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Monday, January 5, 2009

It's the Senate for Bennet

Denver Public Schools superintendent Michael Bennet will be named Saturday as the future U.S. Senate replacement for Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar.

Photo by Chris Schneider / The Rocky/2007

Denver Public Schools superintendent Michael Bennet will be named Saturday as the future U.S. Senate replacement for Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar.

Gov. Bill Ritter is shattering conventional wisdom in tapping the popular but politically untested Michael Bennet, superintendent of Denver Public Schools, as the U.S. Senate replacement for Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar.

The surprising move, expected at a state Capitol news conference Saturday, perplexed many political insiders, most of whom considered Bennet the darkhorse candidate in a field crowded with big name, political veterans like Bennet's old boss, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

To some, the reaction wasn't head-scratching.

It was jaw-dropping.

"I'm very surprised. He's improbable. He's risky," said pollster Floyd Ciruli, who figured the little-known Bennet would barely be a blip in the polls because he's so unknown. . "He's qualified, and he could be a really, very special and sensational senator. But at least initially, from the political side of it, you are puzzled."

Bennet's selection was confirmed by multiple Democratic sources, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting the governor's announcement. Ritter's office only announced the 2 p.m. news conference. Bennet declined comment, as did various top-level Democrats who had been informed of the decision.

The selection was unconventional, just like Bennet and his unique political résumé.

A graduate of Wesleyan University and Yale Law School, he started his career in the legal field and was counsel to the deputy U.S. Attorney General under former President Bill Clinton.

He later moved into the business world and relocated to Denver, helping the Anschutz Investment Company reorganize and turn around "distressed" companies like Regal Cinemas, United Artists, Edwards Theaters and the energy company Forcenergy.

In 2005, the Denver Board of Education plucked him from the mayor's staff to become Denver Public Schools superintendent, and he made his name reforming the pay-for-performance plan and wrestling with budget challenges.

"His strengths are that he has clearly got a lot of ability ... running the Denver school system without it blowing up is probably one of the more impossible jobs in the state," said political consultant Paul Talmey of Talmey-Drake Research & Strategy.

Still, Talmey was as surprised as anyone that Ritter bypassed "the obvious choice" — the better-known Hickenlooper.

"My sense of Bennet is that he has got to keep campaigning for the next two years, because he doesn't have the name recognition," Talmey said. "He's obviously a very bright guy. He has never held a public (elective) office, so there's not much of a track record there to run on or run against."

Already, Republicans are preparing to paint that blank canvas by putting Bennet's votes under a microscope, particularly on economic and labor issues and other matters that are expected to surface before the 2010 re-election contest.

"I'm obviously very surprised," said state Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams. "And I'm perplexed by the appointment, especially when you had someone as formidable as Mayor Hickenlooper who clearly had political and financial bases of support to draw from in 2010.

"Because he has his own polititical persona right now, Hickenlooper would not have been as defined by the votes ... whereas Mr. Bennet — while there are many admirable things about Mr. Bennet — he will be defined by the votes that he casts," Wadhams added.

But he has some Republican fans, too. Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado and former state GOP chairman, called it "a super pick."

"He's very bright. He's very principled. This is a guy who gets things done," Benson said. "He's a deep thinker. He sticks his neck out and takes chances. If you're going to accomplish anything in this world, you have to stick your neck out."

"Bennet will increase the overall IQ of the U.S. Senate tremendously," said Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown. "He's a smart guy."

Still, most of Bennet's fans are in and around Denver. Elsewhere around the state, he'll need a bigger introduction — particularly in places where various local newspapers were endorsing a different candidate, outgoing state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

Gil Cisneros, president and CEO of the Chamber of the Americas, had supported Polly Baca's hopes of becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Appointing Bennet "could be a coup for Republicans in 2010," Cisneros said. "He doesn't have any election experience where he's had to run for office. I think he's a carpetbagger and doesn't have a lot of experience with Colorado."

There is some irony in Bennet's selection. He had been touted as a potential Education Secretary in President-elect Barack Obama's cabinet. But when he found out he didn't get the job, he broke the news before going into a DPS board meeting by shouting down the hall: "I'm not going to Washington!"

Ritter, observers say, is sticking his neck out by asking Bennet to make that move, especially since they'd likely end up running for re-election on the same ballot in 2010.

The wisdom of the selection is in debate, but the surprise was near-unanimous on Friday.

"If the governor was looking for an unconventional, outside-the-box selection, this meets that qualification," said Democratic consultant Steve Welchert. Asked if that was a good or bad thing, Welchert said, "The judgment is yet to be made."

Staff writers Lynn Bartels and Daniel Chacon contributed to this story.

Winners and losers

WHO'S HAPPY

Education reformers

Michael Bennet has built a reputation for innovation, including solutions that have at times angered traditionalists. Sen. Chris Romer, a Denver Democrat and fellow reformer, called him "one of the best intellectuals I know."

President-elect Barack Obama

Before he was a surprise pick for the U.S. Senate, Bennet was a surprise finalist to become secretary of Education. Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, said Bennet represents what Obama wants in a senator — someone who is younger, not tied to Washington, D.C., and thinks in new ways.

Denver city officials

Several City Council members had feared the possibility of Mayor John Hickenlooper getting the job and leaving his post as they work to close a $56 million budget gap. Hickenlooper may not be happy he didn't land the appointment, but he reportedly told confidantes that if he didn't get it, he wanted it to go to Bennet (his former chief of staff).

WHO'S NOT

Unions

Several union leaders said Friday that they want to see what it's like to work with Bennet, but he has his detractors, especially among the teachers union. Bennet had to cut that union's power to achieve his biggest reforms, and another union — the Teamsters — endorsed Joan Fitz-Gerald for the Senate seat, even though she was seen as a long shot.

Rural Democrats

Party and community-organization leaders outside the Denver area took up a grass-roots campaign to get outgoing House Speaker Andrew Romanoff the job after he traveled the state and attended meetings in their areas for four years. Cathy Shull, director of Progressive 15, said that, unlike Hickenlooper, Romanoff actually had been to the Sterlings and Fort Morgans of the state.

