Oregon as Antidote to Massachusetts: There’s More than One Way to Send a Message

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There was no nude Cosmo shoot in Oregon, no old truck, no confusion over whether a former Red Sox pitcher is a Yankee fan. But Oregon did have an election last month and the result — support for $733 million in tax hikes — was as startling as Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. Democrats should take a closer look at Oregon. What they see might help them stiffen their spines.

Flickr Credit: functoruser / CC BY-SA 2.0
The Bay State election has been interpreted and over-interpreted beyond reason by gleeful Republicans and panicked Democrats. And to be sure, there was a man-bites-dog aspect to a Republican winning the seat the Kennedys had occupied since 1953. Yet before last week, Oregonians hadn’t approved a statewide tax increase since 1931. That surely qualifies as “man at least nips at dog,” nonpartisan Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts told me.
Specifically, Oregonians voted to raise corporate taxes and raise the income tax on families that make more than $250,000 ($125,000 for individuals). At first glance it looks like the Boston Tea Party in reverse (raise our taxes, please) except that 97 percent of voters won’t see a tax increase themselves. The more relevant takeaway is anger — at wealth, at corporate privilege, at the status quo, at general unfairness, and at the prospect of further erosion of public services that are already cut to the bone.


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Why Question Time Is Right for Obama, House GOPers and Washington

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At Wednesday’s White House daily briefing, I asked deputy press secretary Bill Burton if the Obama administration would say yes to the cross-partisan coalition of bloggers, commentators, politicos and techies calling on the president and GOP congressional leaders to commit to regular, frequent and public Q&As between the commander-in-chief and the opposition party. (I have a special interest in the matter, as one of the organizers of this barely organized effort.) Burton, no doubt, had anticipated the query, and he noted that White House strategist David Axelrod had already maintained that what made last week’s face-off between Obama and House Republicans so special was “the spontaneity that occurred there.” Burton added, “And it’s going to be hard to sort of re-create that spontaneity that happened.” Consequently, he said, Obama will look for more opportunities to hold “open discussions on important issues. But in terms of a regularly scheduled event, I don’t have anything for you on that.” A reporter leaned over to me and said, “You can take that as a no.”

A no it was. But the reason was odd. How much spontaneity is in the State of the Union? Or House and Senate floor debates? Or presidential campaign debates? In fact, there’s precious little spontaneity in many political forums. Yet they still have value. The aim of the Demand Question Time coalition is not to inject spontaneity into government and politics, but to enhance debate and boost transparency.


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The Power of the Prayer Breakfast

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If there is one place on the planet where the philandering South Carolina Gov. Mark “Argentine Soulmate” Sanford, can go knowing he’ll be accepted, if not altogether forgiven for grievous sins of arrogance and lust, it is the National Prayer Breakfast.

So along with 3,000 other people — including Heisman-trophy winner Tim Tebow, who stars with his mother in an anti-abortion ad to air during the Super Bowl, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero who delivered his message in Spanish, and former CBS newsman Dan Rather, who said he was doing the same there as I was, which I guess means reporting — Sanford entered the Hilton Washington’s mega-ballroom Thursday morning for some spiritual sustenance, coffee and quiche. But the once-garrulous sinner wasn’t talking. Perhaps he knows he’s already said too much, or that “Staying True,” the memoir by his classy, betrayed almost ex-wife Jenny Sanford, goes on sale Friday amid much publicity.

What makes this event, presented by the Senate and House Prayer Breakfasts, such a safe harbor for Sanford and many others is that it organized by The Fellowship Foundation, a conservative Christian group that includes numerous influential lawmakers, business, religious and charitable leaders worldwide. The other Foundation venture of note, and notoriety, is its ownership of a Capitol Hill boarding house where Sanford used to pray when in Congress, and where he sought extramarital counseling, as did two resident bad boys, Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and former Rep. Chip Pickering of Mississippi.

