Jon Wiener | The Nation

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Obama's 'Katrina Moment'? Never Mind.

The AIG bailout bonuses were "Obama's Katrina Moment" -- that's what Frank Rich argued in his New York Times column on Sunday. Just three days later that seems like a ridiculous claim.

The original "Katrina Moment" came when the public turned against George W. Bush, definitely and permanently, after seeing his massive incompetence in handling the aftermath of the hurricane in August 2005. Bush's approval ratings dropped below 40 percent, and never went back up.

Obama's approval ratings in contrast actually have gone up since Rich made his pronouncement: in a new CBS poll released Tuesday, 64 percent of Americans say they favor the job that Obama is doing right now – two points more than CBS's poll earlier this month. Even more significant, ratings for the president's handling of the overall economy increased from 56 to 61 percent.

Asked specifically about Obama's handling of the AIG bonuses, CBS reported that "For the first time since he became president, a significant number of Americans are expressing disapproval of Barack Obama's actions. . . . 42 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the president's handling of the AIG bonuses, while roughly the same percentage - 41 percent - approve."

So a lot of people don't like what he did with the AIG bonuses, but they still approve of the rest of what he's doing. The public, in this poll at least, is able to make some distinctions.

It's not hard to see where Frank Rich went wrong with his argument. With Katrina, it was pretty obvious what needed to be done: provide the basics of life -- water and food; get people out of the Superdome and into decent shelter. But with the financial crisis, people are not so sure what's the right thing to do. They know paying millions to AIG execs is wrong, but they also seem to know that's a small part of a big problem.

There are lots of good reasons to criticize Obama's actions on the financial bailout, and lots of good reasons for populist rage over AIG. But the public seems willing to give him more time -- to see what works, and what doesn't.

Obama Takes Fight to Southern Calif. GOP

When Barack Obama appeared on Wednesday at a town hall-style event at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Southern California, he was challenging the Republicans in their historic heartland. The area had been ground zero for the Goldwater revolution in the early 1960s. Orange County provided the core supporters and the money that launched Ronald Reagan's political career in the mid-sixties. Reagan won 75 per cent of Orange County's vote in 1984; George W. Bush won 60 per cent in 2004. The county has always been solidly Republican.

Until Obama.

The hardest of hard-core Republican congressional districts in California is coastal Orange County, centered on the wealthy town of Newport Beach – previously Chris Cox's district before George Bush elevated him to head the SEC. California political experts were stunned on Nov. 4 when Obama carried the district – by 2,500 votes. And in the city of Costa Mesa, Obama beat McCain 51-45.

Coastal Orange County wasn't the only Republican district Obama carried in California. As Harold Meyerson pointed out recently in an L.A. Times op-ed, California has 19 congressional districts that are currently Republican, and Obama won an astounding eight of them. (He also carried all 34 Democratic districts.)

Seven of the eight Republican districts Obama carried were in Southern California – in the distant L.A. suburbs including Palmdale, Lancaster, Simi Valley, Riverside, and also northern San Diego County.

What's going on here isn't a shift of traditional Republicans to the Democratic column. Older white voters still supported McCain. It's the younger people and the Latinos in the OC who voted for Obama. Significantly, these Orange County groups are growing in numbers, while the old white Republicans are dying out.

The demographic and political shift appeared first in northern Orange County in the late 1990s, when Bob Dornan was defeated by Loretta Sanchez in 1996.

Today the Bush legacy is a problem even for Orange County Republicans. "Obama is coming to a place that could be called the scene of the mortgage meltdown crime," the normally Republican Orange County Register declared Tuesday. "The largest concentration of sub prime lenders was headquartered in Orange County when the meltdown began."

California Democrats' immediate goal is to break the Republican stranglehold on the state legislature, where the Democrats hold a majority but where GOP assembly members blocked a centrist budget for months.

Obama knows the potential of Latino and younger voters in the OC and is obviously eager to recruit them to a permanent Democratic coalition. His visit to Costa Mesa Wednesday was one more step in achieving that goal – and by all measures a successful one.

AIG's "Best and Brightest"

"We cannot attract and retain the best and brightest talent," AIG says, unless they pay those bonuses -- $165 million. Barney Frank had the best and brightest reply: on the Rachel Maddow Show Monday night, he said: "I don't want to retain them."

He's talking about the people at AIG who brought down the company and then the financial institutions and then the rest of the world economy. "If you are trying to undo mistakes," Frank said, "it‘s very often not a good idea to keep the people who made the mistakes in there."