Romanoff supporters

Romanoff has spent the past several weeks soliciting endorsements from community groups and small-town newspapers, and his fan base is more passionate than that of any other applicant. While most of the candidates who did not get the post go back to prominent positions, Romanoff is term-limited from his House post and needs a job.

Ed Sealover

Original here

Sarah Palin 2009 Calendar Becomes an Amazon Bestseller

What’s the best selling office product on Amazon.com this New Year? Perhaps printer ink and paper for all those holiday pics? Cases for all the new laptops received this Christmas?

Try: none of the above.

While Obama may credit the web for his successful White House run, at least one corner of the Internet is voting Palin 2009; currently leading Amazon’s Office Products and Supplies bestseller list is the Sarah Palin 2009 Calendar.

Writes one Amazon reviewer:

This is far nicer than the 2009 Barack Obama Wall Calendar. I guess the Palin’s have higher standards.

Original here

A President Forgotten but Not Gone

By FRANK RICH

WE like our failed presidents to be Shakespearean, or at least large enough to inspire Oscar-worthy performances from magnificent tragedians like Frank Langella. So here, too, George W. Bush has let us down. Even the banality of evil is too grandiose a concept for 43. He is not a memorable villain so much as a sometimes affable second banana whom Josh Brolin and Will Ferrell can nail without breaking a sweat. He’s the reckless Yalie Tom Buchanan, not Gatsby. He is smaller than life.

The last NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on Bush’s presidency found that 79 percent of Americans will not miss him after he leaves the White House. He is being forgotten already, even if he’s not yet gone. You start to pity him until you remember how vast the wreckage is. It stretches from the Middle East to Wall Street to Main Street and even into the heavens, which have been a safe haven for toxins under his passive stewardship. The discrepancy between the grandeur of the failure and the stature of the man is a puzzlement. We are still trying to compute it.

The one indisputable talent of his White House was its ability to create and sell propaganda both to the public and the press. Now that bag of tricks is empty as well. Bush’s first and last photo-ops in Iraq could serve as bookends to his entire tenure. On Thanksgiving weekend 2003, even as the Iraqi insurgency was spiraling, his secret trip to the war zone was a P.R. slam-dunk. The photo of the beaming commander in chief bearing a supersized decorative turkey for the troops was designed to make every front page and newscast in the country, and it did. Five years later, in what was intended as a farewell victory lap to show off Iraq’s improved post-surge security, Bush was reduced to ducking shoes.

He tried to spin the ruckus as another victory for his administration’s program of democracy promotion. “That’s what people do in a free society,” he said. He had made the same claim three years ago after the Palestinian elections, championed by his “freedom agenda” (and almost $500 million of American aid), led to a landslide victory for Hamas. “There is something healthy about a system that does that,” Bush observed at the time, as he congratulated Palestinian voters for rejecting “the old guard.”

The ruins of his administration’s top policy priority can be found not only in Gaza but in the new “democratic” Iraq, where the local journalist who tossed the shoes was jailed without formal charges and may have been tortured. Almost simultaneously, opponents of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accused him of making politically motivated arrests of rival-party government officials in anticipation of this month’s much-postponed provincial elections.

Condi Rice blamed the press for the image that sullied Bush’s Iraq swan song: “That someone chose to throw a shoe at the president is what gets reported over and over.” We are back where we came in. This was the same line Donald Rumsfeld used to deny the significance of the looting in Baghdad during his famous “Stuff happens!” press conference of April 2003. “Images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over,” he said then, referring to the much-recycled video of a man stealing a vase from the Baghdad museum. “Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?” he asked, playing for laughs.

The joke was on us. Iraq burned, New Orleans flooded, and Bush remained oblivious to each and every pratfall on his watch. Americans essentially stopped listening to him after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, but he still doesn’t grasp the finality of their defection. Lately he’s promised not to steal the spotlight from Barack Obama once he’s in retirement — as if he could do so by any act short of running naked through downtown Dallas. The latest CNN poll finds that only one-third of his fellow citizens want him to play a post-presidency role in public life.

Bush is equally blind to the collapse of his propaganda machinery. Almost poignantly, he keeps trying to hawk his goods in these final days, like a salesman who hasn’t been told by the home office that his product has been discontinued. Though no one is listening, he has given more exit interviews than either Clinton or Reagan did. Along with old cronies like Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, he has also embarked on a Bush “legacy project,” as Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard described it on CNN.

To this end, Rove has repeated a stunt he first fed to the press two years ago: he is once again claiming that he and Bush have an annual book-reading contest, with Bush chalking up as many as 95 books a year, by authors as hifalutin as Camus. This hagiographic portrait of Bush the Egghead might be easier to buy were the former national security official Richard Clarke not quoted in the new Vanity Fair saying that both Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, had instructed him early on to keep his memos short because the president is “not a big reader.”

Another, far more elaborate example of legacy spin can be downloaded from the White House Web site: a booklet recounting “highlights” of the administration’s “accomplishments and results.” With big type, much white space, children’s-book-like trivia boxes titled “Did You Know?” and lots of color photos of the Bushes posing with blacks and troops, its 52 pages require a reading level closer to “My Pet Goat” than “The Stranger.”

This document is the literary correlative to “Mission Accomplished.” Bush kept America safe (provided his presidency began Sept. 12, 2001). He gave America record economic growth (provided his presidency ended December 2007). He vanquished all the leading Qaeda terrorists (if you don’t count the leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahri). He gave Afghanistan a thriving “market economy” (if you count its skyrocketing opium trade) and a “democratically elected president” (presiding over one of the world’s most corrupt governments). He supported elections in Pakistan (after propping up Pervez Musharraf past the point of no return). He “led the world in providing food aid and natural disaster relief” (if you leave out Brownie and Katrina).

If this is the best case that even Bush and his handlers can make for his achievements, you wonder why they bothered. Desperate for padding, they devote four risible pages to portraying our dear leader as a zealous environmentalist.

But the brazenness of Bush’s alternative-reality history is itself revelatory. The audacity of its hype helps clear up the mystery of how someone so slight could inflict so much damage. So do his many print and television exit interviews.