That bit of unpleasantness, which flared up last summer, had no visible effect on the demand for tickets, in part because forgiveness is an important element among the prayerful gathered here. So is the spiritual and temporal networking that goes on during two days of meals and meetings. Rep. John Boozman, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sat down with several African leaders after the speeches. (In a side note illustrating how volatile the 2010 election has become, Boozman is set to announce Feb. 6 whether he’ll enter the Arkansas primary as one of 10 Republicans hoping to unseat vulnerable Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln. She did not attend the breakfast.)

For President Obama — who, like every chief exec since Eisenhower, has spoken to the this group — his 17-minute speech was the latest call for civility and tolerance at a time when debates over everything from health care to Haiti are toxic and ugly, To that volatile mix has just been added gays in the military. “We may disagree about gay marriage but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are, whether it’s here in the United States,” he said, or in nations such as Uganda, which is considering a law to jail or execute homosexuals.

Two days earlier, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate it is his “personal belief” the time has come to repeal the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, though only after a one-year study. Despite some congressional, military and public opposition, Mullen called it “the right thing to do.” This may be why, before delivering Thursday’s benediction for world leaders, Mullen joked, “When my wife, Deborah, informed me that one of the world leaders I’d be praying for was probably me, something I hadn’t really considered, I actually started taking this very seriously.”

Standing outside the closed ballroom doors (C-SPAN and the White House traveling pool were the only media allowed inside) I thought about the timing of this hot-button issue and the ongoing culture wars. In this year of Tea Party anger and insurgent Republican victories, former House Speaker Newt Gingich is urging the GOP to try to take back the House and Senate using his updated Contract for America, and by tarring Democrats as a “secular socialist coalition.”

Amid all the rhetoric, backers of the repeal say it is long overdue. Among them is retired Gen. Colin Powell, a former chairman of the joint chiefs, who opposed the original don’t ask/don’t tell legislation. Those on the other side aruge the ban must stay in place for military unit cohesion and to protect the rights and privacy of straight personnel.

It is a fight gay rights activist and Democratic political consultant Robert Raben welcomes. The former Clinton Justice Department official, who did not breakfast at the Hilton, calls the repeal “a fantastic bellwether” that could pit “the values right against the libertarian right.”

“The values right will spend the next year focusing on the hard cases, male on male rape in the military, or whether gay marriage will be dignified by the military. You have libertarians who are now a growing stream of the Republican Party who don’t care about gay-bashing or gay rights. They are aware that discharging 13,000 people after spending so much time and money to train them, discharging Arab linguists, is a waste of precious resources. Democratic liberals will work with the libertarian right to make our fight.” And Democratic conservatives? Raben predicts, “they will get caught up the same values-versus-libertarian fight” as Republicans.

In searching for yet another voice on the subject, but one with no dog in this current fight, I turned to Charlie Ragusa, the longtime Hilton banquet captain, who has been helping set up the National Prayer Breakfast “for as long as it’s been at the hotel,” which means since 1983. “Everybody is here to say a prayer in friendship,” he said. “They should learn to get along with each other, not once a year but all year long.”

And what does he think of gays in the military? “Look, I am one of four brothers who served. I was on the DMZ in Korea when they signed the peace. I think gays have a right to do whatever they want in accordance to the law, just as straights have to. Don’t mix and match laws,” he urged lawmakers. As for gays, he suggests, “a guy’s away from home, don’t take advantage of him.”


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Senators Seek Bonus Tax for Companies That Took Bailout Funds

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Two Democratic senators introduced a bill Thursday that would tax bonuses given by companies that received the most government bailout money during 2009.

The measure by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) would institute a 50 percent tax on bonuses above $400,000 for firms that took $5 billion or more in the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Webb said the tax would generate about $10 billion and help companies pay back the government for the TARP funds.

