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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

How Sarah Palin Could Beat Obama in 2012

Sarah Palin could win the presidency in 2012—that’s what Frank Rich said in the New York Times on Sunday—but not in a two-person head-to-head race. For Palin to beat Obama, a third-party candidate would have to run, and take votes away from Obama. 

And we have a potential third-party spoiler, Rich says: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He’s got the money, and he’s got the ambition. He ran for mayor as a Republican in 2006 but changed his registration the next year and won re-election as an independent.

Obama’s hope is that Republicans will pick Palin in 2012. The latest CNN poll shows him beating her 52-44 percent, but losing to Mitt Romney 50-45 and to Mike Huckabee 52-44. But those are all two-person races.

According to the Palin-wins scenario cited by Frank Rich, Bloomberg takes away from Obama the votes of moderates who think he’s been too liberal, who think the country needs a president who’s truly a centrist. Obama loses New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to Bloomberg, and loses moderate votes that gave him the majority in 2008 in key industrial states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana--where the white working class never liked Obama anyway, but gave him a chance in 2008. In 2012 they go to Bloomberg and Palin carries those states. Palin takes office in January 2013.

The Bloomberg-as-spoiler scenario may seem unlikely, but Obama is already worrying about it. He’s been courting Bloomberg big time, as John Heilemann pointed out in New York magazine: Obama invited Bloomberg to play golf when he was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard; he floated Bloomberg’s name as a potential Treasury secretary, he made a big deal of sending Joe Biden and Tim Geithner to “seek his economic counsel.”  

But how likely is it that Palin would be the beneficiary of a Bloomberg candidacy? Seems to me it’s more likely that Bloomberg would win the votes of Republicans who think Palin is a disaster, but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Obama. They’d go for Bloomberg, who would thus serve as a spoiler for the Republican candidate rather than the Democratic one.

Evidence for that scenario comes from anxious Republicans, especially from Haley Barbour, Republican governor of Mississippi, who urged Bloomberg not to run. He told CNN on Friday that a third-party bid by Bloomberg would be "the best thing that can happen to President Obama" because he’s take votes away from the Republicans.

But will Bloomberg run? He considered running in 2008. He’s “surrounded by people urging him to run,” according to Heilemann. Reports are that he sees 2012 as his last chance, because he will be 68. 

The hard part for any third-party candidate is getting on the ballot in all fifty states. But there’s already a potential path for Bloomberg, called Americans Elect. It has a website promising a third-party candidate who would represent “the vital center of American public opinion.” According to Heilemann, it’s funded by “a wealthy private investor,” Peter Ackerman, who has already put $1.5 million into the project.

If the economy doesn’t recover, if Obama doesn’t rebound in the opinion polls and if the Republicans pick Palin, Bloomberg could conclude that neither party has what American voters want and need. He could spend a billion dollars of his own money on a campaign, or even two or three billion. No one is sure what would happen—that’s why both Haley Barbour and Barack Obama are trying to keep Bloomberg from running.

 
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Meg Whitman Pays $144 Million for her Own Campaign, $5,500 to Her Housekeeper

Meg Whitman, the Republican who spent $144 million of her own money running for governor of California, has agreed to pay her former housekeeper back wages of $5,500.

The housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, had charged that Whitman underpaid her and then fired her when she learned that she was undocumented. The housekeeper’s press conference, a month before election day, provided the final nail in the coffin of Whitman’s campaign. Latinos were outraged over the mistreatment of someone Whitman said was like a member of her family, and Republicans were outraged that Whitman merely fired her housekeeper and didn’t report her for immediate deportation. 

On election day, Whitman won the votes of only 13 per cent of Latino voters. She lost to Jerry Brown, 54 - 41 per cent. 

The back pay settlement came after a three-hour hearing before the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement on Wednesday.

The LA Times noted in an editorial that Whitman’s campaign expenditure of $144 million amounted to $36 for every vote she got, and that the $5,500 she owed her housekeeper amounted to “the price of a mere 152 more votes.”

Fox News called the settlement “chump change.” With the money she spent on her campaign, they calculated, Whitman could have settled with 25,455 housekeepers.

The lesson for candidates seems clear: the people who work for you should be paid what you owe them.

Actually that lesson applies not just to candidates, but to all employers.