The man who emerges is a narcissist with no self-awareness whatsoever. It’s that arrogance that allowed him to tune out even the most calamitous of realities, freeing him to compound them without missing a step. The president who famously couldn’t name a single mistake of his presidency at a press conference in 2004 still can’t.

He can, however, blame everyone else. Asked (by Charles Gibson) if he feels any responsibility for the economic meltdown, Bush says, “People will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived.” Asked if the 2008 election was a repudiation of his administration, he says “it was a repudiation of Republicans.”

“The attacks of September the 11th came out of nowhere,” he said in another interview, as if he hadn’t ignored frantic intelligence warnings that summer of a Qaeda attack. But it was an “intelligence failure,” not his relentless invocation of patently fictitious “mushroom clouds,” that sped us into Iraq. Did he take too long to change course in Iraq? “What seems like an eternity today,” he says, “may seem like a moment tomorrow.” Try telling that to the families of the thousands killed and maimed during that multiyear “moment” as Bush stubbornly stayed his disastrous course.

The crowning personality tic revealed by Bush’s final propaganda push is his bottomless capacity for self-pity. “I was a wartime president, and war is very exhausting,” he told C-Span. “The president ends up carrying a lot of people’s grief in his soul,” he told Gibson. And so when he visits military hospitals, “it’s always been a healing experience,” he told The Wall Street Journal. But, incredibly enough, it’s his own healing he is concerned about, not that of the grievously wounded men and women he sent to war on false pretenses. It’s “the comforter in chief” who “gets comforted,” he explained, by “the character of the American people.” The American people are surely relieved to hear it.

With this level of self-regard, it’s no wonder that Bush could remain undeterred as he drove the country off a cliff. The smugness is reinforced not just by his history as the entitled scion of one of America’s aristocratic dynasties but also by his conviction that his every action is blessed from on high. Asked last month by an interviewer what he has learned from his time in office, he replied: “I’ve learned that God is good. All the time.”

Once again he is shifting the blame. This presidency was not about Him. Bush failed because in the end it was all about him.

Original here

Frugal is cool in cash-strapped US

Paul Harris in New York

When writer Héctor Tobar returned to America last year after seven years living in Latin America, he came back to a profoundly changed land. He had left a United States riding an economic boom. House prices were soaring, suburbs were gobbling up farmland and good times were rolling on Wall Street.

Now all that has gone. Tobar, an acclaimed author and essayist, was stunned to find America in the grip of an economic turmoil that was changing his native country before his eyes, plunging it into the worst crisis since the Great Depression. "There is a sense of mourning and confusion and a real feeling of living in the last days of empire," Tobar said.

This new America is what Barack Obama has inherited. It is in many ways a broken country. When Obama takes the oath of office on 20 January watched by millions of Americans, his burden will be heavy in the extreme. The scale of the disaster is so large that Obama being America's first black president will almost be a historical footnote. The numbers describe the extent of the catastrophe best. Seven trillion dollars has been wiped off a stock market that has dropped 33%, its biggest fall since 1931. Two million jobs have disappeared, wages are frozen and millions have lost their homes. The Federal Reserve is printing billions of dollars to keep the economy afloat. Banks have been part nationalised and the car industry of Detroit - once the symbol of the all-American lifestyle - is on life support and may not see the end of 2009.

These terrible facts are accompanied by a profound cultural shift. The era of individualistic consumption that swept aside the Great Society of the 1960s has come to an end. For three decades, American culture has celebrated the glories of unabashed capitalism and the ideals of the rich. No longer. From Hollywood movies to celebrity culture to television, frugalism is taking hold. Consumers are cutting back. Luxury brands are falling by the wayside. Even the excesses of the sporting world, from the Super Bowl to Nascar, are being curbed.

A national belt-tightening is having an impact on everything from restaurants and books to a collapse in the demand for cosmetic surgery. The recession is reshaping the cultural landscape in which ordinary people live their lives. As it prepares to inaugurate a new president, America is also trying to forge a fresh identity in a world unimaginably different from the one inherited by George W Bush only eight years ago.

Mike Levine, founder of leading Los Angeles PR firm Levine Communications, believes the cultural change is even hitting the ethereal world of the über-rich celebrities who inhabit La-La land. Gone are the days of bling and Beluga caviar, of quaffing Krug in high-end clubs and driving around Hollywood in a Hummer. "The new year will be marked by a cultural trend I am calling 'Luxury Shame'," he said. "In the extraordinary recessionary times, it seems vulgar to flaunt one's luxurious lifestyle."

Paris Hilton - not usually a name associated with economic hard times - has already run foul of the new cultural mood. On a trip to Australia for New Year's Eve, a shopping splurge on luxury items earned her a barrage of negative headlines. On the TV show Entourage, which normally celebrates its male cast's acquisition of brand-name products, the rapper Bow Wow recently bought a Toyota Prius.

"I caution even the most successful celebrities to go bling-less," Levine said.

Perhaps not coincidentally, several forthcoming Hollywood movies, such as Clive Owen's The International, have as their main villains banks or financiers. In a recent trailer for the film, Owen's character is seen preparing to execute a rogue banker at gunpoint - no doubt a satisfying moment for many multiplex audiences.

Many experts see the cultural rejection of luxury and excess as a watershed moment which for many Americans seemed to descend out of a clear blue sky. "This is about a rethinking of the fundamentals that comes about because society is suddenly under a large amount of stress," said Miles Orvell, a professor of American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.

It certainly seems a cultural milestone every bit as significant as the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which ushered in an era of conservatism, deregulation, free markets and muscular nationalism. The Reagan revolution ended the progressive era of presidents such as Lyndon Johnson and John F Kennedy. It celebrated Wall Street and making money. It was the era of Gordon Gekko and Rambo.

The presidency of Bill Clinton did little to change its course, and it continued unabated into the Bush years as hedge funds became the new masters of the universe and America became the world's only superpower. In both high finance and global politics, it seemed that the wealthy and powerful had written their own rulebook.

