destruction in Alaska. McCaskill is clearly betting she can re-create that trend in Missouri, and Friday’s debate was a huge help.  

For more on high-profile Senatorial debates, read John Nichols on Elizabeth Warren and her race in Massachusetts.

Myanmar's Suu Kyi: Free Pussy Riot

by Nation Washington intern Nick Myers 

Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi called for the release of the three members of Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot on September 20, while speaking at a packed Amnesty International event in Washington, DC.

“I don’t see why people should not sing whatever they want to sing,” Suu Kyi said in reference to the group, which was found guilty of “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in prison in August.

In a February protest performance at a Moscow church, Pussy Riot played a song asking the Virgin Mary to “put [Russian President Vladimir] Putin away.” Suu Kyi added that governments must generally be open to criticism, and that she would like to see the group freed as soon as possible.

Earlier at the event, the husband and daughter of Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova presented Suu Kyi with a bouquet of flowers.

The leader of Myanmar's opposition party and a vocal critic of the country’s military leaders and their record of human rights abuses, Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest before being released in 2010. She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal—Congress’s highest honor—in 2008 while under house arrest, and accepted the award at the Capitol on September 19.

Suu Kyi is on a seventeen-day tour of the United States, with stops in New York, Indiana, Kentucky and California. Though her visit was heralded as a celebration of her life and Myanmar's recent flood of political reform, she urged the American government to ease sanctions on her home country.

“The help of friends is indispensable,” she said in response to a question regarding the challenges her country faces moving forward. “We particularly look to the United States because it has always been a champion of democracy in Burma.”

Tim Kaine Provides a Cautionary Tale for Mitt Romney in the Debates

Virtually every political observer following the presidential race put enormous import on the upcoming debates. (“Debates are Romney’s last stand,” reads a typical piece.)

That may seem like a silly way to decide who leads the free world, especially when both candidates have spent months, even years, articulating their positions on matters of national importance. Maybe for some elections, that’s true—but Mitt Romney has assiduously avoided taking stands on various important issues, so the debates present a minefield for the Republican candidate. If the moderators aggressively press him to define a particular policy position on the fly, and he chooses his evasive words poorly, he may suddenly find himself in a huge mess.

Such is the lesson Democrat Tim Kaine presented today in a debate with Republican George Allen in the Virginia Senate race, committing what Dave Weigel called “One of the most obvious unforced errors I've ever seen.”

Debate moderator David Gregory tossed what should have been a softball question to Kaine about Romney’s derision towards the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes. But it turned out to be a change-up pitch, as Gregory repeatedly pressed Kaine to say whether everyone should pay federal income taxes—and Kaine, shockingly, was open to the idea:

GREGORY: Do you believe that everyone in Virginia should pay something in federal income tax?

KAINE: Well, everyone pays taxes! I mean, the statistics that have come out..

GREGORY: I'm asking about federal income taxes.

KAINE: I would be open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone, but I do insist, many of the 47 percent that Governor Romney was going after pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than he does.

Openness towards taxing that 47 percent is a deeply foolish position to take. (Evidence: the only one I’m aware of who has even come close is Michele Bachmann). As just about every Democratic politician and liberal commentator has spent the week proclaiming, most of that 47 percent are justifiably unable to pay income taxes because they don’t make enough money—that’s exactly why Romney is perceived as cruel for those remarks.

Kaine either didn’t internalize that argument and was just trying to brush Gregory off (likely), or is actually in favor of taxing low-income people (very unlikely, and nowhere in his tax plans).

But now he’s stuck—unwilling to say he screwed up, and to boldy reverse a position forty minutes after taking it, Kaine and his staff instead are highlighting the “open to a proposal” part of the remarks. While pointing out that as governor he never raised taxes on low-income Virginians, and stating it’s not his preferred policy, Kaine told The Hill after the debate that “It shouldn't be news that somebody wants to go into the Senate that is willing to start with a position of openness and a dialogue.” A staffer told Talking Points Memo

“You can’t issue comprehensive tax reform if you start shutting doors.” (Sure, but you can rule out damaging, punitive policy choices. Does Kaine leave the door open on taxing all of the state’s redheads?)