 
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My Favorite Doonesbury Character: Mr. Butts

Of all the characters in the last forty years of Doonesbury, my personal favorite is Mr. Butts—and not just because he appeared on the cover of The Nation (January 1, 1996). Garry Trudeau has had lots of more compelling characters, but Mr. Butts in his own way was perfect: the smiling cigarette-man who was unfailingly cheerful about how cool it was for kids to smoke.

Mr. Butts crossed over from the comics to real life in 1994, when University of California tobacco researcher Dr. Stanton Glantz received a big Fedex box with the return address "Mr. Butts." The box, as I reported in The Nation, contained 4,000 pages of documents that one of world's largest cigarette makers—Brown & Williamson (B&W)—later claimed were stolen from its files. B&W, the nation's third-largest tobacco company, makes Kool, Pall Mall, and Lucky Strike, among other brands. The documents, which made a pile four feet high, represented a smoking gun in the debate over the effect of tobacco on health: they showed that "thirty years ago the tobacco industry knew that nicotine was an addictive substance," Glantz said, "and that it caused cancer. And it showed that they withheld this information from the public."

The Nation featured the story "Inside the Butts Box" with a cover drawn by Garry Trudeau that featured Mr. Butts himself delivering a Fedex box and saying, "Hello? Anyone home?"

Meanwhile, back on the comics pages, Mr. Butts went on to testify before Congress, and even went to Iraq, where he was B.D.'s best friend—before B.D. lost a leg in a rocket-grenade attack near Fallujah.

A lot of people (myself included) think Garry Trudeau's recent work on injured vets from the Iraq and Afghan wars is the best he's ever done. Garry Wills writes in a wonderful piece in the current New York Review of Books that, with the stories of disabled vets in rehab, Trudeau passed "the supreme test for a comic strip artist: How do you laugh and cry at the same time?"

Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post reporter who followed Trudeau around VA hospitals in 2006, saw him with "men with burns, men with gouges, men missing an arm, men missing a leg, men missing an arm and a leg, men missing an arm and both legs, men missing parts of their faces"—and wrote about how good Trudeau was at talking with them: "It's partly compassionate support for people he has a genuine regard for, and it's part journalism—the damnedest sort of reporting, for a professional cartoonist."

The injured vets B.D., his rehab counselor Elias and now Toggle, the heavy metal kid who lost an eye in the war, are the best. But Mr. Butts was special—the face of the tobacco industry, always smiling, always lying. The first forty years of Doonesbury have been glorious; I hope Garry Trudeau never stops.

 
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Obama, Wall Street and the Voters: Good News and Really Bad News

The election day exit polls had some good news for Obama: voters don't blame him for "current economic problems." But the same poll also had some really bad news for him.

Voters on Tuesday were given three choices about who to blame for the great recession: Wall Street, Bush, or Obama. The largest number, as many commentators noted, blamed Wall Street: 35 percent. Second came Bush at 29 percent. Obama was last, at 23 percent. So only a few voters hold Obama responsible for "current economic problems"—that's the good news.

Here's the bad news: among those who blamed Wall Street, 56 percent voted Republican. Only 42 percent voted for a Democrat. That is a complete reversal of the historic pattern where the Republican Party has been associated with Wall Street, and hostility to Wall Street associated with Democratic voters.

Apparently a lot of voters on Tuesday believed that Obama's top priority was helping the big New York investment houses and banks, and that helping people who had lost their jobs came in a distinct second in his priorities. They weren't wrong about that.

So the fourteen-point gap in the party vote among those who blame Wall Street explains a lot about what happened last Tuesday. Voters were reacting not just to Republican propaganda tying Obama to TARP but also to some real facts: Obama made the bank bailout his first priority, and postponed financial reform for a year and a half after that.

And he decided not to fight for a bigger stimulus, not to press for a bigger program focused on job creation.

 

The result is that Republicans won a huge majority of the votes of those who blame "Wall Street" for the economic crisis. If unemployment eases over the next year, Obama has a chance to regain some of their support. But if it doesn't, it's hard to imagine what he could do to win back those he lost last week.

Barbara Boxer Got More Votes than Ten Tea Party Senate Candidates Combined

California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer defeated challenger Carly Fiorina by a ten-point margin on Tuesday, winning a total of 3.7 million votes, more than the combined vote total of ten Tea Party senate candidates.

The Tea Party Senate candidates made big news, but they ran mostly in small states. Also, several lost.

