Late Night: Former Third-World Nation Hires Third-Rate Pundits

This afternoon brought an amusing bit of muckraking by Rosie Gray at Buzzfeed:

A range of mainstream American publications printed paid propaganda for the government of Malaysia, much of it focused on the campaign against a pro-democracy figure there.

The payments to conservative American opinion writers — whose work appeared in outlets from the Huffington Post and San Francisco Examiner to the Washington Times to National Review and RedState — emerged in a filing this week to the Department of Justice. The filing under the Foreign Agent Registration Act outlines a campaign spanning May 2008 to April 2011 and led by Joshua Trevino, a conservative pundit, who received $389,724.70 under the contract and paid smaller sums to a series of conservative writers.

… Trevino’s subcontractors included conservative writer Ben Domenech, who made $36,000 from the arrangement, and Rachel Ehrenfeld, the director of the American Center for Democracy, who made $30,000. .. Overall, 10 writers were part of the arrangement.

There’s plenty of entertaining excuses from the culprits in the story, so go click the link and check it out.

I will, however, share a bonus Orwellian footnote:

 The contract also involved a firm called FBC (short for Fact-Based Communications), whose involvement in covert propaganda prompted a related scandal and forced an executive at The Atlantic to resign from its board.

Awesome.  I’m not sure, though, if this mini-scandal actually qualifies as an opportunity for schadenfreude over Trevino and his pals’ exposure.  After all, in the journalistic universe these guys travel in, letting it be known that they’ll say anything you pay them to — and lie about it if challenged — isn’t really a career-ending embarrassment.

Hell, it almost qualifies as well-targeted advertising.

Late Night: Who Are These Guys?

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Jon Walker wrote here yesterday:

Even with strong popular support, Obama’s call for increasing the minimum wage is unlikely to get through the Republican controlled House… Of course given the current ideological makeup of House Republicans, any proposal Obama makes is likely dead on arrival as well. So since no legislation is going to be approved, Obama might as well spend his time advocating for things that can be used as political weapons by Democrats….

The minimum wage increase is both very popular and easy to understand. Expect it to feature prominently in Democrats 2014 strategy.

Indeed, today The Plum Line confirms this:

In an interview with me, Nancy Pelosi summed up the message Dems used against Republicans in 2006, and will again use in 2014: “Just keep it simple. We want to raise the minimum wage, and you don’t. Why not?

This is of a piece with the broader observation that President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech was largely designed around defining wedge issues that Democrats can campaign on in 2014.

But stop for a moment, and think about how shocking that is.

Announcing legislative initiatives intended to give your own party a near-term political advantage?  And even coordinating with your own party on a prospective campaign message?!  It’s hard to think of anything Barack Obama did between 2009 and 2011 that would fit this description — in fact, on high-profile issues such as healthcare reform and the ill-fated “pivot” to deficit reduction, Obama’s goal has often (and famously) seemed to be the opposite.

What happened here?  Are we talking pod people, or was there some other kind of secret switch (see video above right)?

In terms of the well-worn stupid-versus-evil question, that Obama appears to have finally learned this political lesson argues in favor of the former (although there are still occasional data points for the latter).  I’m not sure how reassuring that is.

Late Night: If It’s Dubya, Can It Still Be Art?

If only because TBogg is busy, I feel slightly obligated to note today’s epically weird revelation that, thanks (or not) to a phone hacker who broke into various family email accounts, a handful of paintings by ex-president George W. Bush have been posted online.

It’s easy to snicker at the quality of private (and perhaps unfinished) works by a thoroughly and deservedly unpopular politician.  And anyone could be excused for marveling at the potential Freudian complexity of a formerly powerful and famous man sending his sister paintings of himself in the shower and bathtub.

But there’s also something fascinatingly unguarded in those choices, especially for a man who was a cipher in so many ways when he occupied the White House.  Notoriously unreflective in office — and in his autobiography — now we see Bush pondering himself in solitude, and sharing the results with close family members.  (Note to my siblings: Don’t ever do this to me!)

As Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan notes for Co.Design, there’s something particularly striking about the one that

… shows us Bush’s back as he faces the shower, while a reflection of his face stares from a hanging shower mirror. It’s a startling effect… Bush is using the mirror to point out his presence and reject the gaze of the viewer at the same time.