The bill would affect 13 firms, according to the Journal:

American International Group Inc., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, General Motors Co., GMAC Financial Services, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley, PNC Financial Services Group Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and U.S. Bancorp.

The senators said the proposal would be in addition to a White House plan to impose a fee on financial institutions with assets of more than $50 billion. The Obama Administration has not commented on the Boxer/Webb bill.


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Too Soon to Know Impact of SCOTUS Ruling on 2010 Election

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The recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which removed the limits on corporate spending in political campaigns, has prompted an uncharacteristically passionate response. Even the president singled out the ruling for criticism in his State of the Union address, saying it would “open the floodgates for special interests” to spend in elections.

Still, despite the immediate responses, we’ll probably have to wait until we get the results (and the receipts!) from the 2010 elections to see the real impact of the ruling on corporate donations.

Even before the ruling came down, there was no question that 2010 would be a high-stakes — and, therefore, a high-spending — election cycle. “There will be more money spent in the 2010 election than in the previous — I’ve made that prediction (every election cycle for) the past 30 years and so far haven’t been wrong,” former Republican National Committee General Counsel Jan Baran said in a discussion of the impact of the ruling in a discussion at the Heritage Foundation on Thursday.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that new legislation will change campaign finance law before corporations have the chance to really begin laying out significant amounts of money. The House Judiciary Subcommittee met this week for hearings on the ruling, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told the Huffington Post that Democrats would try to get new campaign finance legislation in place before the 2010 elections.

With Republicans anxious to regain many lost seats, and majority Democrats trying hard to hold on to them, 2010 will see plenty of money being spent on campaigns regardless.


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Kirk, Giannoulias Illinois Senate Showdown Already Brutal

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CHICAGO — The signs the Illinois Republican Party put up at its post-primary unity breakfast on Wednesday — an affair that lasted until lunch — proclaimed “Illinois Is Next!” followed by graphics of three states where Democrats recently lost seats they should have been able to keep: Massachusetts (U.S. Senate), New Jersey and Virginia (governor).
“Welcome to the most important race of 2010 in the United States of America,” boasted the new GOP Illinois Senate nominee, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, to the crowd at the Union League Club in the city’s Loop.

Big screens on the sides of the head table showed a map of the United States superimposed with a picture of a smiling Scott Brown holding up a copy of the Boston Herald headlined “He Did It!” the day after he won Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat. Brown was sworn in on Thursday.