But, culturally at least, that book is being redrawn in the face of the recession and the election of a president whose mantra was based on rejecting conflict and trying to forge a consensus. Cultural historians now see echoes of the 1930s when the Great Depression inspired works that focused on the troubles of ordinary people, such as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and the non-fiction of James Agee, whose Let Us Now Praise Famous Men examined poverty in the south. Orvell believes the coming recession will see a similar flowering of art and literature, reflecting the changed times. He is predicting a greater focus on community and an end to individualism as the dominant ideal.

"Stress brings new ways of thinking. This will have a profound effect on culture from people at the bottom to people at the very top, like Obama," he said. The new president is likely both to lead and to encapsulate these changes. Dealing with the economy is the number one topic in America, greater than Iraq, greater than the "war on terror". Obama's actions there are the yardstick by which he will be judged.

But the recession is already reshaping people's lives in ways trivial and profound. Sales of red meat are falling, while cheaper foodstuffs, such as pasta, are going up. Car sales have collapsed by up to 30%, perhaps meaning that the greatest American icon of the 20th century is struggling.

Frugal is the new cool, putting an end to hyperconsumption. The orgy of credit card abuse is over. A website called Debt Proof Living launched a daily email tipsheet last summer which now has 100,000 subscribers. Oprah Winfrey forsook her annual holiday list of expensive gift suggestions in favour of more modest "favourite things". Salons and spas are seeing customers desert them as women pamper themselves on the cheap at home.

The demand for cosmetic surgery has collapsed with some clinics reporting a fall in patients of 30-40%. What was once seen as a standard luxury for the wealthy elite - inspiring the TV series Nip/Tuck - is now regarded as grotesque excess, alongside owning a polluting big car. "It's the new SUV," declared Victoria Pitts-Taylor, author of Surgery Junkies

Tobar sees the changes in America reflected in his own life. While living in Latin America he would return to the US with his young son. "He would always say: why are the cookies so big here? And he was right. Everything was bigger, including the people." That sort of excess, on everything from cookies to cars, is now on the way out. The era of supersizing is over. There has been a cultural humbling that makes consumption and sheer size more unacceptable than at any time in the past three decades.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has tapped into the zeitgeist better than most. In a recent column that became a huge hit across the blogosphere and a talking point on cable news, he took America to task. "I've got a new year's resolution and a new slogan for the country," he wrote before going on to eviscerate the culture of debt-spending, blind consumption and rampant consumerism which, he said, had created everything from the Iraq war to the housing crisis. Herbert's new slogan was simple enough: "Stop Being Stupid."

Hollywood is rightly often seen as the psyche of the American public. So perhaps it is no wonder that the villain of 2008 was Heath Ledger's chilling portrayal of the Joker. Transcending the comic book genre, Ledger created a villain who sowed anarchy and chaotic destruction with little regard to motivation or the consequences for the innocent. For many Americans, who have seen their houses repossessed, their pension funds wiped out and millions of jobs vanish, that is a pretty accurate reflection of what 2008 felt like. And that sort of destruction produces a cultural cost as well as a cultural shift.

Across America, theatres from Broadway to Hollywood are closing shows as crowds stay away. Attendances at the cinema are falling, hitting the production of new movies and putting actors and support workers out of jobs. Art galleries are closing, auction houses are laying off workers. The art market is going into a recession as deep as the rest of the economy. The great US sports are all being hit hard in a major blow to national pride. The National Football League has laid off 10% of its staff. Major league baseball has followed suit. Nascar, whose roaring car fans and Nascar dads became a demographic, has a hiring freeze in place.

And while luxury may fall out of fashion, it is not as if quality is replacing it. The stores that are booming in these grim times are the huge big-box outlets of Walmart and Target. Anyone expecting the recession to drive Americans back into the arms of quaint family-owned shops on Main Street is likely to get an ugly wake-up call. Low-paying Walmart, stuffed with cheap goods from China and with a famously union-busting management, is booming. So busy were the crowds at one recent sales day at a Long Island Walmart that one employee was crushed to death.

Neither will the recession and the collapse of the car industry immediately bring about a greener, more public transport-friendly America. Faced with hard times, Americans are not going out to buy electric cars or hybrid vehicles. They are too expensive. Instead, they are patching up and mending their old gas guzzlers and keeping them on the road longer. America's sense of rugged individualism and distrust of government solutions will remain, for good or for ill. In this sense Obama's new America will be just like the old one.

"It is too deeply ingrained, that sense of the individual. It was right there at the founding of the republic," said Tobar.

The hard times are also bringing real pain to the most vulnerable. In Los Angeles, calls to suicide hotlines are up 60%. Like the first wave of a pandemic, the crisis is picking off the weak first. It is hitting the young, who cannot find jobs in a marketplace where employers are not hiring and the old are refusing to retire because of their wrecked pensions. It is destroying the lives of ten million or more illegal immigrants, who are the first to lose their jobs in a weakened economy.

Americans have even started doing their own gardening, which may be great for them but has put thousands of mainly Mexican landscape crews out of business. Similarly with restaurants. As Americans stay at home more, eateries across the nation are closing down and their mostly immigrant kitchen staffs are being laid off. Money sent back to Mexico by illegal immigrants, which supports many communities there, is down about 7% on last year.

The truth is that the rippling impact of the broken America that Obama is inheriting has spread out across the world, just as the influence of Reagan's policies once did. America now is more frugal, less consumerist and more community-minded. But it is also poorer, angry and afraid.

Obama's job is to address those fears. America is a country desperately looking for a new president who can provide the answers to its problems. But this will be no easy task. Obama is truly inheriting a different country than his predecessor did. It is too early to say whether it is a better one.

Scale of the problem

The size of the US economic collapse is huge. Here are some of the main problems Barack Obama will have to face as 44th US president.

• Almost $7 trillion has been wiped off the stock market as Wall Street posted its worst performance since 1931. Millions of retirement plans and pensions were devastated.

• Some reports predict as many as eight million home repossessions in the next four years.

• Obama aides are working on a fiscal stimulus plan worth $850bn over the next two years, much of it for infrastructure projects, in effect a second New Deal.