This wiggling won’t be enough. Immediately after the debate, Allen—who cannily never brought Kaine’s remarks back up during the debate, thus denying Kaine a chance to reverse himself more smoothly—stuck the knife in. “It’s typical of Tim Kaine. His record is always one looking to raise taxes,” Allen said. Within the hour, his campaign was blasting out an e-mail titled “Tim Kaine Says He Wants ‘Minimum Tax Level for Everyone.’” I would guess that television advertisements will be up by Monday.

This was the week Republicans were supposed come off as cruel to the “47 percent,” but Kaine managed to implicate himself as well because he wasn’t prepared for a debate and couldn’t offer policy specifics.

Given the vast number of policy areas in which Mitt Romney simply has no specifics—and given his proclivity towards damaging statements during live debates—the Republican nominee ought to take note. Meanwhile, Tim Kaine may have just blunted whatever polling momentum was headed his way.

An Appeals Court Strikes a Blow to Campaign Finance Reform

The three-member US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has reversed a lower-court decision that would have potentially forced some outside groups to open their books and reveal dark-money donors—an important legal loss for campaign finance reform, but not one likely to have much of a near-term impact.

The dispute traces back to the bipartisan McCain-Feingold legislation, which unambiguously requires groups making “electioneering communications” to disclose donors. This requirement wasn’t knocked out by Citizens United vs. United States, which did vitiate several other parts of that legislation—in fact, the justices wrote that “disclosure is the less-restrictive alternative to more comprehensive speech regulations.”

The reason this has never happened—why Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS can still keep its donors secret—is that the Federal Elections Commission issued a ruling in 2007 that created a loophole big enough to drive a dump truck of oil-company cash through. The FEC said that for “electioneering communications”—that is, advertisements run within thirty days of federal primaries or within sixty days of federal general elections, that mention candidates but do not expressly advocate for or against them—outside groups must only disclose donations if the donors explicitly mark the money as intended for political expenditure. Donors naturally just stopped making that explicit, and outside groups continued hiding the cash.

Representative Chris Van Hollen called foul last April and sued the FEC in federal court, saying that the 2007 regulation ignored the spirit of the McCain-Feingold legislation. Earlier this year, a district court judge agreed, and in July, the FEC said it would retroactively enforce the original disclosure requirements until the lower-court ruling was overturned—which, unfortunately, is what happened yesterday.

But at least since July, the FEC has forced a bunch of outside groups to disclose their donors, right? Wrong.

Anticipating the potential court rulings on Van Hollen vs. FEC, virtually all outside money groups made yet another simple side-step around election law. This court case would have closed loopholes around “electioneering communications” only—again, ads that mention candidates but don’t advocate for or against them. A related loophole around “independent expenditure” ads still exists—those are ads that do expressly say a candidate must be elected or defeated. (Though Van Hollen has petitioned the FEC to close that one, too.)

So ironically, by throwing in a few words at the end of a political ad asking voters to take a position on a particular candidate, outside groups were able to avoid any potential fallout from Van Hollen vs. FEC—which has now been shot down by the appeals court anyhow. Josh Israel at ThinkProgress did the legwork and found that every outside group made the necessary adjustments except one: Freedom Path, a Utah-based conservative group that has run ads praising Senator Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney. That group has, to date, failed to disclose donors as was required by the FEC since July.

The FEC, as is sadly typical because of deadlocked commissioners, has not yet taken any action against Freedom Path.

This headache-inducing game where reformers play whack-a-mole with outside groups scurrying through innumerable loopholes is unlikely to be solved without some larger strokes: either Congressional approval of the Disclose Act, a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United or breaking the deadlock on the FEC.

For more on electoral reform in the courts, check out Voting Rights Watch's latest on Pennsylvania's voter ID law.

 

Scott Brown Is Lying About His Reproductive Rights Record

Running for Senate in a deep-blue state—where support for abortion rights has been measured at nearly 70 percent—Republican Scott Brown needs to make it clear that he supports reproductive rights. That’s why he’s telling reporters that he “promise[s]” never to vote in the Senate to curb reproductive rights, and why he has a new ad airing statewide today with this script:

NARRATOR: Scott Brown is pro choice, and he supports a woman's right to choose.