“Yes we will, we will win back the Barack Obama Senate seat,” said keynote speaker, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the chair of the Republican Governors Association, the former chief of the Republican National Committee and the title the Democrats like best, former lobbyist. “We’re in for a big year in Illinois if we work together,” Barbour said.
You can’t blame the Illinois Republicans for their euphoria, even if the GOP gubernatorial primary was so close it has yet to yield a winner. With just a few hundred votes between them, the state senators in a virtual tie, Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, signaled they will support whoever is the eventual winner.
The Illinois GOP is coming off the first-in-the nation 2010 primary in good shape and wildly optimistic. Illinois Democrats, on the other hand, have a mess on their hands that could drag down the top of the ticket, Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias, the state treasurer, and Gov. Pat Quinn. Quinn’s primary rival, Comptroller Dan Hynes, reluctant to throw in the towel on Tuesday night when the vote seemed close, conceded on Thursday.
The Democrats control everything in Illinois: governor, both Senate seats, the Illinois General Assembly and every statewide elected office, and a Chicago Democrat is in the White House. But the Democratic grip now is tenuous for many reasons: seemingly endless corruption, including the Rod Blagojevich scandal; the botched Roland Burris Senate appointment; high unemployment; a nearly insolvent state government and, something new, a kerfuffle over a nobody named Scott Lee Cohen.
The front pages of the Thursday Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune blared headlines about Cohen, the unknown Chicago pawnbroker who self-financed his lieutenant governor race and to everyone’s shock, won. The stories were about how court records showed Cohen was arrested on Oct. 14, 2005 on suspicion of holding a knife to the throat of his live-in girlfriend, a convicted prostitute. The charges were dropped when the girlfriend did not appear in court. (Under Illinois law, the governor and the lieutenant governor run separately in the primary. The primary winners, however, are fused together in a ticket. So Quinn now has a running mate who will be a ball and chain around his neck.)
The Senate seat is the most formidable challenge for Democrats, in part because Republicans in Illinois put aside their differences to yield their strongest possible candidate, Kirk, a five-term lawmaker and an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserves.
A Rasmussen Reports poll conducted on Wednesday — the day after the primary — said Kirk leads Giannoulias 46 percent to 40 percent, with 10 percent undecided, four percent wanting someone else, and a gender gap: male voters heavily favor Kirk while woman strongly support Giannoulias. Kirk is viewed favorably by 55 percent of voters and unfavorably by 33 percent with 12 percent not sure. Giannoulias is regarded favorably by 46 percent and unfavorably by 39 percent with 15 percent not sure.The poll has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Giannoulias comes into the nine-month-long general election a flawed candidate, beat up by primary rival David Hoffman over the troubled Giannoulias family-owned Broadway Bank and loans made to accused mobsters. This is not a good year for a banker to be running for office and Giannoulias worked at the bank before running for state treasurer. The most radioactive charges center on Broadway Bank business dealings with convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko, a political patron of Barack Obama and Giannoulias.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee are already on the attack. On Thursday, the DSCC put out a web video slamming Kirk for appearing with Barbour, who was a Washington lobbyist before returning to Mississippi. The NRSC had a web video on the shelf slamming Giannoulias for this alleged ties to shady characters, Rezko included. The video, posted to YouTube on Feb. 1, was titled “Blagojevich, Rezko, and The Mob. Alexi Giannoulias would make Tony Soprano Proud.” The video is narrated by an announcer with a tortured New Jersey like accent that is jarring to Illinois ears.
Giannoulias, who will be 34 years old on March 16, spent his first day campaigning as the nominee at a former GE plant in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. The company closed and sent the jobs to China, which Giannoulias said came after getting tax breaks Kirk voted for during the Bush administration.
“It’s no wonder Mark Kirk supported tax breaks for GE,” Giannoulias said, “rewarding them when they created a job in China rather than in Illinois, because GE gave thousands of dollars in contributions to his campaign.”
Giannoulias has been hounded by Broadway Bank problems since he ran for treasurer in 2006 with then-Sen. Obama backing him in a contested primary. I asked Kirk, 50, about the role the bank will play in the general election and whether Kirk anticipates the Obama White House getting involved in the contest.

Kirk told me, “At the moment I think they would like to be, but I think experienced hands in the Obama White House are going to be looking at the future of Broadway Bank. They are probably going to be very worried about several loans made by the Broadway Bank and wondering whether this candidacy is viable or not.”


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Out of all the Extramarital Scandals, Public Feels Most Sorry for Elizabeth Edwards

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After all the recent scandals about extramarital affairs involving John Edwards, Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods, Fox News asked in its latest poll which wife Americans felt most sorry for, and the answer was overwhelmingly for Elizabeth Edwards.

Forty-nine percent sympathized with Elizabeth Edwards the most, while 10 percent named Elin Nordegren, Wood’s wife, and 5 percent sided with Jenny Sanford. John Edwards, as everyone knows by now, had an extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter and fathered a child with her while his wife was battling cancer; and, Woods had a series of encounters with women that came into public view after he crashed his SUV outside his family home. And, as is well known by now, Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, was visiting his Argentinian mistress after telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Is there any partisanship in these results? Yes, 57 percent of Democrats felt sorry for Edwards while the number for Republicans and independents were in line with the overall results.

Nineteen percent of those surveyed said they felt sorry for all. Ten percent felt sorry for none of them and 7 percent had no opinion.

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