Christine O’Donnell got a lot of publicity in the nation, but only 122,000 votes in Delaware. Boxer got more than that in Long Beach.

Joe Miller in Alaska got only 68,000 votes. Sharron Angle in Nevada got only 321,000 votes.

O’Donnell, Miller and Angle lost their elections—along with Linda McMahon in Connecticut—but even the Tea Party candidates who won didn’t get very many votes compared to Boxer. Rand Paul in Kentucky was elected with 752,000 votes; Boxer got five times that many. She got twenty times more than Tea Party winner John Hoeven in North Dakota, ten times more than Mike Crapo in Idaho.

The biggest Tea Party vote getter nationally among Senate candidates was Marco Rubio in Florida, with 2.6 million votes—but that was a million votes less than Boxer.

The point is that, while the Tea Party was portrayed by the media as a big favorite among voters on Tuesday, in fact the vote total among their Senate candidates was small compared to the Democrats’ biggest vote-getter.

The Tea Party itself was not responsible for a single Republican pickup in the Senate. And they were responsible for the Republicans’ failure to pick up at least two Democratic seats: if they had not run Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Republicans probably would have won those two seats.

Sharron Angle and the Tea Party in 2010 was the best thing that ever happened to Harry Reid—and Sarah Palin in 2012 would be the best thing that could happen to Barack Obama.

For the record, the ten Tea Party Senate candidates (as identified by Fox News) whose total votes were less than Boxer’s (3,686,000): Joe Miller, Alaska (68,000), Christine O’Donnell, Delaware (123,000), John Hoeven, North Dakota (178,000), Mike Crapo, Idaho (310,000), Sharron Angle, Nevada (321,000), Mike Lee, Utah (360,000), John Boozman, Arkansas (432,000), Linda McMahon, Connecticut (453,000), Jerry Moran, Kansas (571,000), and Dino Rossi, Washington state (708,000 with some uncounted at this hour).

Marijuana Legalization Fails in California

California’s initiative to legalize marijuana failed to win a majority at the polls Tuesday. Prop 19, which received 3.3 million votes but lost 54 percent to 46 percent, would have would have legalized possession and cultivation of marijuana and authorized cities and counties to regulate and tax commercial marijuana production and sales.

Exit polls showed supporters were mostly young—under 25—while voters over 40 were mostly opposed.

The Obama administration had publicly opposed the initiative. Attorney General Eric Holder promised to enforce federal law that criminalizes marijuana possession and sale even if they became legal under California law.

All the statewide Democratic candidates opposed the measure, starting with Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer. All the big newspapers opposed it.

The measure had a huge advantage in funding: the “yes” side raised $4 million, including $1 million from George Soros, while opponents had only $311,000, according to the LA Times.

Many high-profile celebrities campaigned for a "yes" vote—I got a robocall from Susan Sarandon on election day, and Bill Maher plugged the measure on his HBO show on Friday night. Other outspoken advocates included Sting, Willy Nelson, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito, Melissa Etheridge and Zach Galifianakis, who lit up a (fake) joint on Bill Maher’s show.

Supporters also included the California NAACP and the ACLU, along with most of the big unions—including the SEIU and the AFT.

Defenders of the bill argued that legalization would "decapitate drug cartels in Mexico," allow the police to pursue real criminals instead of pot smokers, keep tens of thousands of young, mostly nonwhite people out of jail, and raise billions in tax dollars for cities and counties.

But only the San Francisco Bay Area had a majority in favor of Prop 19. It failed in Los Angeles County, 54 percent to 46 percent, according to exit polls, and 59 percent to 41 percent in the rest of Southern California.

Why the Democrats Will Win in California

When the votes are counted on Tuesday night in California, Democrats will easily sweep the top contests. Senator Barbara Boxer is likely to defeat challenger Carly Fiorina, 51-46 percent (Nate Silver’s projection at 538.com), and last week’s California Field poll shows Democrat Jerry Brown ahead of Republican Meg Whitman in the gubernatorial race by ten points.

Across the nation, the Republicans have a better-than-even chance of winning fifty seats held by Democrats—but none of those seats are in California.

Why are the Republicans doing so badly in California, when they are anticipating sweeping victories so many other places? 

It's not "the economy, stupid." Yes, the rule in politics is that the unemployment rate is the most powerful predictor of incumbent approval ratings. But that's not true in California, which has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation—officially 12.4 percent (while the nation as a whole is at 9.2 percent).