But that $165 million is only the latest in outrageous payments to "the best and brightest" talent at AIG. The disaster was rooted in AIG's Financial Products Group in London. In 2008, when the unit was collapsing, "they were still paying the head of the unit a consulting fee of $1 million a month," according to Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times, interviewed Monday on "Fresh Air with Terry Gross."

That man's name, for the record, is Joe Cassano. He left AIG a year ago, and these days he is not giving interviews; Morgenson said he is "lawyered up."

And the claim that AIG needs to pay bonuses to the people who brought the company down is only the latest in outrageous arguments. AIG was collapsing because it didn't have sufficient capital reserves to pay the insurance claims on the risky financial instruments it insured. Normally insurance companies are required to have sufficient reserves to pay claims, but the people AIG was insuring against loss -- Deutsche Bank, Barclays, BNP Paribas - did not require it to put aside any reserve for future potential losses, Morgenson reports. That's because AIG had such a high credit rating from Moody's and Standard and Poor's.

But when people have tried to sue the rating companies for incompetence, Morgenson told Terry Gross, the companies claimed their ratings are "opinions, just like a newspapers opinions," and "are therefore protected by the First Amendment." The courts thus far have accepted that argument.

The Obama Treasury Department apparently has accepted AIG's argument that it is contractually obligated to pay the bonuses – because the government cannot order a private company to break its contracts. Barney Frank had a good idea: the government wouldn't have to order a private company to break its contracts; the owners of the company could do that. "I want the American government to assert its right of ownership in this company," Frank told Rachel Maddow. "We own 80 percent. We should run the company."

Stop the Presses?

"It's time to stop the presses" at daily newspapers, and turn them into online-only publications – that's what former L.A. Times staffer Rick Wartzman says. Writing in Business Week this week, he says it's the only way to preserve the mission of journalists everywhere: report the facts on what the powerful are doing, and what's happening to the rest of us, and do it with the skill, professionalism and ethics often missing in the blogosphere. We need journalists, he says, but we don't need newsprint.

Wartzman is not some teenage blogger. He's worked in the heart of print journalism: he's the former Business Editor at the L.A. Times, and for a while he edited the paper's West magazine. Before that he worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. (He's also written a couple of terrific nonfiction books.) He took the Times buyout recently and now is director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. He's not an enthusiast for reading the news on the web; he calls himself "a guy who loves to go out and pick up the three newspapers that land on my front lawn every morning."

But he calls the end of daily newsprint "inescapable" – an economic necessity. The alternative, he says, is simple: daily newspapers will go broke and disappear completely. Denver's Rocky Mountain News has already stopped publishing. The LA Times is owned by The Tribune company, headed by the evil Sam Zell (so much for journalistic "neutrality" online), which is in bankruptcy. Also in bankruptcy: the owners of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Hearst Corp. will probably close the San Francisco Chronicle sometime soon.

But if newspapers can't survive on newsprint, could they really stay alive, and possibly even thrive, as online-only operations? Wartzman worked out the economics with the current editor of the LA Times, Russ Stanton. "Based on its current level of online ad revenue," Wartzman writes, "the L.A. Times could support a staff of about 275 people at their present salaries," of whom about 150 would work in the newsroom. The good news is that, at this level, "The paper would be a solid moneymaker, boasting a profit margin of about 10%."

The bad news is a newsroom of 150. That may sound big to readers of The Nation, but just a couple of years ago the L.A. Times had more than 1,000 reporters and editors. Today it has about 625. An online L.A. Times would be tiny compared to the glory days.

But is the abandonment of print really necessary for the survival of serious journalism? I can't help remembering when TV arrived in the 1950s, all the experts predicted the end of the Hollywood studios. They asked who would pay to sit in a theater to watch something they could see at home for free? But the studios found ways to compete with television, and today the film industry makes billions of dollars.

The same thing happened when FM radio arrived, and all the experts said that meant the end of AM. But AM radio was re-invented – in part by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk – and now makes a fortune for its owners. E-mail didn't lead to the closing of the Post Office. Cell phones didn't make land lines obsolete. Those of us who love to go out and pick up their newspapers from the front lawn every morning are now hoping something similar will happen with newsprint.

Prediction: Franken Will Win by 27 Votes

Nate Silver, whose website FiveThirtyEight.com had the most accurate predictions for the Nov. 4 vote for president and senators, has a new prediction: Al Franken will win the Minnesota Senate recount -- by 27 votes.

Franken came in 215 votes behind incumbent Republican Norm Coleman on election day, in an election where 2.9 million votes were cast. Under Minnesota election law, a hand recount was mandatory and began last Wednesday.

