Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: JibJab checks in


The wily zeitgeist puppetmasters at JibJab have once again set their hand to a video summation of the big-deal events of the year 2011. Most of ‘em anyway. Certainly due to the time it takes to work up these wildly entertaining projects, they didn’t just finish this thing the day before yesterday. We can only guess what they’d have made of the death of Kim Jong Il, the House Republicans’ cave on extending the payroll tax cut ... or Newt Gingrich in tears. But the release of JibJab’s Year in Review has always been one of our culcha’s most eagerly anticipated sendups, and this year’s model is no exception:



JibJab’s impact as what amounts to a tradition has raised its profile, and generated its detractors. On the company’s Facebook page, critics are weighing in on the quality of the latest JibJab production — one IT star chamber in particular.

“I hate to say it, but these have been going down hill for a few years now.”

“I have to agree that the last few years haven’t seem as innovative as early 2000's were”

“I also agree, it's been much better in past years,”

“I agree, below par this year.”

Michael Kinney of St. Petersburg, Fla., at least tried to put it all in a less judgmental perspective, one the folks at JibJab might even endorse.

“It was a tough year to be funny!”

Image credit: JibJab logo: © 2011 JibJab Media

Friday, December 30, 2011

And still Sharpton rises


Back in August, as the Rev. Al Sharpton began his hosting duties on MSNBC's PoliticsNation, the first gig there for an African American who wasn't a journalist, a reader at The Huffington Post asked what many in the media (and elsewhere) probably asked themselves: "What is the over-under on this guy's hosting job lasting a full month?"

Four months later -- and six months after he began his association with MSNBC, as a substitute host for progressive firebrand Ed Schultz -- Sharpton remains at the helm of his own regular program and has come into his own as part of the rotating face of the "Lean Forward" network.

With a forthright style cultivated in the pulpit and on the street, Sharpton has done one of the main things that modern television demands: carved out a telegenic personality, establishing a singular identity not to be confused with anyone else.

The fact that Sharpton, head of the activist National Action Network, is no shrinking violet but a full-throated progressive with passionate views on a range of topics related to social justice illustrates the evolving tango of journalism and opinion in 21st-century media. Much to their dismay, old-guard mainstream journalists face a paradigm shift of which Sharpton's rise is but a leading indicator: the fact that minority voices are finally starting to achieve critical mass in the American commentariat. ...

Read more at The Root
Image credit: Al Sharpton: MSNBC.

Romney’s newest challenges:
The man from Pennsylvania, and the economy


Whoever delivers pizzas to the offices of the seven remaining Republican contenders for the presidency (one in particular) has probably done brisk late-night business over the last few days. Never mind the candidate zoo barnstorming the state of Iowa, in advance of Tuesday’s caucuses, the first canvass of the 2012 presidential year. What’s keeping the candidates up nights, at least a little, has nothing to do with plotting strategies against each other and everything to do with adjusting to the rise of a previously unseen enemy: an improving national economy.

Much of the prevailing Republican electoral strategy, the stuff of a working guidebook for the GOP in its unsavory obsession to regain the White House, is based on the basic principle that the national economy would not improve markedly before Election Day 2012.

That belief, which every candidate has a variation of, has had its supporters on Capitol Hill, notably the Republicans in the House of Representatives, who’ve stymied as many Democratically-advanced efforts at consumer, state and infrastructure relief as possible over the last three years.

◊ ◊ ◊

But the ones right now making the most of that Republican pseudo-meme are the GOP candidates seeking the presidency. And none of them has adopted that idea as campaign doctrine as much as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He Who Hath Lived His Life in the Private Sector has accused President Obama of financial ineptitude, and insisted that his own experience in business puts him to best heal the economy.

Romney’s therefore set himself against not just the Obama White House and its policies and initiatives, but also an evolving series of events and forecasts that suggest at least some of those policies and initiatives are actually working in the economy he wants to fix:

ABC News reported Thursday that a consensus of economic forecasts projects that, on average, 177,000 new jobs will be created each month for the next 12 months — an expected total of about 2.1 million new jobs.

A survey of economists sponsored by The Associated Press forecasts that job creation will increase by 33 percent in 2012.