It’s also noteworthy that, as Jerry Saltz points out, Bush’s paintings “show someone doing the best he can with almost no natural gifts — except the desire to do this.”  Like David Bowie recording a new album after several years of apparent retirement, there’s no motivation for Dubya’s artworks aside from the fact that he really, really wanted to create them. (Indeed, Dubya’s depiction of the late Barney captures some of the same brooding quality as Bowie’s portrait of Iggy Pop.)  And that sincerity, so absent in his public life, deserves some respect.

I’ll take them over former Iraq-occupation viceroy Paul Bremer’s paintings any day.

Late Night: Bye-Bye, Barney

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George W. Bush was a bit of a dog as far as U.S. presidents go, but that shouldn’t be held against perhaps the most tolerable — and in at least one instance, almost admirable — member of his administration, who has just died:

Laura and I are sad to announce that our Scottish Terrier, Barney, has passed away….

Barney and I enjoyed the outdoors. He loved to accompany me when I fished for bass at the ranch. He was a fierce armadillo hunter. At Camp David, his favorite activity was chasing golf balls on the chipping green.

Barney guarded the South Lawn entrance of the White House as if he were a Secret Service agent. He wandered the halls of the West Wing looking for treats from his many friends. He starred in Barney Cam and gave the American people Christmas tours of the White House.

See, this is the kind of crap that White House pets have to put up with.  They have words put into their mouth, cutesy feelings projected onto them, and they’re marketed in awful and embarrassing ways.  Sometimes, they’re even made to wear humiliating costumes… and, unlike their human counterparts in the administration, they never get a chance to write a tell-all memoir to exact some revenge.

Still, however, Barney found at least one opportunity to cut through the photo-op facade and demonstrate some un-Bushite candor, as shown in the video above.  Though I guess his approach can’t be recommended to everyone, it’s not the worst method in the world for dealing with intrusive journalists.

I wonder how coverage of Obama administration would be affected if Bo did something like that.  RIP, Barney!

Late Night: Is That All There Is?

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Today’s big Washington, D.C. political news was noted by Jon Walker here this morning:

House Republicans are about to fold on the debt limit. They are no longer going to demand that any increase in the limit be matched with spending cuts.

What makes this development particularly notable is what Jon (among many others) was writing earlier this week here

Effectively, the position of the White House is that this fight will only end if Obama folds or the Republicans fold…

… Obama doesn’t want to get around the debt ceiling, he wants to beat the Republicans on it.  Obama seems to believe he can win at a game of chicken, despite his rather abysmal track record so far.

… and here:

Obama’s behavior regarding the debt limit has been all over the map. Back in 2011, Obama seemed to actively encourage GOP “hostage taking” because he wanted to negotiate over the debt limit to get a grand bargain.

When that blew up in Obama’s face he changed his tune by claiming he would not negotiate over the debt limit again. Yet only a few days later Obama included a one year increase in a possible fiscal cliff deal, basically allowing it to be used as a negotiation bargaining chip by John Boehner….

I will admit this time Obama does really sound sincere, but he sounded sincere almost every other time as well. I have trouble believing Obama is credible this time, and I can only imagine it is much worse for House Republicans.

As far as I can tell, this was pretty much the conventional wisdom everywhere — especially two weeks ago, when the much-hyped New Year’s Eve fiscal cliff showdown was punted to become the February/March debt-ceiling showdown.  President Obama was almost universally seen as having picked a fight that, based on past experience, there was little reason to think he had the stomach to win.

In fact, there was a pretty fair-sized cottage industry among left-leaning bloggers that Obama wanted to “lose”… that is, use the excuse of the debt ceiling or other perceived leverage to make Democrats accept a deal that would give the Republicans important policy victories in terms of spending cuts, especially to Medicare and Social Security.  (And it’s beyond dispute that he dangled this possibility if the GOP would agree to tax hikes, though diehard defenders might argue that he privately knew this wouldn’t happen.)

My question is, what happens to that line of thinking now, with Republican demands seemingly evaporating by the moment?  Was all the grand-bargain paranoia misplaced?  Or did Obama overestimate the GOP’s ability to stand its rhetorical ground just as much as everyone else did — with the result that he’s looking at his game of eleven-dimensional chess and wondering if he’s checkmated himself?

If he’s truly determined to be the Democratic president who gives ground on entitlements, how does he created the apparent pressure that “makes” him do that when the Republicans seem unwilling to apply any such pressure?