WOMEN: I like that Scott Brown is independent, he really thinks for himself. His record shows that he supports women, he supports families. When my daughters grow up, I want to make sure that they have good jobs with equal pay, and I know Scott Brown will fight for that. I support Scott Brown because I know he wants to get our economy moving forward again. I’m a mom, I have a family, and I know that Scott Brown will fight hard for families.

BROWN: I’m Scott Brown and I approve this message.

Sounds nice. And it’s true Brown did object to the GOP platform language on abortion. But his actual record—touted in the ad—directly contradicts the new message.

Consider:

  • Brown was a co-sponsor of the Blunt Amendment earlier this year, which would have allowed employers to deny women preventive care options under the company plan—including contraception, mammograms, pre-natal screenings, cervical cancer screenings. (It was written broadly enough to allow any employer to do this, not just religious ones). This would have jeopardized the preventive health services of 20.4 million women nationwide, and 517,000 in Massachusetts alone.

  • Brown voted to defund Planned Parenthood last year when he supported House Resolution 1, the Republican spending plan that was ultimately defeated in the Senate. It would also have removed funding under Title X for health centers for low-income women.

  • Brown may have supported the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the Affordable Care Act, which would have stripped any funding for abortions by any health insurance product subsidized by the government. It wasn’t included in the Senate version that Brown voted on. But his staff told the Associated Press in November 2009 that Brown would have supported it—though he told Boston’s WBUR that same month that he would have opposed it.

It’s extremely deceptive, then, for Brown to pretend he supports a woman’s right to choose, as the ad claims. Or in the words of said Stephanie Schriock, President of EMILY’s List: “Scott Brown is straight-up lying to Massachusetts voters with his latest ad. Brown does not support a woman’s right to choose—his anti-choice voting record has earned him the support of an anti-choice organization in this very campaign.”

Indeed, Massachusetts Citizens for Life has endorsed Brown in his race against Elizabeth Warren. “We consider him a senator who votes prolife,” Anne Fox, the president of that group, told the Boston Globe last month. (Though Republican Majority For Choice has also backed him).

Brown is also misleading about his record on women’s issues elsewhere in the ad. For example, a woman featured says that “I want to make sure [my daughters] have good jobs with equal pay, and I know Scott Brown will fight for that.” But in November 2010, Brown supported a Republican filibuster of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have required employers to prove that any gender disparities in pay were directly related to job performance. That bill was passed by the House two years ago, but has never cleared a Senate filibuster.  

Romney's Campaign Should Probably Stop Reading Right-Wing Blogs

Last night, as conservative Muslims enraged by an inflammatory anti-Islam film attacked US embassies in Egypt and Libya, Mitt Romney issued a statement soon to become infamous in American election lore:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

The Obama administration, of course, did no such sympathizing. (See Robert Dreyfuss debunk the lie here).

Now, even mainstream reporters and GOP foreign policy hands are shocked by Romney’s crass and inaccurate attempt to score political points from the unrest. NBC’s First Read called it “one of the most over-the-top and incorrect attacks of the general-election campaign.” Romney performed “one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign,” in the words of Time’s Mark Halperin. “I guess we see now that…they’re incompetent at talking effectively about foreign policy,” one Republican told Buzzfeed.

What could have led Romney so astray—to say something so clearly unfounded and cheap? The answer is quickly becoming a familiar one: the right-wing blogosphere. Many of Romney’s most blazingly inaccurate and inflammatory statements this summer can first be traced back to right-wing blogs, to whom Romney’s communications team seems keenly tuned.

Foreign Policy correctly noted that for several hours before the Romney campaign issued that statement, the US embassy press release was “heavily criticized by conservative websites.” Indeed, yesterday afternoon the website Twitchy—a popular creation of prominent right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin—had a post up titled “U.S. Embassy in Cairo chooses Sep. 11 to apologize for hurt Muslim feelings.”

The Twitter account for Instapundit.com, run by Glenn Reynolds, tweeted this mid-afternoon yesterday:

Jonathan Tobin had a post at Commentary yesterday titled “Sound Familiar? Islamists Storm U.S. Embassy and America Apologizes.” At Human Events, David Harsanyi published a post at 3:30 pm titled “In Egypt, the United States Condemns Free Speech.” Harsanyi also presciently implored Romney, a little after 9 pm, to get aggressive on the issue: “i think a little bluster from romney about now would make republicans feel a lot better,” he tweeted.