“The economy is slowly growing, coming out of the doldrums we’ve been in,” said John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, to ABC News.

An Associated Press/GfK survey finds that 62 percent of Americans are optimistic about the country’s prospects in 2012; some 78 percent expressed feelings of being personally hopeful about the coming year.

And most tellingly, the AP reports that new unemployment applications are down 10 percent since last January.

All this taking place, mind you, before we even know who the Republican nominee will be.

◊ ◊ ◊

From the perspective of life in Iowa, things couldn’t be better. Tom Vilsack can testify to that. Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and current Secretary of Agriculture viewed the improving economy through an agriculturalist’s lens in an assessment for MSNBC’s Ed Schultz on Thursday:



Citing a broad range of statewide upticks in orders for machinery; record exports; increased farm business and an unemployment rate falling faster than the national average, Vilsack was more than a little upbeat.

“There should be a strong ag economy in 2012,” he said. “[A]s agriculture goes, certainly in Iowa, so goes the economy generally. Things are beginning to develop, and people are optimistic about 2012.”

“Optimistic” without “cautiously” attached. Imagine that.

◊ ◊ ◊

And all that becomes a problem for Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has built his campaign on the planks of fiscal experience. Lately, though, there’s been a gathering body of Romney detractors, other financial insiders prepared to say that Romney’s financial and corporate acumen came at a price — one paid by workers, the same kind of everyday people digging out of the recession right now.

One of their number, William Cohan, a former Wall Street banker and author of “House of Cards: Money and Power,” said Bain Capital, Romney’s former company, “like private-equity firms all over this city and country, [has] been in the business of buying companies, loading them up with debt, trying to pay down the debt by stripping assets, laying off employees, generating as much cash as possible ... and creating equity value where there once was debt, and getting themselves extremely wealthy.

“He’s not the wealthiest private-equity guy by any stretch of the imagination, but of course he’s very wealthy,” Cohan told MSNBC’s Martin Bashir on Dec. 15. “In fact that wealth is financing his campaign, in large part.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It could be a tough sell to convince the people of Iowa, or any other state, to vote for someone whose own proven financial self-interests and ruthless business history are fundamentally at odds with ordinary people like them. It could be a harder sell to convince them to vote to replace a president because the economy’s failing when the economy isn’t failing.

If the national economy manages to continue its upward climb until, say, Super Tuesday (in March), the prime rationale for Romney’s candidacy — I can fix the economy because I’ve done this kind of thing before — frankly runs the risk of becoming unnecessary, and maybe even irrelevant. The foundation of the Romney campaign mansion starts to crack; and the candidate that Republicans already resigned themselves to voting for with nostrils pinched shut becomes, gradually but steadily, less than inevitable.

That’s partly because of the current Romney campaign obsession with former House Speaker — the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex whose campaign is widely seen to be floundering — and Romney’s relative indifference to the candidate he ought to be worried about, the one apparently consistent social conservative whose polling numbers have increased 11 points in the last month, the one lately gaining ground and serious consideration: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

◊ ◊ ◊

Romney is apparently convinced that Gingrich has enough organization and money to be a serious contender in South Carolina and Florida, two of the next three primary states. Romney 2012 recently dropped more than $3 million in Iowa ad buys, more than other candidates’ anti-Newt spends combined.



More or less dovetailing with this spending has been the fact that Gingrich’s polling favorables have seriously declined. By double digits, in some polls. That could be a chicken-egg thing: which came first, Newt’s drop in the polls or Romney’s ads driving Newt’s drop in the polls?

Whichever it is, Romney’s mad focus on Gingrich and his overlooking Santorum may be a huge strategic blunder. Santorum has been surging in a thoroughly organic, county-by-county way, while Newt’s favorables have fallen like a rock off a table top.

For Romney to put so much energy into defeating a campaign that’s in the slow-motion process of defeating itself is a waste and misdirection of time, resources and candidate focus. For all his deficits in the calculus of traditional retail American politics — money, staff, offices, ad budgets, PAC clout — Santorum should be regarded, in some important ways, as Romney’s biggest threat. What he lacks in ground game, Santorum has more than compensated for in face time.

“All politics is local,” Tip O’Neill said, and you can’t get more local than canvassing every county in the state, one at a time.