Late Night: Ending a Three-Year Charade in Afghanistan

(photo by Marco Vossen)

In Slate, Fred Kaplan sums up today’s White House summit meeting regarding Afghanistan:

If there were any doubts, President Obama’s press conference today with Afghan president Hamid Karzai should dispel them: We are so out of there, at least as a full-bore fighting force, and sooner than previously scheduled.

NATO had planned, with Karzai’s assent, to pull out all Western combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But Obama said today that he will scale back U.S. troops to a “support role” starting this spring—that is, sometime in the next few months.

I can’t say I’m surprised.  More than three years ago, I wrote here that Obama’s only real decision in Afghanistan was how to manage the United States’ inevitable defeat.  Sure, he wound up announcing a “surge” of 30,000 troops, but it was clear to me that this was meant to serve the same purpose as George Bush’s similar 2007 gambit in Iraq: that is, postponing and camouflaging our surrender, rather than avoiding it.

Here’s how the New York Times back then described Obama’s decision:

… as his top military adviser ran through a slide show of options, Mr. Obama expressed frustration. He held up a chart showing how reinforcements would flow into Afghanistan over 18 months and eventually begin to pull out, a bell curve that meant American forces would be there for years to come.

I want this pushed to the left,” he told advisers, pointing to the bell curve. In other words, the troops should be in sooner, then out sooner.

When the history of the Obama presidency is written, that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war.

That last paragraph was not only embarrassingly melodramatic, but misguided.  What Obama meant by “pushing it to the left” was that although he was unwilling to directly challenge the scheme proposed by the military establishment, he had no faith in it and wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

Kaplan, writing today, gets this right, noting that “back in 2009, Obama announced when the pullout would begin at the same time that he announced the surge,” and also arguing that Obama:

… treated the strategy as an experiment; he gave it 18 months to work, and his generals assured him that would be enough time for the Afghan military to take the lead in a majority of the country’s districts, even though some of them knew very well it would take longer. They gambled that enough progress would be made to convince the president to give them more time and more troops. They gambled wrong.

And if the cost for refusing to confront the generals right away is several hundred U.S./NATO military deaths (not to mention likely far greater Afghan casualties)… well, unfortunately, that’s our cautious, consensus-seeking president for you.

It’s certainly a helluva a lot of “last men to die for a mistake.”


Late Night: In Monsanto We Trust?

(photo by David Reverchon)

I’m mostly uninformed agnostic on the genetically modified food controversy, so I’m not sure what to make of this New York Times blog post today about Mark Lynas, an environmental activist who has made a public conversion in favor of GMO:

For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

The arc of Lynas’s fascinating career is in some ways neatly encapsulated by two acts at Oxford — throwing a cream pie in the face of Bjorn Lomborg, the skeptic of eco-calamity, at a book signing there in 2001… and now echoing more than a few of Lomborg’s assertions in his lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday.

In doing so, he has displayed an encouraging — and still rare — capacity to shed dogma in favor of data.

Well, just a second here.  I’m all in favor of being open-minded and pursuing the truth no matter where it leads, but the type of gut-instinct opposition to GMO that Lynas now decries isn’t nearly the same thing as the fiercely defiant ignorance (usually appealing to tribal resentments) we see conservatives use to rationalize otherwise indefensible policies like rejecting action on climate change — an example that Lynas uses to defend his shift in views.

Climate change denial is illogic based on selfishness, both personal and corporate: a refusal to accept responsibility for the damage our modern lifestyle is doing to world we live in.  In contrast, what little I know about GMO has an immediately apparent logic that should cause any intelligent person to be suspicious.

I mean, think about it.  Monsanto, a chemical company, develops a near-monopoly on the weedkiller market with a product called Roundup… and now, suddenly it’s an agriculture company with a near-monopoly on “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans that are compatible with the weedkiller.

It’s not illogical at all to see a conflict of interest there that could easily turn deadly if GMO technology isn’t closely scrutinized and regulated.  After all, it’s not like we have to look very far on any given day for examples of big corporations willing risking lives and the environment just to save a few bucks.

Late Night: Nothing to Be Done (Hopefully)

At first blush, President Obama’s inconclusive televised announcement this afternoon made the long-running “fiscal cliff” negotiations sound like the end of Samuel Beckett’s classic play Waiting for Godot:

OBAMA/VLADIMIR:  Well? Shall we make a deal?