Silver, a sports statistician who turned his formidable mathematical talents to evaluating political polls for the 2008 election, became a legend among political junkies when his final prediction for the Nov. 4 election accurately predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states. He forecast that Obama would beat McCain by 6.1 percentage points; Obama won by 6.8 points. Silver also correctly predicted the winner of every Senate race (except for Minnesota, which has not yet been settled).

Silver's methodology relies on multivariate regression analysis, well-known to statisticians but difficult for non-specialists to grasp. In this case he is analyzing precinct-by-precinct returns available on the Secretary of State's website, and focusing on the number of challenges from each camp. He released his projection Sunday afternoon.

The law governing recounts in Minnesota is excellent. The state has a complete paper trail for all ballots and a uniform system of counting for all counties (unlike Florida in 2000). If any intent on the part of the voter can be discerned, the ballot must be counted.

Disputed ballots will be adjudicated by a five-person state panel consisting of the Secretary of State and four judges. The Secretary of State is a Democrat; two of the judges were appointed by a Republican governor, one by an independent, and one elected in a non-partisan election.

Minnesota's ballot requires that voters fill in a circle next to the candidate's name. Machines read the ballots but fail to count votes indicated by check marks, X's, circled names, or other marks. Experts had predicted that Franken would pick up more votes in the hand count because Democrats were more likely to mis-mark their ballots – because they were first-time voters or less educated.

Since the law requires that any discernible intent of the voter be counted, those experts predicted that Franken would win. But they lacked a firm statistical basis for their prediction.

When FiveThirtyEight.com got almost five million page views on Election Day, the New York Times called Silver "perhaps the most unlikely media star to emerge" in 2008. He was also featured in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and the New Republic, and he appeared on The Colbert Report and the Rachel Maddow Show.

The race has special significance for Democrats: it's for the seat of legendary liberal Paul Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash a week before election day in 2002. If Franken goes to Washington, the Democrats will have 59 seats in the Senate – close enough to the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority they have been dreaming of.

As of Sunday night at 800pm, the official recount had Coleman ahead by a whopping 25,000 votes, with about two-thirds of the ballots recounted and each side challenging about 950 of the other's ballots. That seems like a significant lead for Coleman, but Silver is sticking by his prediction.


Hillary's Big Ethics Problem: Bill

What guidelines should govern Bill Clinton's future activities if Hillary becomes Secretary of State? Recent events suggest that at least two are necessary: no more favors for human rights violators in exchange for big contributions to the Clinton Foundation; and no more lying to the news media about such deals.

It's worth remembering the nearly-forgotten story we could call "Bill Clinton and the Kazakh uranium." As Jo Becker and Don Van Natta Jr. of the New York Times reported in January, 2008, Bill Clinton was part of a corrupt three-way deal in 2005 involving the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose human rights record has been criticized by many, including the Bush White House -- and Senator Hillary Clinton.

Kazakhstan has uranium--one fifth of the world's reserves. The president of Kazakhstan wanted to be named head of an international election-monitoring organization--the same one that had ruled his election fraudulent. What to do?

Bill Clinton had the solution: it centered on a Canadian financier named Frank Giustra who wanted to get in on the Kazakh uranium projects. Clinton and Giustra flew to Kazakhstan in September 2005 on Giustra's private jet and met with President Nazarabayev. According to the New York Times, Bill "expressed enthusiastic support for the Kazakh leader's bid to head an international organization that monitors elections," despite official opposition from the US as well as from his own wife.

Two days later, Giustra got the uranium deal he wanted. And shortly after that, the Clinton Foundation got its single largest contribution -- from a foundation controlled by Giustra -- $31 million. The contribution was secret, of course.

Then Jo Becker and Don Van Natta Jr. of the New York Times got onto the story. And then the Clinton people started lying.

When the Times asked about Bill's trip to Kazakhstan with the Canadian financier, Clinton sent a written response declaring that the two took the trip together "to see first-hand the philanthropic work done by his foundation." The paper reported that "a spokesman for Mr. Clinton" said Bill "did nothing to help" Giustra get his deal.

That story fell apart when the president of the Kazakh uranium project told the Times that the Canadian did discuss the deal directly with the Kazakh president, and that, according to the paper, "his friendship with Mr. Clinton 'of course made an impression.'"