◊ ◊ ◊

When both of these factors are brought to bear, the voters in some of the early primaries may be the beneficiaries of a happy accident:

The idea’s been advanced, only half-facetiously, that GOP regulars don’t want Romney to run for the White House almost as much as they don’t want Obama in the White House.

Since they don’t want Romney, and the basic economic-related reasons to vote for him diminish with an improving economy, Iowa voters — and presumably those in South Carolina and Florida — may be in a position as problematic for Romney as it could be beneficial for Santorum: freed of a party obligation to vote for someone they don’t like and whose financial rescue plans they don’t need; liberated to vote their principles, rather than their expectations.

Rick Santorum, come on down.

Image credits: Romney and Santorum: Fox News. Poll piechart snapshots: © 2011 GfK Roper/The Associated Press.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Justice Department investigates the police force



It's a modern article of American faith: Metropolitan police departments have a history of conflict with their cities' minority citizens, conflicts that suggest police agencies trade evenhanded justice for heavy-handed contact with the public. In the recent past, police departments in Los Angeles, New York City and New Orleans have been taken to task for excessive force and have taken actions to correct the problem.

But in the last two years, according to the U.S. Justice Department, allegations of wrongdoing by police departments across the country have mushroomed to unprecedented levels. According to Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, at least 17 U.S. police departments are under investigation for various civil rights violations, "more than at any time in the division's history," Perez said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September.

A very recent example, in one of America's most storied precincts of liberalism and tolerance, symbolizes both the breadth of the problem as a national issue and the challenges facing its correction. ...

Read the rest at The Root

Image credit: Dorli Rainey: Joshua Trujillo/seattlepi.com

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cave the elephant


Cave, n. [Colloq.] to give way; give in; yield. (Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition).

About 160 million Americans got a last-minute holiday gift on Friday, courtesy of President Obama and a House of Representatives that’s managed to play the role of Santa Claus and Scrooge at the same time. It’s better than a stocking stuffer, it’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving (for another two months, anyway), something you wouldn’t dream of returning.

Wherever you live in the United States, you may have heard the shriek of an elephant on Friday, when the president signed a two-month extension of the 2 percent payroll tax cut, and extended unemployment benefits and authorized maintaining the current reimbursement Medicare rate — all of it a great year-end win for ordinary Americans.

House Republicans gave in to President Obama and congressional Democrats, joining the Senate in approving the measure in a voice vote by unanimous consent, before lawmakers (the ones who hadn’t left town already) vacated the capitol en masse heading for the holiday break.

Despite a short-lived threat by House Republicans to express their objections on the floor of the House and blow up the deal, nothing happened. The grumblers went along with what was a done deal, a hard-fought win for Democrats on taxes, an issue that will resonate with voters next year, in the run-up to an election that may well hinge on voter perceptions of who cares the most about the middle class.

◊ ◊ ◊

Under the deal, the payroll tax stays at the current 4.2 percent rate instead of going back to the 6.2 percent rate it was at before the cut was put in place in 2010. Without the outcome that just played out on the Hill, the higher rate would have come back on Jan. 1, adding about $1,000 in taxes for each of millions of Americans still lucky enough to pull down a paycheck. John or Jane Doe’s take-home pay would have dropped by about $40 per pay period without the tax cut.

“When Congress returns,” the president said, “I urge them to keep working without drama, without delay to reach an agreement that extends this tax cut as well as unemployment insurance through all of 2012.”



"This is some good news just in the nick of time," Obama said before leaving for his own well-earned break in Hawaii. “We have a lot more work to do. This continues to be a make-or-break moment for the middle class in this country.”

Everybody took a shot at the GOP piñata. “I hope this Congress has had a very good learning experience, especially those who are new to this body,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said at a Friday news conference. “Everything we do around here does not have to end up in a fight. ... There’s no reason to do that. I would hope the new members of the House understand legislation is the art of compromise, consensus building.”

Obama and Reid, among other Democrats, used more decorous language, but they essentially told the House of Representatives what Lauryn Hill said some time back: “You might win some but you just lost one.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In the partisan hothouse of Washington, victory and defeat are often filtered through any number of spinmeisters who try to contextualize legislative actions according to political party. But even by the most partisan perspective, this was an unalloyed win for Team Obama, and a big blow to the GOP.