BOEHNER/ESTRAGON:  Yes, let’s make a deal.

They do not move.

But then I read Digby’s analysis of a separate statement issued by Senate party leaders Reid and McConnell (who have been delegated the task of writing last-minute legislation).  Her persuasive take is that come Monday, the Democrats in both houses may be lured into providing a majority of the votes for substantial spending cuts and tax increases, as Republicans stand back pseudo-helplessly and smile.   This is mostly for the sake of a meaningless procedural accomplishment (avoiding the so-called cliff), but also, as Digby notes, because “the sequester will be taken care of — nobody’s going to allow the defense industry to lose even a penny. Nobody.

As many others have been writing for months, this makes no sense.  Yes, there are beneficial tax and spending provisions that will expire January 1 if the “cliff” becomes reality — but a set of “Obama tax cuts” can be passed easily within weeks, and less politically irresistible measures can be won by holding hostage some less-heralded items that are highly coveted by the GOP.  Most notable among the latter is a compromise on the estate tax, which will rise sharply (from 35% with a $5 million exemption, to 55% with only $1 million exempted) if no deal is made.

Given the increased leverage that Democrats will have after we go “over” the supposed cliff, perhaps the best advice to Harry Reid (and President Obama) is the aphorism coined by Beckett in his posthumously published Worstward Ho:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Late Night: Last-Minute Xmas Shopping

With December 25th just on the other side of the coming weekend, I suppose it’s fair to ask (for those of you who celebrate the holiday): Do you have all of your Christmas shopping done yet?

Not so fast… are you sure?  Have you forgotten any of our favorite Washington, DC, political figures who, although they might be doing much better than you or me financially, might really need a particular gift this holiday season?

Here’s a partial list that I came up with, based on the news of recent days:

Mitch McConnell (R-KY, Senate Minority Leader): An Ashley Judd screen saver, with eyes that move so they seem to be watching him.

John Boehner (R-OH, Speaker of the House): Several tall, stiff drinks to drown the sorrow of being humiliated by his own caucus over the “Plan B” fiscal cliff bill.  Oh, wait, he appears to have already gotten that gift for himself…

Wayne LaPierre, executive VP of the National Rifle Association: Speaking of waiting, I want to hold off on his gift until I see how many normal people really grasped the Onion-like ridiculousness of his rant this afternoon.  If he damaged the NRA cause, let’s give him a weekly show on Fox News.  If not, then I’d like to wish him someone to sew his jaw and lips shut indefinitely.

Barack Obama, president of the United States: Another wait-and-see… but, then again, maybe it’s safer not to wait.  Let’s hope LaPierre’s oral surgeon pays POTUS a visit next, or chip in for a straitjacket to make sure he can’t sign away any unnecessary concessions like chained CPI for Social Security.

Anyway, your ideas are probably a lot more clever than mine.  Please feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments… and merry Xmas! (more…)

Late Night: Dancing on the (Debt) Ceiling

Debt ceiling cat (photo via C4Chaos/flickr)

All this week, DDay has been chronicling for the daytime crowd that how to deal with the infamous fiscal cliff/slope/incline/curb/whatever — which, in the real world, remains quite unresolved — is no longer the hot issue among the Washington, DC insider set.

The cool kids have accepted that the Republicans will, somehow, quickly and quietly cave on higher tax rates on the wealthy, if only to take that issue off the table.  Having done that, the narrative goes, the GOP will hope to extract its revenge by forcing Democrats to swallow substantial cuts to Medicare and other safety-net programs in exchange for raising the government’s official debt ceiling.

This expected standoff-after-the-current-standoff was gamed out by several different blogs this week.  Sadly, they generally discounted the most exciting options–President Obama invoking a passage in the 14th Amendment to declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional, or even more brazenly minting a $1 trillion dollar coin to increase the money supply.  Aside from the sheer out-of-characterness of Obama blindsiding the GOP with a unilateral action, Josh Marshall points out that the resulting Republican bawling and foot-stamping (and seeking some legislative way to declare the White House action illegitimate) would affect the markets enough to make Obama’s move counterproductive.

Besides, the real danger with using some allegedly-Constitutional loophole to get around the debt ceiling is that it invites the Supreme Court to find a similarly flimsy excuse to step in and play Calvinball as well.  And I don’t think anyone on Team Obama wants to give John Roberts a chance like that to make amends with his right-wing judicial brethren.