• More than 1.9 million Americans lost their jobs in 2008 up to November, and the year may end up at 2.3 million, the worst total since 1945.

• Consumer spending has dropped at the worst rate since 1980.

• House prices have declined at the fastest rate since the 1930s. The economy has been shrinking for 12 months with no end in sight, making it the largest downturn for a generation.

Original here

Bigger Than Bush

By PAUL KRUGMAN

As the new Democratic majority prepares to take power, Republicans have become, as Phil Gramm might put it, a party of whiners.

Some of the whining almost defies belief. Did Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general, really say, “I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror”? Did Rush Limbaugh really suggest that the financial crisis was the result of a conspiracy, masterminded by that evil genius Chuck Schumer?

But most of the whining takes the form of claims that the Bush administration’s failure was simply a matter of bad luck — either the bad luck of President Bush himself, who just happened to have disasters happen on his watch, or the bad luck of the G.O.P., which just happened to send the wrong man to the White House.

The fault, however, lies not in Republicans’ stars but in themselves. Forty years ago the G.O.P. decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Mr. Bush as the party’s champion, to the Bush administration’s pervasive incompetence, to the party’s shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision.

If the Bush administration became a byword for policy bungles, for government by the unqualified, well, it was just following the advice of leading conservative think tanks: after the 2000 election the Heritage Foundation specifically urged the new team to “make appointments based on loyalty first and expertise second.”

Contempt for expertise, in turn, rested on contempt for government in general. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” declared Ronald Reagan. “Government is the problem.” So why worry about governing well?

Where did this hostility to government come from? In 1981 Lee Atwater, the famed Republican political consultant, explained the evolution of the G.O.P.’s “Southern strategy,” which originally focused on opposition to the Voting Rights Act but eventually took a more coded form: “You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.” In other words, government is the problem because it takes your money and gives it to Those People.

Oh, and the racial element isn’t all that abstract, even now: Chip Saltsman, currently a candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, sent committee members a CD including a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro” — and according to some reports, the controversy over his action has actually helped his chances.

So the reign of George W. Bush, the first true Southern Republican president since Reconstruction, was the culmination of a long process. And despite the claims of some on the right that Mr. Bush betrayed conservatism, the truth is that he faithfully carried out both his party’s divisive tactics — long before Sarah Palin, Mr. Bush declared that he visited his ranch to “stay in touch with real Americans” — and its governing philosophy.

That’s why the soon-to-be-gone administration’s failure is bigger than Mr. Bush himself: it represents the end of the line for a political strategy that dominated the scene for more than a generation.

The reality of this strategy’s collapse has not, I believe, fully sunk in with some observers. Thus, some commentators warning President-elect Barack Obama against bold action have held up Bill Clinton’s political failures in his first two years as a cautionary tale.

But America in 1993 was a very different country — not just a country that had yet to see what happens when conservatives control all three branches of government, but also a country in which Democratic control of Congress depended on the votes of Southern conservatives. Today, Republicans have taken away almost all those Southern votes — and lost the rest of the country. It was a grand ride for a while, but in the end the Southern strategy led the G.O.P. into a cul-de-sac.

Mr. Obama therefore has room to be bold. If Republicans try a 1993-style strategy of attacking him for promoting big government, they’ll learn two things: not only has the financial crisis discredited their economic theories, the racial subtext of anti-government rhetoric doesn’t play the way it used to.

Will the Republicans eventually stage a comeback? Yes, of course. But barring some huge missteps by Mr. Obama, that will not happen until they stop whining and look at what really went wrong. And when they do, they will discover that they need to get in touch with the real “real America,” a country that is more diverse, more tolerant, and more demanding of effective government than is dreamt of in their political philosophy.

Original here

Cheney: Bush's actions legal if not impeached

Andrew McLemore

If you don't get punished, you didn't go anything wrong, right?

That's the message Vice President Dick Cheney gave in an interview with CBS' Bob Schieffer on Sunday, suggesting that a president's actions are legal if those actions didn't result in his impeachment.

Asked by Schieffer if he believed that anything the president does in time of war is legal, Cheney said there is "historic precedent of taking action that you wouldn't take in peacetime."

Cheney referenced Abraham Lincoln as an example of another president who "suspended the writ of habeus corpus" during a war, prompting this exchange:

###

SCHIEFFER: But nobody thinks that was legal.

CHENEY: Well, no. It certainly was in the sense he wasn't impeached. And it was a wartime measure that he took that I think history says today, yeah, that was probably a good thing to do.

###

The vice president spent much of the interview defending eight years of the Bush administration's policies, including its surveillance and interrogation programs.

When Schieffer asked if the Bush administration had gone "too far" in its surveillance program, Cheney said no.

"I don’t believe we violated anybody’s civil liberties," he said.

Cheney also urged President-elect Barack Obama to continue the Bush administration’s interrogation policies.

"I would hope [Obama] would avoid doing what others have done in the past, which is letting the campaign rhetoric guide his judgment in this absolutely crucial area," Cheney said. "We were very careful, we did everything by the book, and in fact we produced very significant results."

This video is from CBS' Face the Nation, broadcast Jan. 4, 2008.




Original here

Coleman Should Concede to Victorious Senator Franken

On the morning after the November 2008 election in Minnesota, incumbent Senator Norm Coleman prematurely declared victory in his long, hard-fought reelection bid against opponent Al Franken.

After stressing on national television the importance of a "healing process" and the costliness of a recount, the Republican tried to take the moral high ground by adding, "If I were trailing, I would step back." Well, Norm, it looks like you finally got your chance to do something right and good for Minnesota.

It has been nearly two months. After all legally cast votes were counted and then recounted by hand, after thousands of challenged ballots were adjudicated, and now that nearly 1,000 improperly rejected absentee ballots were opened and counted by agreement of both campaigns, Al Franken has not only reversed Coleman's unofficial election-night lead, he has surpassed it and widened his own lead to 225 votes. The contest, however, seems far from over.