“It became increasingly obvious he had to fold,” CNN political analyst David Gergen said. Boehner was under “intense pressure from senior Republicans” over a situation that “became so botched.”

The outcome in all this looks especially bad for Speakerphone of the House John Boehner, who tacked back and forth with no clear direction, at the mercy of the House Republican caucus. CNN explains why:

“The speaker, according to multiple accounts, initially favored the two-month extension, which had passed the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. He was then apparently forced to retreat from that position last weekend in the face of a tea party-fueled revolt in which freshman conservatives in particular demanded an immediate 12-month extension.

“Facing rising Republican establishment fears that the GOP was squandering its political advantage on taxes, the speaker again reversed himself on Thursday, this time essentially consenting to the Senate's terms.

“The final bill is virtually the same Senate proposal House Republicans rejected earlier this week.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Boehner vacillated between his own political instincts to accept the two-month deal and a willingness to placate those in the restive Tea Party Republican wing (and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor) to reject it. It's that vacillation, which got more and more obvious as the thing dragged on, that doesn't redound favorably for Boehner's image as House Speaker.

He gets some practical cred for wanting to accept the two-month deal originally, it's true, but the protracted (and ultimately unnecessary) back and forth on Capitol Hill for the last week, and his role in prolonging it, have made Boehner look feckless and slow-footed.

Proof? Late Thursday, when the outcome on the standoff was clear, Boehner told reporters that the House Republicans’ objection to the Senate plan was right and proper on the proverbial merits. "It may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world," Boehner said (ya think?), but "we were able to fix what came out of the Senate."

"I talked to enough members over the last 24 hours who say we don't like the two-month extension [but] why not do the right thing for the American people even if it's not exactly what we want."

And there’s the problem. If Boehner and his Tea Party partners agreed that extending the tax cuts was “the right thing for the American people,” why the hell did they put the nation through this crap for the past two weeks?

◊ ◊ ◊

There’ve been dread-laced thoughts of what’s coming in February, when the two months’ extension is over. Some in the punditburo have voiced fears that the Tea Party virus buried in the Republican bloodstream will resurface with a renewed congressional attack against anything resembling support for the middle class.

But there’s a powerful force against a repeat of what just happened: It’s the calendar.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Still rockin’ after all these years


His presidential campaign has languished in the single-digit doldrums pretty much since the day he declared he was running, back in June. Despite a general acknowledgement that he’s the most electably conservative Republican candidate in the race, his bid for the White House hasn’t caught fire.

But say what you will, Jon Huntsman still knows how to rock.

The former governor of Utah made a pilgrimage to David Letterman on “The Late Show With” on Wednesday night. Weaving the GOP candidates into the show, for straight-up interviews or readings of the “Top Ten” list is something that’s been a reliable fixture of Letterman’s late-night program. (Watch for Newt Gingrich next. As if.)

In the course of being interviewed by Dave, the governor was blindsided by what Letterman called “an incriminating photo” of the candidate: a shot of Huntsman as a high-school student in the 70’s, a member of the band Wizard. It was a great goof, showing the future governor and multimillionaire as a fashion victim of that era, all blow-dried hair, collared shirts and earnest soulful looks into the camera. Bread! Air Supply! Wizard!

“I thought I could make it big,” Huntsman said. “I wanted to be like Paul Shaffer. So if I'd made it as a musician, Dave, I wouldn't be sitting with you today. I'd be playing with the guys.”



A rocker’s life wasn’t to be, but Huntsman kept up his chops on the piano. And Dave’s studio audience was about to get a taste.

Letterman talked Huntsman into joining Shaffer and the Late Show band behind the piano. The band jumped into a spirited version of Chuck Berry’s classic "Johnny B. Goode," and in the ensuing performance, the guv’nor wasn’t half bad. The second coming of Johnnie Johnson he ain’t, but Huntsman proved he knows his way around the 88’s, after all these years.

With his campaign seemingly on life support, Huntsman can hardly be blamed for trying to push the envelope on the public’s idea of who he is. Over the last five months or so, it’s been hard for the quotable, photogenic former governor to extricate himself from the clown car jail he’s trapped in with the other candidates. We might believe he could be president, if not for the company he’s been keeping.