But what does any of this have to do with Hillary? Quite a bit, it turns out: key staff members of her campaign also played key roles in the Clinton Foundation. Hillary's campaign chairman and chief fund-raiser, Terry McAuliffe, according to the New York Times, also "led the foundation's fund-raising and sits on its board." Hillary's campaign general counsel, Cheryl Mills, also sits on the foundation board. Hillary's campaign press secretary, Jay Carson, previously held a communications position at the foundation.

Frank Giustra is the biggest contributor to the Clinton Foundation, and the one the New York Times investigated. But the foundation has 208,000 contributors. How many other Kazakh-type deals did Bill make with them? Clinton is keeping their names secret from the public (although he has turned them over to the Obama team vetting Hillary).

Here's one more guideline regarding Hillary as Secretary of State: no more secrecy for donors to the Clinton Foundation.

McCain's Favorite TV Show, '24,' Brings Torture Back Sunday

John McCain's favorite TV show, 24 -- the one that glorifies torture - is returning to Fox TV this Sunday night with a two-hour special.

McCain named 24 as his favorite show on his Facebook page. The show has done more to advance the Bush White House defense of torture than anything else in the American media. According to its "ticking time bomb" scenario, the only way to stop terrorists from exploding a nuclear weapon in the heart of an American city is to torture them into revealing their fiendish plot.

During the campaign McCain was asked by a reporter which celebrity he most identified with. "It's Jack Bauer," he replied -- the Kiefer Sutherland character who does most of the torturing. "We have a lot in common." And in 2007 he talked about 24 on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart: "I watch it all the time," he said. "I'm sort of a Jack Bauer kind of guy."

You might think McCain's own experience as the victim of torture would make it hard for him to name the head of torture on TV as the celebrity he most identifies with. Perhaps we have here a delayed case of the famous "Stockholm Syndrome," where victims come to identify with their captors.

Jack Bauer deals with terrorists every week on the show: they are chained to walls or chairs, and he suffocates them, electrocutes them, shoots them, and sometimes tortures their children in front of them. Of course it always works; America is always saved by torture.

McCain appeared in a cameo on the show in 2006. "I shoot one guy's kneecap off, only one," McCain told reporters afterward. "A red-hot poker is planted in someone's chest, but other than that, there is no torture." (In fact McCain appeared only for a few seconds, handing a folder to someone else.)

McCain's enthusiasm for torture on TV is all the more puzzling because of his leadership in the Senate's legislation outlawing torture. In 2005 he introduced a bill prohibiting torture of prisoners including those held at Guantanamo, and the Senate passed it, 90-9. In the first TV debate in September McCain proudly declared, "I have opposed the president . . . on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay."

But according to 24, it is suicidal folly to follow the rules McCain sponsored about the treatment of prisoners. The same argument has been made by Bush spokesmen including Dick Cheney, who immediately after 9-11 said it would be necessary for the US to go to what he called "the dark side" to defeat Islamic extremism.

Cheney didn't explain much about what he meant, but "On '24,' the dark side is on full view," says New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, author of the award-winning book The Dark Side.

Historians say the "ticking time bomb" scenario advanced by the show, and the Bush administration, is purely fictional -- it's never happened that terrorists with knowledge of an imminent attack were in custody.

During the year-long political campaign, only one reporter confronted McCain with the seeming contradiction between his opposition to torture in real life and his love of torture on TV: Tara McKelvey of Marie Claire, a women's monthly published by Hearst. When McCain told McKelvey that he identified with Jack Bauer, she had exactly the right follow-up: "Um, he's also a torturer."

According to the published transcript, McCain responded, "Yeah, that's right. That's where Jack and I disagree. He believes in torture, but I don't. He says, 'Tell me where the weapons are.' The person says, 'I won't.' Bam! 'OK, I'll tell.'"

Then they moved on to Borat.

Sunday's two-hour 24 show is set on the day a woman president takes office -- a slight miscalculation by the show's writers. Previews show Jack Bauer with a group of children in Africab -- but he's not torturing them, he's rescuing them. The regular one-hour episodes begin next January.

One final note: Obama also listed a favorite TV show on his own Facebook page: his was ESPN Sportscenter.

California Initiatives: Go Figure

In California's wild world of ballot initiatives, the chickens defeated the egg factory owners, and an anti-abortion parental notification proposition was defeated.

Prop. 8, the ban on gay marriage, is winning 52-48 with 95 per cent reporting: see our separate coverage today by Richard Kim.