Bluster Romney did, and right into political catastrophe. The idea that the US embassy apologized for anything is simply daft, and ill-timed, as commentator after commentator is noting today. But it made sense inside the online, right-wing echo chamber—and Romney’s campaign may be stuck inside it.

Granted, his campaign is staffed by neoconservatives who are generally prone to over-police instances of “sympathy” or “apology” towards Islam—but it’s hard to believe any of these experienced politicos would cook up such a flimsy attack as what we just saw. In fact, one of them—Rich Williamson, a former Bush official now advising Romney—gave a detailed interview to Foreign Policy last night about the unrest that never touched on the statement from the US embassy in Egypt. That attack line was straight off the blogs.

And this isn’t the first time Romney has lifted attack lines from the wacko online right: remember, this is the candidate who made a birther joke last month.

Just this past weekend, Romney bizarrely pledged that “I will not take ‘God’ off our coins.” This is something that Obama has never done—and the only basis to believe he has is widely disseminated right-wing e-mail that has been repeatedly debunked by Politifact.com and Snopes. As Politifact noted:

[T]he email has the standard ingredients of an Internet falsehood—sloppy punctuation, an abundance of exclamation points, a plausible story (“I received one from the Post Office as change and I asked for a dollar bill instead”), a request to spread the email far and wide (“Please send to all on your mailing list!!!”) and screaming capital letters (“‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ IS GONE!!!”) .”

Recall also another lie Romney told this summer—arguably the most brazen before yesterday. When Ohio restricted early voting hours to apply only to military veterans, the Obama campaign sued to open it back up to all Ohioans—and Romney asserted, completely incorrectly, that Obama was trying to stop veterans from voting.

This was not misleadingly slanting a policy dispute but rather an outright lie—as Ohio newspapers were quick to note. What gave Romney the idea? Once again, this was a crackpot take on the lawsuit circulating on right-wing blogs for hours before Romney issued his statement. The previous day, the powerful blog Redstate.com put on its front page a diary asserting that “the Obama campaign’s lawsuit says that the state of Ohio cannot treat soldiers differently than the ACORN troops they round up on the streets on election day.” Romney soon made the same charge, stripped (thankfully) of the ACORN language.

Romney seems to have outsourced a substantial part of his communications operation and opposition research to right-wing blogs—and keeps getting burned for it. Will he learn to stop?

Right Wing Holds Romney Hostage on Healthcare

On Meet the Press yesterday, Mitt Romney tried to explain what he would do about the country’s healthcare system once he delivered on his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety. Romney told host David Gregory that “there are a number of things I like” about Obamacare, and named the features that allow young people to stay on their parents’ plans and the pre-existing conditions protections:

 

The takeaway for everyone watching was that Romney wouldn’t actually gut the whole law. But only hours later, Romney advisers told a conservative website that he was just kidding:

In reference to how Romney would deal with those with preexisting conditions and young adults who want to remain on their parents’ plans, a Romney aide responded that there had been no change in Romney’s position and that “in a competitive environment, the marketplace will make available plans that include coverage for what there is demand for. He was not proposing a federal mandate to require insurance plans to offer those particular features.”

So essentially Romney “likes” those features, but wouldn’t actually do anything to create them—he just trusts the marketplace to make it happen somehow. Romney can’t say he would pass any law to do so, because that would then resemble the dread Obamacare.

This sloppy two-step on healthcare isn’t unique to Romney, however—it reflects a party held hostage by its right wing, and we’ve seen this dance before. We noted in May that John Boehner was forced to perform a nearly identical flip-flop as the Supreme Court was preparing to rule on the health reform law.

A Politico story reported on May 17 that House GOP leadership was preparing bills to replace the pre-existing condition and young-adult provisions should the entire legislation be overturned—and then right-wingers flipped out. “If this is true I have had it. I’m calling out John Boehner right now,” said powerful radio talker Mark Levin. “Look how fast they fold like a cheap tent.” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association tweeted: “GOP thinking about keeping parts of ObamaCare, if you can believe it. No, no, a thousand times no.”