So, not unlike President Clinton’s 1992 campaign flirtation with pop culture (when he played saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show”), The Huntsman Show seemed to make good political sense, putting a smart distance between himself and the pack with a sharp display of the music of Americana.

Questions remain. Do the people of Iowa still rock? Will they forgive a fellow conservative for his liaison with the Devil’s Music? Is there room in the conservative mindset for a candidate with a good right hand? We’ll know in a few weeks. Maybe Huntsman’s late-night move gets him to, or near, the top of the other charts.

Image credits: Paul Shaffer and Jon Huntsman, Huntsman bottom: © 2011 CBS/Worldwide Pants. Huntsman middle (back in the day): Jon Huntsman via "Late Show With David Letterman."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blue bird of prey?: Twitter and its discontented


It was one of those one-two punches of news that suggests a curious, maybe ominous parallel, a coincidence of timing that forces us to remember that correlation isn’t causation. No matter how it feels.

On Monday, Prince Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia announced that he had purchased a $300 million stake in Twitter, the vastly popular social-media startup whose 100 million regular users find as much a daily necessary as breathing.

The prince has a long and enviable track record of investing in a variety of developing and emerging companies; Walt Disney, Citigroup and Apple are some of the trophies in his global portfolio. Since Twitter is thought to be nowhere near plans to become a publicly traded company, it appears that the prince, a studious and canny investor, made an investment in Twitter that should be seen for what it is: a smart investment by someone with pockets cavernous enough to make it worthwhile.

But at almost the same time as the prince’s big buy, there was other evidence of Twitter growing up and changing, signs of that playful blue bird maybe taking on the attributes of a velociraptor.

◊ ◊ ◊

On Sunday, BusinessInsider.com published the following report by David Seaman, a blogger and creator of Credit Card Outlaw, a popular finance blog and credit card comparison Web site:

“Imagine my surprise this morning when, without warning, my shiny new Twitter account (@d_seaman) was suspended and taken offline.

“No more tweets for you. You now have 0 followers.

“My crime? Talking too much about Occupy Wall Street (I'm not an Occupier, but as a blogger and journalist it strikes me as one of the most important stories out there -- hence the constant coverage), and talking too much about the controversial detainment without trial provisions contained in the FY 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which would basically shred the Bill of Rights and subject American citizens to military police forces. The same level of civil rights protection that enemy combatants in a cave in Afghanistan receive!

“But no, my tweets were 'annoying our users,' according to Twitter's suspension notice.”

Seaman said he reached out to Ev Williams, the co-founder of Twitter, and to other tech journalists for information and, hopefully, some answers. “I don't want to start a big thing -- I just want my account reactivated. This is America, not Iran, thanks in advance.”

Seaman also noted, and questioned “why #NDAA and #OWS, which are receiving consistently VERY high volumes of conversation/tweet traffic are not trending at all on Twitter, yet their featured 'worldwide trends' this morning include: Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, #myfavoritefood, and Kindergarten Cop.”

A subsequent editor’s note said that Business Insider contacted Twitter’s public relations department and was told they “never mediate content. Period.” No further comment at that time.

◊ ◊ ◊

Later over the weekend, however, the gremlins that snuck into Seaman’s account were ferretted out.

Quoting him:

“At approximately 7:37 pm ET, my Twitter account was restored, and I received the following message from Twitter support: ‘Hello, Twitter has automated systems that find and remove multiple automated spam accounts in bulk. Unfortunately, it looks like your account got caught up in one of these spam groups by mistake. I've restored your account; sorry for the inconvenience. Please note that it may take an hour or so for your follower and following numbers to return to normal.’

Sunday, December 18, 2011

EXORD 1003, Victor, Mod 9: The Iraq War ends


We are in a process of ... shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning.”

Senior administration official quoted in the Aug. 13, 2005, edition of The Washington Post, in a story by Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer




The war that started with shock and awe ended with a day of absence.