Coleman's earlier admonishments about healing quickly and sparing taxpayer dollars, and his stated "confidence in the Minnesota [election] system," have given way to a stubborn refusal to be a man of his word. Considering his promise of "inevitable" legal contests (among the several lawsuits he already filed) and the threats by his GOP buddies to filibuster the seating of an imminently victorious Franken, Coleman-and-Friends seem destined to drag this out in the courts for weeks or even months. But to what avail?

Coleman's only conceivable bases for an election contest would rest on having to prove dubious assertions. The campaign contends the bipartisan canvassing board erred in their decision to revert to election-day totals for a single precinct that lost ballots during the recount--a decision that netted 46 votes for Franken. But Coleman ignores the fact that dismissing altogether legally cast votes from election-night due to a clerical error weeks later disenfranchises voters.

He also is hanging his hat on the tenuous allegation that slightly more than 100 votes for Franken were "double-counted"--despite the lack of clear evidence to substantiate the claim. The math, however, is abundantly clear: even if the Supreme Court is moved by both weak arguments, Al Franken still wins the election.

Of course, Coleman now wants to add nearly 650 more rejected absentee ballots to the count. But this strategy poses two major public-relations disasters for the campaign: the new ballots are overwhelmingly from cities and precincts that Coleman won on election night--making him seem like a disingenuous cherry-picker. And local election officials from these predominantly red precincts continue to stand by their original decisions to reject the improperly cast ballots--rendering his request legally shaky and seemingly desperate.

Embarrassing as it may be to to fall so far behind in votes on the very day his Senate seat expired, the (former) senator should stay true to his word from last November. With no votes left to count, he is "trailing" and it is time for him to "step back" and concede.

Original here

Did Palin abuse power again for future son-in-law?

Andrew McLemore

A critic of Gov. Sarah Palin claimed the Alaska politician may have once again abused her power to obtain an apprenticeship for her soon-to-be son-in-law Levi Johnston.

Dan Fagan, who also publishes a Web site called the thealaskastandard.com, said federal regulations require all apprentices to have a high school diploma, which Johnston does not have.

"So how is it that the governor's soon-to-be son-in-law is working in an apprentice program?" Fagan wrote in an column. "Is this another case of the governor believing the rules don't apply to her or her family?"

Called "Troopergate" by the media, an investigation of Palin concluded in October that she abused her power as an Alaska governor in the firing of the state public safety commissioner.

Palin defended her daughter's fiance from what she considers inaccurate descriptions of Johnston as a high school dropout. Palin said he is working for his diploma through a correspondence program.

Palin said she is "over the moon" about her future son-in-law.

"You need to know that both Levi and Bristol are working their butts off to parent and going to school and working at the same time," Palin said in her first public statement about the father of her grandchild.

But Fagan questioned how Johnston gained entrance to the apprenticeship program when similar programs have long waiting lists. There are only three in the state, according to Fagan, and at least one of them has a waiting list of at least 100 people.

"I believe 2009 will be the year more and more Alaskans will come to realize Sarah Palin is in way over her head as governor, doesn't always play by the rules, and is, at times, less than honest," Fagan wrote.

Original here

Franken Jumps Out to 225-Vote Lead on Strength of Absentee Ballots

Minnesota took until 5 PM today to begin actually counting rejected absentee ballots, as the Canvassing Board sorted through various legal objections, underwent the arduous task of physically opening more than 900 ballots, and then gave the campaigns a chance to review the back of the ballots for identifying marks. Once they finally got underway, however, with election officials calling out the names of the candidates one ballot at a time, Franken went on a long winning streak and essentially never looked back.

All told, Franken gained a net of 176 ballots from the 952 under review according to The Uptake's unofficial count, putting him 225 votes ahead in the recount overall. Excluding disqualified ballots, Franken won 53.7 percent of the votes counted today, Coleman 34.1 percent, and other candidates 12.4 percent. Franken's 225-vote advantage is now slightly larger than the one Norm Coleman held before the recount began, when he led by 215 votes based on the certified Election Night tally.

Although the absentee ballots were expected by all observers to help Franken's prospects, the nearly 20-point margin that he ran up on Coleman today was surprisingly large; two pre-election polls that surveyed absentee voters had Franken winning that group by 8 points and 12 points, respectively. (n.b. Originally missed the Research 2000 poll on this -- nrs). It should also be remembered, however, that the Democrats made a large nationwide push for early and absentee voters this year, with Barack Obama overperforming by as many as 20-30 points among those voters in certain states.

The other possibility, of course, is that the Franken campaign did a more effective job of using its veto power on absentee ballots, perhaps by taking better advantage of voter lists.

Either way, a number of legal stratagems that might have seemed appealing to the Coleman campaign might now be somewhat mooted. For instance, even if all 130 ballots that the Coleman campaign claimed were double-counted for Franken were removed from his tally (but no ballots at all had been double-counted for Coleman), Franken would maintain a significant advantage. With Franken doing so well among the absentee ballots that were counted today, moreover, any Coleman attempts to get more absentee ballots counted would seem to have a high risk of backfiring.

EDIT: It appears that Franken's lead is now 225 votes, not 223 as previously reported, based on an a count provided orally by state officials in St. Paul today.

Original here

U.S. Debt Expected To Soar This Year

By Lori Montgomery

With President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats considering a massive spending package aimed at pulling the nation out of recession, the national debt is projected to jump by as much as $2 trillion this year, an unprecedented increase that could test the world's appetite for financing U.S. government spending.

For now, investors are frantically stuffing money into the relative safety of the U.S. Treasury, which has come to serve as the world's mattress in troubled times. Interest rates on Treasury bills have plummeted to historic lows, with some short-term investors literally giving the government money for free.

But about 40 percent of the debt held by private investors will mature in a year or less, according to Treasury officials. When those loans come due, the Treasury will have to borrow more money to repay them, even as it launches perhaps the most aggressive expansion of U.S. debt in modern history.

With the government planning to roll over its short-term loans into more stable, long-term securities, experts say investors are likely to demand a greater return on their money, saddling taxpayers with huge new interest payments for years to come. Some analysts also worry that foreign investors, the largest U.S. creditors, may prove unable to absorb the skyrocketing debt, undermining confidence in the United States as the bedrock of the global financial system.