It’s not campaign funding. Yes, the rule in politics is that the candidate with the most money wins. But Whitman has spent $141 million on her campaign, outspending Brown four to one.

It's not the candidates. Yes, Whitman looks weak now. But just a month ago she was tied with Brown. And Boxer was considered "beatable" a few months ago, when her disapproval ratings were slightly higher than her approval ratings.

The best explanation: Democrats remain strong in California because "demography is destiny." That's what Harold Meyerson says—he writes a column for the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and the LA Times

"The electorate in California is the least white of any state, except Hawaii," Meyerson said in a recent interview. "That matters, because the Republicans have a genius for alienating voters of color."

The Republican Party is increasingly a party of white people—and that, Meyerson says, "is death in California." And although the Democrats in Congress have been, frankly, bad on immigration reform, the Republicans have been a lot worse: for them, "you’re a criminal suspect if you look Latino."

The only Republican to win a top statewide office in California in the past fifteen years is Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the only reason he won was that he didn’t have to run in a Republican primary—he won the recall vote against Democrat Grey Davis in 2003. Republican primaries compel Republican candidates to move to the right—and, Meyerson says, "to say things that are a disaster with the Latino community."

California is exceptional also because the share of workers who are white and working class is much lower than the share in the Midwestern states, where the Democrats face big losses. While Obama has "a low cultural affinity with those voters," Meyerson says, the way to reach them has been through an economic appeal—but there has not been enough in the Obama economic program to convince those voters that he is their economic champion. 

In the past, unions made the case to their members that the Republicans would be worse—but in the private sector union membership is down to 7 percent of the work force, so the Democrats don’t have much to push back with. But in California, unions are stronger than most other states.

The big change began in the early 1990s, when aerospace collapsed in California. That led to a major out-migration of the white working class. At the same time there was a major in-migration of Latinos. 

The result is that, in the last four years the Democrats have addded a million new voters in California, while the Repulicans have lost 200,000. As of September 3, the official count lists 44 percent of the state's registered voters as Democrats, while only 31 percent were Republicans. So the GOP will be celebrating in a lot of states on Tuesday night, but not in California.

Legalizing Pot: Good for the Jews?

As Californians prepare to vote Tuesday on a statewide initiative to legalize marijuana, The Jewish Journal, Los Angeles’s Jewish weekly, features a cover story on whether legal pot is good for the Jews.
 
The answer, in brief: the rabbis are ambivalent.
 
Rabbi Elliot Dorf, professor of ethics and Jewish law at the American Jewish University, says that, “on the one hand,” Judaism forbids drugs that harm the body, because “God owns our bodies.” But “on the other hand,” marijuana “may be more akin to alcohol” – for example, Manischewitz concord grape wine. And of course the Jewish God has no problem with that.
 
Harriet Rossetto, fonder and CEO of Beit T’Shuvah, a drug treatment center “founded on Jewish spirituality,” told the Jewish Journal that, on the one hand, “for a lot of addicts, marijuana is a gateway drug.” But of course there is “on the other hand”: “criminalization creates another set of issues that exacerbate the problem.”
 
Then there is the “pot prince” of L.A.’s Jewish community, Matthew Cohen, also profiled in the Jewish Journal. His legal medical marijuana dispensary, The Natural Way of L.A., claims to carry “the best-quality product in the world.” “Jews know good pot,” Cohen said. 
 

Ed Rosenthal is another Jew prominent in the legalize-it movement. Rosenthal has published several books on how to grow marijuana and writes a column for High Times magazine, “Jews have a special affinity for marijuana,” he told the Jewish Journal. “It’s an intellectual drug, not a drug that takes you outside your senses like alcohol or opiates.”
 
And, he added, “a lot of marijuana research comes out of Israel.”

 
Another prominent L.A. Jew on the pot landscape is Allison Margolin, described in the Jewish Journal as “L.A.’s dopest attorney.” A graduate of Temple Emanuel Academy Day School (and then Columbia, followed by Harvard Law), she is one of the most recognizable criminal defense attorneys in marijuana cases. Her father, attorney Bruce Margolin, has been in court on behalf of marijuana defendants for 40 years. She’s a prominent advocate of the legalize-it initiative. 
 
The only real danger posed by pot, she told the Jewish Journal, is “obesity – because people get the munchies.”
  