The New York Times captured the moment:

“As an indication of the country the United States is leaving behind, for security reasons the last soldiers made no time for goodbyes to Iraqis with whom they had become acquainted. To keep details of the final trip secret from insurgents — or Iraqi security officers aligned with militias — interpreters for the last unit to leave the base called local tribal sheiks and government leaders on Saturday morning and conveyed that business would go on as usual, not letting on that all the Americans would soon be gone. ...

“Many troops wondered how the Iraqis, whom they had worked closely with and trained over the past year, would react when they awakened on Sunday to find that the remaining American troops on the base had left without saying anything.”

At 6:59 a.m. this morning, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed EXORD 1003, Victor, Mod 9, the cryptically-titled document officially ending the Iraq War.

After 4,487 Americans died, 32,226 were wounded and $900 billion were incinerated, that process of acknowledging reality — a kind of American Awakening — has finally gone down, two weeks ahead of schedule. The U.S. military MRAP vehicles rumbled toward the Kuwaiti-Iraq border this morning, back down the same road they came in on eight years, eight months and 28 days ago.

With the jaunty, upbeat pace of an exercise; with the jubilation of men and women who knew good and damn well that war is anything but an exercise, the last American forces exited from the Inchoate Emerging Democracy in the land of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

◊ ◊ ◊

The righteous vitriol and high dudgeon the United States began this conflict with on March 19, 2003, took its time in the depletion. The shock & awe light show that immediately dazzled the media led to a rush to the colors by that same media, and, however briefly, by the nation as a whole.

In the spring of 2005, the nationalistic impulse among Americans was still strong almost four years after 9/11, according to a poll conducted by the Roper Reports unit of NOP World. The survey found 81 percent of Americans believed patriotism is “in,” or an important factor in their lives and identities, compared with 14 percent of Americans who said patriotism was “out.”

“That [patriotism] appears so long after the period of frenzied flag-waving following 9/11 suggests that it is settling in as a fixture of American perceptions,” said Roper Reports.

Some of that patriotism seemed to be driven by the fact of the Iraq conflict then unfolding, and by the memory of the nation’s experience in Vietnam. “This country had a huge reckoning with the days of Vietnam and attitudes toward our soldiers. Every baby boomer internally promises never to let something like that happen again,” Cary Silvers, NOP World vice president of consumer trends, told me in July 2005.

◊ ◊ ◊

We’re a patient lot, we Americans. That patriotic fervor continued, and it exists today, as the last of about 39,000 of our fellow citizens get back to lives that should never have been disrupted in the first place. But while our support for the troops is and should be unquestioned, this nation still reckons with the administration that sent them there and the one that pulled them out, with deliberation so slow it verged on the painful.

“Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility,” President Obama said in August 2010. “And I made clear that by Aug. 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing, as promised and on schedule.”

If the United States jumped into the Iraq war in a relative hurry — roughly 18 months elapsed between the horror of 9/11 and the invasion in March 2003 — getting out has been more of a timed-release affair.

In late June 2009, the United States began withdrawing its armed forces from 15 major cities and municipalities of Iraq, leaving the Iraqi army to shield the nation from the insurgents.

The drawdown Obama announced in August 2010 brought American force in Iraq down to 50,000 troops, well down from the 144,000 there when he took office in January 2009. The force levels have been winnowing down from there ever since.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama told us what was coming when he met with troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Wednesday. "Our troops are now preparing to make their final march across the border and out of the country," Obama said. "Iraq's future will be in the hands of its own people."

"This is a moment for us to build a country that lives up to the ideals that so many of our bravest Americans have fought and even died for," Obama said. "That is our highest obligation as citizens. That is the welcome home that our troops deserve."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Conservatives to Lowe’s: Never stop bending over


You’d think that when a company faces an uphill fight against its competition, that company would do everything it could to attract business, to take every opportunity to make people feel welcome, regardless of color or ethnicity or religious choice.

But the folks at Lowe’s Home Improvement would beg to differ.

The North Carolina-based company is pushing back against below-par same-store sales performance compared to rival Home Depot, and despite analysts’ preference for Home Depot. Reuters reported last month that sales at Home Depot stores open a year or more have cleaned Lowe’s clock for nine straight quarters.

So it goes without saying that Lowe’s needs all the friends — and business — it can get. A just-made decision by the company won’t help that happen.