While the current market for Treasurys is booming, it's unclear whether demand for debt can be sustained, said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP, which analyzes Treasury financing trends.

"There's a time bomb in there somewhere," Crandall said, "but we don't know exactly where on the calendar it's planted."

The government's hunger for cash began growing exponentially as the nation slipped into recession in the wake of a housing foreclosure crisis a year ago. Washington has since approved $168 billion in spending to stimulate economic activity, $700 billion to prevent the collapse of the U.S. financial system, and multibillion-dollar bailouts for a variety of financial institutions, including insurance giant American International Group and mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Despite those actions, the economic outlook has continued to darken. Now, Obama and congressional Democrats are debating as much as $850 billion in new federal spending and tax cuts to create or preserve jobs and slow the grim, upward march of unemployment, which stood in November at 6.7 percent.

Congress is not planning to raise taxes or cut spending to cover the cost of those programs, because economists say doing so would further slow economic activity. That means the government has to borrow the money.

Some of the borrowing was done during the fiscal year that ended in September, when the Treasury added nearly $720 billion to the national debt. But the big borrowing binge will come during the current fiscal year, when the cost of the bailouts plus another stimulus package combined with slowing tax revenues will force the government to increase the debt by as much as $2 trillion to finance its obligations, according to a Treasury survey of bond dealers and other market analysts.

As of yesterday, the debt stood at nearly $10.7 trillion, of which about $4.3 trillion is owed to other government institutions, such as the Social Security trust fund. Debt held by private investors totals nearly $6.4 trillion, or a little over 40 percent of gross domestic product.

According to the most recent figures, foreign investors held about $3 trillion in U.S. debt at the end of October. China, which in October replaced Japan as the United States' largest creditor, has increased its holdings by 42 percent over the past year; Britain and the Caribbean banking countries more than doubled their holdings.

Economists from across the political spectrum have endorsed the idea of going deeper into debt to combat what many call the most dangerous economic conditions since the Great Depression. The United States is in relatively good financial shape compared with other industrial nations, such as Japan, where the public debt equaled 182 percent of GDP in 2007, or Germany, where the debt was 65 percent of GDP, according to a forthcoming report by Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Even a $2 trillion increase would push the U.S. debt to about 53 percent of the overall economy, "only a few percentage points above where it was in the early 1990s," Lilly writes, noting that plummeting interest rates show that "much of the world seems not only willing but anxious to invest in U.S. Treasurys, which are seen as the safest security that an investor can own in a risky world economy."

Still, some analysts are concerned that the deepening global recession will force some of the largest U.S. creditors to divert cash to domestic needs, such as investing in their own banks and economies. Even if demand for U.S. debt keeps pace with supply, investors are likely to demand higher interest rates, these analysts said, driving up debt-service payments, which last year stood at $250 billion.

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"When you accumulate this amount of debt that we're moving into, it's not a given that our foreign friends are going to continue on the path they've been on," said G. William Hoagland, a longtime Republican budget analyst who now serves as vice president for public policy at the health insurer Cigna. "There's going to come a time when we can't even pay the interest on the money we've borrowed. That's default."

Others say those fears are overblown. The market for U.S. Treasurys is by far the largest and most liquid bond market in the world, and big institutional investors have few other places to safely invest large sums of reserve cash.

Despite their growing domestic needs, "China and the oil countries are going to continue running large surpluses," said C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "They certainly will be using money elsewhere, but I don't think that means they won't give it to us."

As for the specter of default, Steven Hess, lead U.S. analyst for Moody's Investors Service, said even a $2 trillion increase in borrowing would not greatly diminish the U.S. financial condition. "It's not alarmingly high by our AAA standards," he said. "So we don't think there's pressure on the rating yet."

But that could change, Hess said. Nearly a year ago, Moody's raised an alarm about the skyrocketing costs of Social Security and Medicare as the baby-boom generation retires, saying the resulting budget deficits could endanger the U.S. bond rating. Even as the nation sinks deeper into debt to finance its own economic recovery, several analysts said it will be critical for Obama to begin to address the looming costs of the entitlement programs and signal that he has no intention of letting the debt spiral out of control.

Failure to do so, Bergsten said, would "create dangers . . . in market psychology and continued confidence in the dollar."

Original here


Australia rejects Guantanamo inmates

Australia will not take any former inmates of the US' Guantanamo Bay detention centre, acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard says.

Ms Gillard said the federal government had advised the US - on Friday, US time, Saturday, Australian time - that Australia would refuse the American request.

It was the second request from the US.

"Early in 2008, we received a request from the US government to consider resettlement of a group of detainees,'' Ms Gillard told reporters in Melbourne on Saturday.

"That request was denied by the Australian government.

"In December 2008, we received a second request.

"We have considered that request and last night Australian time, Friday US time, we advised the US government that we would not be agreeing to those resettlement requests.

"Those resettlement requests were considered on a case-by-case basis against Australia's stringent national security and immigration criteria.

"Assessing those requests on a case by case basis (they) have not met those stringent national security and immigration criteria and have been rejected.

''(As) for the future, we will consider any future requests on a case by case basis against these stringent criteria for both national security and immigration.''

She said both requests had been made by the administration of George Bush, not of US President-elect Barack Obama.

Original here

Early Test of Obama View on Power Over Detainees

By ADAM LIPTAK

WASHINGTON — Just a month after President-elect Barack Obama takes office, he must tell the Supreme Court where he stands on one of the most aggressive legal claims made by the Bush administration — that the president may order the military to seize legal residents of the United States and hold them indefinitely without charging them with a crime.


Peoria Journal Star, via Associated Press

Ali al-Marri is being held in a Navy brig in South Carolina.

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By reviewing government documents, court records and media reports, The Times was able to compile an approximate list of detainees currently at Guantánamo.