California's anti-abortion/parental notification initiative is losing, 52-48, with 95 percent of precincts reporting. The campaign was deeply dishonest – proponents called their proposition "Sarah's Law," supposedly in honor of a 15-year-old girl who died from an abortion gone wrong 14 years ago, an abortion where the parents were not notified. As the LA Times pointed out in an editorial, "Much of that is false. The girl's name wasn't Sarah; she lived in Texas, not California; and though she was 15, she already had a child and was in a common-law marriage, which means she wouldn't have been covered by the law Californians are being asked to consider."

The ad campaign for the proposition described "older men" who "exploit young girls and use secret abortions to cover up their crimes." But as the Times pointed out, "The most recent known case of serious injury that might have been prevented by Proposition 4 occurred in the 1980s." It was basically an anti-abortion initiative, with more than half of its funding coming from a single source, according to San Diego CityBeat: James Holman, editor and publisher of the San Diego Reader, who contributed about $1.5 million of the $2.7 million spent by the proponents.

Prop. 2, sponsored by the Humane Society, combated inhumane treatment of animals being bred for food – primarily chickens, who under the proposition would have to be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs in their cages. Similar provisions govern the treatment of pigs and cows. Egg farmers would have six full years before the new rules took full effect.

You might think everyone in California would support it, except for egg factory owners – but the L.A. Times officially recommended a "No" vote, on the grounds that it would increase the cost of California eggs and encourage the importation of cheaper out-of-state eggs. The voters didn't go for that argument – the proposition passed, 63-37 per cent.

Reform of the treatment of low-level drug users was the subject of a proposition asking voters to reverse the trend toward more draconian criminal law. Prop. 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, funded in part by George Soros, would have been "the most ambitious sentencing and prison reform in U.S. history," according to the Drug Policy Alliance Network. The measure would have substituted treatment for incarceration of those who committed nonviolent crimes involving drugs. It also would have ended the practice of returning to prison many ex-convicts with low-level parole violations.

The initiative was opposed by Governor Schwarzenegger and four predecessors from both parties: former governors Gray Davis, Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown. The prison guards union spent $1.8 million to defeat the proposition. And it was defeated, 60-40.


Life After Election Day

No more Todd, no more Track, no more Bristol.

No more Jon Stewart.

No more Colbert Report.

No more Rachel Maddow.

No more Bill Maher.

No more Politico.

No more Pollster.

No more RealClearPolitics, no more Talking Points Memo.

No more Daily Kos.

No more Hotline.

No more Hardball.

No more Gallup, no more Zogby, no more Rasmussen.

No more Drudge.

No more undecideds.

No more Sarah Palin.

No more John McCain.

The Undecideds: What's Their Problem?

Undecided voters--"or, as I call them, morons," Bill Maher says--remained a stubborn five or six percent of the electorate as the polls reported final results yesterday. Obama and McCain each have spent tens of millions on TV ads to persuade them, and thousands of hours of door-to-door canvassing to talk to them face to face. 

What's their problem? The undecideds have been staring at the menu now for almost a year--why haven't they made up their minds?

In fact the "undecideds" include at least four different groups

-- 1. The cross-pressured: people with conflicting political interests--upper-class white women from Republican families who are pro-choice; older white union members who don't want a black president.

-- 2. The cynical and alienated: people who say "all politicians are alike; they're all liars; the system is rigged."

-- 3. The inattentive and the ignorant: people who don't pay attention to politics, who say they aren't interested.

-- 4. The deceivers: people who really have decided--but won't tell the pollsters.

Each of these groups is likely to follow a different trajectory today:

The cross-pressured are the principal target for both campaigns, but for at least some of them, economic pressures push them towards Obama.

The cynical and alienated are likely to vote for a third party, or not at all.

The inattentive and ignorant may be moved by the enthusiasm and passion of the Obama campaign and its focus on the economy and health care.

The deceivers seem to me to be more likely to be secretive McCain supporters than Obama people.

So today it's hard to see any decisive movement one way or the other from the undecideds, but we may see some movement towards Obama.

Nevertheless, their votes could be crucial in states where the leading candidate had less than 50 per cent in the final polls. In Florida, for instance: Pollster.com, which aggregates the poll numbers, ended up with Obama at 48.3 and McCain at 46.1. That means 5.6 of likely voters were undecided the weekend before Election Day. If 71 per cent of the Florida undecideds went for McCain, he'd win 51.1 per cent of the popular vote – and of course all of Florida's 27 electoral votes.

The situation is similar in the final polling for Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina, where Obama is ahead but didn't reach the 50 per cent mark.

Still, there's nothing that requires the undecideds to make up their minds. Despite the tens of millions the campaigns have spent to win their votes, many will probably stay home today. If that happens, Obama probably wins most of the swing states, where he was ahead in the final polls.

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