◊ ◊ ◊

Lowe's has withdrawn its advertising from “All-American Muslim,” a new reality show about American Muslims now airing on the TLC channel. The show, which premiered in November, charts the lives of five families from Dearborn, Mich., a Detroit suburb with a large Muslim and Arab-American population.

What makes the show so unique is its willingness to play against the popular expectation of the Muslim experience. The lives of the featured families are shown in a more or less average American context: family pressures, joys, successes and challenges are revealed in a way that strips away our preconceived notions about what it means to be a Muslim in America 2011.

Lowe’s pulled the ads on Dec. 5 after a conservative group known as the Florida Family Association complained, complaining that the program was "propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values."

“ ‘All-American Muslim’ is propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law,” the group said in a statement.

The FFA is seeking to get other companies to withdraw advertising from the show. The Tampa Bay-based group claims that 65 other companies have yanked ads from the show, including Bank of America, Campbell Soup, Dell, General Motors, Goodyear, McDonalds and Wal-Mart.

◊ ◊ ◊

The sycophants at Lowe's issued a statement on Saturday, apologizing for having “managed to make some people very unhappy.”

“Lowe’s has received a significant amount of communication on this program, from every perspective possible. Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lighting rod for many of those views. As a result we did pull our advertising on this program. We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.”

Suehaila Amen, whose family is part of the "All-American Muslim" program, told The Detroit News on Sunday she was “saddened that any place of business would succumb to bigots and people trying to perpetuate their negative views on an entire community.”

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Muslim and a Detroit Democrat, expressed her outrage to the company via fax. "I could not believe a company that has been in existence for 60 years would make the decision to listen to a minority of voices promoting hate," she told The Detroit News.

The Daily Beast nailed the situation: “For all its construction wherewithal, Lowe’s Home Improvement isn’t very good at building bridges.”

◊ ◊ ◊

So Lowe’s issued a tweak of Saturday’s apology on Monday: “As you know, the TLC program ‘All-American Muslim’ has become a lightning rod for people to voice complaints from a variety of perspectives – political, social and otherwise,” the company said.

“Following this development, dozens of companies removed their advertising from the program beginning in late November. Lowe’s made the decision to discontinue our advertising on Dec. 5. As we shared yesterday, we have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, and we’re proud of that longstanding commitment. If we have made anyone question that commitment, we apologize.”

If that strikes you as being clear as mud, you’re not alone. Translated, it basically means that Lowe’s caved and is deeply apologetic if it makes you feel bad. End of story.

Implicit in Lowe’s reaction is its endorsement of the other, uglier and more socially problematic train of thinking by the Florida Family Association and those who support it: How dare they? How dare TLC refuse to buy into the meme of Muslim-as-Other! How dare TLC depict Muslim Americans without the central casting fiction of Muslims as bearded, exotic, inscrutable and shadowy presumptive terrorists? To show them as citizens with lives and hopes and dreams and concerns! As ordinary people! The very idea!

◊ ◊ ◊

A California state senator is weighing the idea of a boycott of Lowe’s stores. Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, told The Associated Press that he’d consider pursuing legislative action if Lowe's doesn't apologize to Muslims. The senator, who condemned the Lowe's action as "un-American" and "naked religious bigotry," fired off a letter to Lowe's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert A. Niblock, AP reported.

"The show is about what it's like to be a Muslim in America, and it touches on the discrimination they sometimes face. And that kind of discrimination is exactly what's happening here with Lowe's," Lieu said.

And on Monday, hip-hop impresario and entrepreneur Russell Simmons stepped up to the plate, announcing on his Twitter page that he would buy up the “All-American Muslim” ad air time previously bought by Lowe’s for the next week.

◊ ◊ ◊

Maybe there are other, more direct ways to let Lowe’s know how out of plumb with reality and corporate independence this decision really is. Maybe a letter to Chairman and CEO Robert Niblock at Lowe’s Companies Inc., 1000 Lowe’s Boulevard, Mooresville, N.C. 28117.

Or a fax: (336) 658-4766.

Or maybe a phone call: (704) 758-2084.