The new administration’s brief, which is due Feb. 20, has the potential to hearten or infuriate Mr. Obama’s supporters, many of whom are looking to him for stark disavowals of the Bush administration’s legal positions on the detention and interrogation of so-called enemy combatants held at Navy facilities on the American mainland or at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama made broad statements criticizing the Bush administration’s assertions of executive power. But now he must address a specific case, that of Ali al-Marri, a Qatari student who was arrested in Peoria, Ill., in December 2001. The Bush administration says Mr. Marri is a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda, and it is holding him without charges at the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. He is the only person currently held as an enemy combatant on the mainland, but the legal principles established in his case are likely to affect the roughly 250 prisoners at Guantánamo.

Many legal experts say that all of the new administration’s options in Mr. Marri’s case are perilous. Intelligence officials say he is exceptionally dangerous, making deportation problematic.

Trying him on criminal charges could be difficult, too, in part because some of the evidence against him may have been obtained through torture and would not be admissible.

And staying the course in the Marri case would outrage civil libertarians.

“If they adopt the Bush administration position, or some version of it,” said Brandt Goldstein, a professor at New York Law School, “it is going to be a moment of profound disappointment for everyone in the legal community and Americans generally who believe that the Bush administration has tried to turn the presidency into a monarchy.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Mr. Obama, Brooke Anderson, said he “will make decisions about how to handle detainees as president when his full national security and legal teams are in place.”

There are other significant cases on the Supreme Court’s docket — including ones concerning indecency on the airwaves, religious displays, voting rights and the possible pre-emption of state injury suits by federal law — but specialists say a midcourse correction is most likely in the enemy combatant case, Al-Marri v. Pucciarelli, No. 08-368.

Charles Fried, who was solicitor general in the Reagan administration, said such changes should be undertaken “reluctantly and rarely” and only “for sufficient reason in a sufficiently urgent case.”

From the new administration’s perspective, Mr. Marri’s case may meet that standard.

A year ago, Mr. Obama answered a detailed questionnaire concerning his views on presidential power from The Boston Globe. “I reject the Bush administration’s claim,” Mr. Obama said, “that the president has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.”

That sounds vigorous and categorical. But applying this view to Mr. Marri’s case is not that simple. Although he was in the United States legally, he was not an American citizen. In addition, a 2001 Congressional authorization to use military force arguably gave the president the authority that Mr. Obama has said is not conferred by the Constitution alone.

Still, Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who has generally supported the Bush administration’s approach to fighting terrorism, said Mr. Obama’s hands are tied. He cannot, Mr. McCarthy said, continue to maintain that Mr. Marri’s detention is lawful.

“I don’t think politically for him that’s a viable option,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Legally, it’s perfectly viable.”

There is precedent for reversing course between campaign and courthouse. When Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992, he was vehement in his opposition to the first Bush administration’s policy of intercepting Haitian refugees at sea and returning them without asylum hearings.

By the time he took office, though, Mr. Clinton had changed his mind, instructing the Justice Department to defend the policy in the Supreme Court, which upheld it in 1993.

Mr. Obama’s supporters are hoping for a different approach, one that will ensure that the precedents set during the Bush administration do not take root.

“The agenda for the Obama administration in dealing with the Bush administration’s assault on the rule of law,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and a member of the Marri legal team, “should be to plow the site with both intellectual and political salt.”

In 1993, Mr. Clinton said that practical reality trumped legal theory. In the Marri case, too, the practical alternatives to military detention may strike the Obama administration as unpalatable.

One possibility is to deport Mr. Marri to Qatar, but Bush administration officials say that would be an enormous mistake.

“Al-Marri must be detained,” Jeffrey N. Rapp, a defense intelligence official wrote in a court filing in 2004, “to prevent him from aiding Al Qaeda in its efforts to attack the United States, its armed forces, other governmental personnel, or citizens.”

Mr. Marri’s lawyers would be delighted to see their client freed, but they are also eager to vacate a decision of the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., in July upholding the president’s authority to detain Mr. Marri subject to a court hearing on whether he was properly designated an enemy combatant.

Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Mr. Marri, emphasized both points.

“If, as President-elect Obama has pledged, the rule of law in America is to be restored,” Mr. Hafetz said, “then Mr. al-Marri’s military detention must cease and the lower court’s ruling upholding the president’s power to order the military to seize legal residents and American citizens from their homes and imprison them without charge, must be overturned.”

Another alternative for the new administration is to prosecute Mr. Marri as a criminal. But it is not clear that there is admissible evidence against him.

When Mr. Marri was arrested, in December 2001, he was charged with garden-variety crimes: credit card fraud and, later, lying to federal agents and financial institutions, and identity theft. But when Mr. Bush moved Mr. Marri from the criminal system to military detention in June 2003, the government agreed to dismiss those charges with prejudice, meaning they cannot be refiled.

The more serious accusations recounted in Mr. Rapp’s statement are attributed partly to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is believed to be the chief architect of the Sept. 11 attacks and who was captured in early 2003. The Central Intelligence Agency has said Mr. Mohammed was subjected to waterboarding, and information obtained from him may therefore not be admissible in court. Mr. McCarthy, the former prosecutor, said he hoped the new administration is sifting through its options with exceptional care.

“If they can’t try him in federal court and assuming he poses the severe risk the Bush administration suggests he poses, is there some room to detain him under the immigration system?” Mr. McCarthy asked. “If there is not a Plan B, we have a disaster that transcends al-Marri,” he added, referring to the larger question of what to do with the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

A second case concerning detainees is moving even faster than Mr. Marri’s. Last month, the Supreme Court ordered a federal appeals court to take a fresh look at a case brought by four former prisoners at Guantánamo Bay who say they were tortured. Acting fast, the appeals court initially ordered briefing to be completed by the Friday before Inauguration Day.

Depending on how you look at it, the appeals court was being exceptionally efficient, uninterested in the new administration’s views or doing it a favor by not forcing it to take an immediate position on whether provisions of the Bill of Rights and a federal law guaranteeing religious freedom apply to detainees held at Guantánamo Bay.

Eric L. Lewis, a lawyer for the former prisoners, asked the court to slow things down, a request the Bush Justice Department opposed. But the appeals court granted Mr. Lewis’s request on Friday, and the first filings are now due on Jan. 26 — the Monday after Inauguration Day.

Original here