Within a day, Boehner had to pull the same move that Romney just did. His office sent out an e-mail making it clear that, contra the Politico reporting, “Anything Short of Full ObamaCare Repeal is Unacceptable.”

Sure, Romney’s quick flip-flop on healthcare reform yesterday underscores now-familiar problems with his campaign: holding multiple positions and ultimately leaning on an impossibly vague policy prescription. (If the healthcare reform law were repealed in full, what would stop private insurance companies from rejecting customers with pre-existing conditions?)

But the real story here is how the right-wing has the GOP under its boot, refusing to allow even noncontroversial, broadly acceptable policy fixes if they were at any time supported by Barack Obama. It would be good politics for Romney to offer voters, particularly middle-class independents, some backstops should the healthcare reform law be repealed—the Tea just Party won’t let him, just as they didn’t let Boehner when he made the same, accurate calculation. This is the price a political party pays for whipping up rabid opposition to anything done by the current administration, no matter what it was.   

Jobs Report Creates Friday-Morning Hangover for Democrats

During his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last night, President Barack Obama asked people to be patient with the economic recovery. “The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over the decades,” he said.

His advisers are surely hoping this morning that people were listening. The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly jobs data this morning, which revealed that sluggish growth trends are continuing, and a recovery remains elusive.

The economy added 96,000 jobs in August, according to the data, which is at about the level needed to keep up with population growth. The unemployment rate dropped from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent, but only because 368,000 people stopped looking for work.

Public sector job losses continue to be a huge problem: 6,000 jobs were lost at the state level in August, and 4,000 at the local level. (The federal government added 3,000 jobs). The public sector has now shed 571,000 jobs in total.

The private sector continued to add jobs, for the thirtieth straight month, but a deeper dive into the gains is troubling. The manufacturing sector—which Obama promised to revive last night, with 1 million new jobs—lost 15,000 jobs. Many of the gains were in low-paying sectors: retail (6,100 jobs) and hotels, restaurants and leisure industries (34,000 jobs).

The president’s team is trying to focus attention on the continued private-sector job gains, and noting that Obama has made things (at least marginally) better. Its argument is summed up in this chart, showing that the unemployment rate is indeed improving:

But the Romney-Ryan team was quick to pounce on signs of anemic growth. “43 straight months of unemployment above 8%. This is not what a recovery looks like,” tweeted Ryan. “If last night was the party, this morning is the hangover,” said Romney.

Their argument could be summed up in this chart, showing how far the economy still has to go, and how truly modest—at best—the recent gains have been:

Ultimately, this was a status quo report, on pace with recent data—it’s just that the status quo is not all that great. Without any major spikes or valleys in the next two months, voters will have to choose based on who they think has a better plan for accelerating job growth.

It should be noted that the American Jobs Act—which Obama introduced almost exactly one year ago, and which Republicans in Congress have blocked ever since—would add 2.6 million jobs to the economy, protect 1.6 million more, and 2 percent to gross domestic product, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Romney, meanwhile, has a somewhat vague jobs plan that the Center for American Progress Action Fund estimates would actually eliminate 360,000 jobs next year. Many of the proposals in Romney’s plan don’t change policy, making it hard to discern how he believes they would create jobs. Others, like tax credits for companies that outsource jobs, would obviously depress employment.

In Charlotte, Schneiderman Hints at RMBS Movement

Last night presented an interesting contrast of different Democratic approaches to regulating Wall Street. Bill Clinton brought the house down at the Democratic National Convention with a brilliant stem-winder packed with policy details—but, naturally, some policy he didn’t mention was the massive financial sector deregulation that took place under his watch. When Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, he allowed commercial banks to run wild in the stock markets and helped pave the way for the financial collapse less than a decade later.

But if Clinton was the ugly deregulatory past of the party, perhaps the woman who preceded him is the promising future. Elizabeth Warren, now a Senate candidate in Massachusetts, conceived the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and helped shepherd it through the tough early days, when Republicans attacked the bureau relentlessly and called Warren a liar to her face. Last night, Warren had tough words for the financial sector: “Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them,” she said.

Where President Obama stands on getting tough on bad actors in the financial sector is the source of some progressive consternation. Early on, he hired many old Clinton hands known for friendliness to Wall Street, but then got Dodd-Frank passed—a significant achievement, though one that has been substantially hollowed out by financial industry lobbyists.