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalization, spoke recently at a San Francisco Reform synagogue about California’s ballot proposition. “Is this good for the Jews?” he asked, and answered “It’s good for individual values and social justice, so yes, it’s good for the Jews. The alternative—the war on drugs—is grounded in ignorance, fear, prejudice and profit, values one would like to believe are anathema to Jews.”
 
As far as official Jewish organizations go, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution in 2003 supporting medical marijuana and called on Reform congregations to support legalization for medical purposes. But Reform Judaism does not support California’s legalize-it proposition, and neither do any other Jewish denominations.

 

Could WikiLeaks Have Prevented 9/11? Former FBI Agent Says Yes

As WikiLeaks prepares to release 400,000 Iraq war documents, two former government security officials argue that WikiLeaks could have prevented 9/11, if the website had been around in 2001.

The two ought to know: Coleen Rowley, the Minneapolis FBI agent who tried to sound the alarm a month before 9/11, and Bogdan Dzakovic, a special agent for the FAA’s security division, who was a leader of the agency’s “Red Team” that was warning officials about vulnerabilities in airport security just before 9/11.

“Things might have been different if there had been a quick, confidential way to get information out,” the two write—and WikiLeaks could have provided exactly that, according to their op-ed in the LA Times on Friday.

The information they wanted to get out was about Zacarias Moussaoui, the French Moroccan attending flight school in Minnesota who was interested in learning how to fly a commercial jet, but was not interested in learning how to land one. Rowley was one of those trying to sound the alarm about him. And a foreign intelligence service had reported that Moussaoui had connections with a foreign terrorist group.

Less than a month before 9/11, an FBI supervisor sent a warning to officials in Washington.  He pleaded that he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.” 

It doesn’t get much more specific than that. But FBI officials in Washington refused to act, or make any public statement about Moussaoui.

“WikiLeaks might have provided a pressure valve for those agents who were terribly worried about what might happen and frustrated by their superiors’ seeming indifference,” Rowley and Dzakovic argue. “Their bosses issued continual warnings against ‘talking to the media’ and frowned on whistle-blowing, yet the agents felt a strong need to protect the public.”

The 9/11 Commission concluded that the 9/11 hijackers probably would have postponed their action if information about Moussaoui’s secret arrest had become public. And if WikiLeaks had existed, it could have made the information public.

“Official channels for whistle-blower protections have long proved illusory,” Rowley and Dzakovic write. Worried and frustrated FBI agents could go to the media, “but that can’t be done fully anonymously, and it also puts reporters at risk of being sent to jail for refusing to reveal their sources.” 

Therefore, they conclude, “WikiLeaks provides a crucial safety valve”—one that could have prevented 9/11.

Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina Don’t Want to Be Seen with Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin is coming to California this weekend, but the state’s top Republican candidates will be elsewhere while she speaks at a fundraiser in Anaheim on Saturday.

Carly Fiorina, running behind Barbara Boxer in the Senate race, explained: “There are all sorts of people who have endorsed me that I don’t appear with.”

Meg Whitman, the challenger to Jerry Brown who has spent $120 million of her own money on her campaign, won’t be there because she has “competing campaign events that day,” according to a spokesman.

The real reason why the state’s top Republican candidates are avoiding Sarah Palin can be found in the new polls: most Californians don’t like Sarah Palin. According to last week’s Field Poll, 69 percent of the state’s independent voters say they have an “unfavorable” impression of the former Alaska governor. 

Pollsters asked registered voters, “If Sarah Palin were to endorse a candidate for political office in California, would this make you more inclined or less inclined to vote for the candidate?” 

Only 9 percent of independents answered “more inclined.” 66 percent said “less inclined.”

And since California is a Democratic state—Obama won 60 per cent of the vote here in 2008—Republican candidates for statewide office can’t win without the support of a lot of independent voters. That’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger did.

One question remains: why would Sarah Palin campaign in a state where she’s so unpopular with key voters and where the top GOP candidates don’t want to be seen with her?

The answer is simple: 2012.

A lot of Republicans in the state love Palin. Only 18 percent of Republicans in that same poll report a “negative” impression of her. If she is going to run for president in 2010, she needs two things from California: votes in the primary, and money. And Orange County has provided lots of votes and lots of money for Republicans for the last fifty years.

Polls show that both Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina will lose on Nov. 2. But that’s not Sarah Palin’s problem. When she comes to Anaheim on Saturday, she will be laying the groundwork for herself in 2012.

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