One man at the center of this question about Obama’s backbone for battling Wall Street is New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He is a co-chair of the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities working group, an investigation into Wall Street malfeasance leading up to the financial collapse that was celebrated by progressives when Obama announced its formation during this year’s State of the Union address. But the reformers have since protested a lack of action from the working group, and noted its comparatively low staffing levels. This week, Phil Angelides, who headed the federal inquiry into the financial collapse, wrote that “the jury is still out on whether the investigation will bring Wall Street CEOs to justice and deter future wrongdoing.”

I caught up with Schneiderman in Charlotte on Thursday and asked him about the anxiety that his working group won’t produce results—and he hinted that some movement is imminent.

Right after the working group was created, on January 30, Schneiderman appeared on Up w/ Chris Hayes and said he would be “very disappointed” if there weren’t major announcements within six to eight months. Even at the high end of that timeline, we’re about to hit it.

I asked Schneiderman about that projection. “I think I’m still good with that timeline,” he said with a smile. He wouldn’t give any further predictions, but a staffer told me to “stay tuned.”

Of course, they have said this before, which Schneiderman acknowledged along with the anxiety about the pacing—but said “I think that the question will be answered at the end of the day when we see what the results are.”

Schneiderman did express concern, however, that a Romney victory in November could derail future RMBS progress. “It obviously would raise a question about whether or not there’s continued support, resulting in a change of personnel. I guess I would be the only co-chair whose job would be secure,” he said. (The other four co-chairs are federal appointees). “So yes, I think that anyone who is concerned about regulating or enforcing laws regarding financial services should be concerned about the direction the Romney-Ryan ticket would take the country.”

Beyond the RMBS action, Schneiderman has several other high-wattage investigations underway—into potential tax fraud at the US Chamber of Commerce, the questionable tax status of nonprofits that pump dark money into election, and whether Bain Capital and other private equity firms are avoiding federal taxes.

An obvious theme here is targeting the undue influence of the financial sector, whether it’s influencing elections or manipulating the tax code. Schneiderman acknowledged this was a priority of his. “It’s something that I am very concerned about. The health of our democracy is so essential to all of the work we do, anything that threatens the vitality and the viability of our electoral process and our democratic process, has to be closely scrutinized,” he said. “And if there are improprieties in the way money is being spent to influence elections we have an obligation to take a look at it.”

Progressives Want a Stronger Focus on Protecting the Safety Net

The Democratic Party platform released this week ahead of the national convention in Charlotte laudably opposes any privatization of Medicare and Social Security, and doesn’t mention those programs in the section on deficit reduction. But it doesn’t explicitly say Democrats will protect those programs from cuts—only that trimming them can’t be the “only” solution. That’s an important distinction, given the upcoming fiscal cliff negotiations and recent willingness by the administration to discuss, for example, raising the Medicare eligibility age.

I asked Representative Keith Ellison, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, about the platform language yesterday. Speaking outside a church on the outskirts of downtown after a Progressive Democrats of America forum, he told me that nobody should worry too much about what the platform left out, but that he still wished it included stronger language on the safety net.

“I would prefer that it would say we won’t cut Medicare, Social Security [and] Medicaid. I’d prefer that,” he said. “But just because it’s not in a platform, doesn’t mean we’re not going to fight for it. Certainly the Progressive Caucus is absolutely dedicated, and I believe there’s way more people than just the Progressive Caucus believe in that idea, so I’m not too worried about it.”

The Progressive Caucus’ “People’s Budget,” unlike the official Democratic platform, straightforwardly promises to protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from cuts. I asked Ellison if he was worried the administration would once again offer benefit cuts during the upcoming negotiations. “Well, it might be put on the table, but we’re going to take it right off the table,” he said.

Meanwhile, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has an op-ed in today’s USA Today urging President Obama to explicitly promise to protect Social Security during his acceptance speech tomorrow night.

“In order to win support from the American middle class, it is absolutely imperative that the president provide a strong agenda that speaks to their needs, and that makes clear he will fight to win those proposals against the right-wing extremists who now control the Republican Party,” Sanders wrote. “The president must make it clear to the American people that he will not cut Social Security.”

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