Or, more immediately still, maybe an e-mail: robert.a.niblock@lowes.com (according to consumerist.com)

There must be some way to get that point across. Because this is bigger than tidy corporate stopgap solutions to deep, potentially seismic national problems. It’s bigger and smaller than that. It’s as small and as real as the Muslim women who work, long and hard and professionally, in various positions at Lowe’s Store 0004 at 2700 Rainier Avenue South, Seattle, Wash. 98144.

It’s a matter as small, and big, and real, as everyday people engaged in the dreadfully terroristic act of trying to stay alive.

Lowe’s has made home makeovers its bread and butter, and early this month announced plans for store makeovers in a bid to win more customers.

Apparently the company management itself could use a serious makeover of its heart. And its head. And its guts.

Image credits: Lowe’s logo: © 2011 Lowe’s Companies. All-American Muslim title card: TLC/Discovery. Florida Family Assn. logo detail: FFA. Robert Niblock: via consumerist.com.

Mitt Romney’s $10,000 / $1M misunderstanding


“He just seems like he’s got all these things working against him. He’s an establishment guy in an anti-establishment year. He inherits the support of a lot of people who’ve been around politics for probably way too long, he has changed his position on innumerable issues, and he’s a terrible campaigner. Other than that, he’s a great frontrunner.”

Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post made those observations about Mitt Romney to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, back in June. A lot’s changed for the former Massachusetts governor since then, and the loss of that frontrunner status is only part of the story.

Early June, when Fineman made those comments, was arguably the high-water mark for the Romney 2012 campaign. That’s when Mitt led in Iowa polling and in national Gallup and Quinnipiac polls. But even back then, the 25 percent threshold was Romney’s firewall; he never much broke past that point.

Now his grip on 25 percent is in danger of slipping, but the resurgence of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is only part of the reason. Simply put, Mitt Romney has an image problem; right or wrong, the perception of Romney as a rich, privileged, opportunistic, cossetted operator won’t go away.

The fact that he Spent His Life in the Private Sector may actually be working against him (ask unemployed, foreclosed Jane Q. Citizen how she feels about some of those people working in the Private Sector).

There’s been an abiding sense that Mitt Romney is out of touch with everyday people. He may have proved that by accident on Saturday.

◊ ◊ ◊

At the candidates’ debate that evening at Drake University in Des Moines, Romney, more or less genially sparring with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, offered to settle a dispute with the governor in what he thought was a gentlemanly way: with a bet.

RICK PERRY: I'm-- I'm-- I'm listenin' to you, Mitt, and I'm hearin' you say all the right things. But I read your first book and it said in there that your mandate in Massachusetts which should be the model for the country. And I know it came out of-- of the-- the reprint of the book. But, you know, I'm just sayin', you were for individual mandates, my friend.

MITT ROMNEY: You know what? You've raised that before, Rick. And-- you're simply wrong.

RICK PERRY: It-- it-- it was true then. It's true now.

MITT ROMNEY: That-- now, this-- Rick, I'll-- I'll tell you what. 10,000 bucks-- (APPLAUSE) $10,000 bet?

RICK PERRY: I'm not in the bettin' business, but, okay.

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, I-- I'll—

RICK PERRY: I'll show you the-- I'll-- I'll-- I'll show you the book.

MITT ROMNEY: I wrote-- I've got the book.


The pushback online was almost immediate. A Twitter page was launched with the hashtag #what10Kbuys; it’s been swamped with tweets today. Other candidates in the race for the Republican nomination have jumped on, too, with shiny new ads that skewer Romney for his comments. Even former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who wasn’t even at the Drake debate, weighed in.

But leave it to Perry, wounded but game for the fight just the same, to say it plain. “Having an extra $10,000 that you would throw down on a bet just seems very out of the ordinary,” he told The New York Times on Sunday in Ames, Iowa. “I would suggest to you that $10,000 is pocket change for Mitt.”

Probably not even that. With an estimated net worth in excess of $200 million, Romney’d probably find that much in the cushions of the Ligne Roset sofa in the summer home.

◊ ◊ ◊

But Romney, his back lately to the wall because of Newt’s relentless advance, made everything worse a few days later, doubling down on the original comment in a way that geometrically ratcheted up the appearance of his insulation from the fiscal agonies of the middle class.

On Monday, at a restaurant in Manchester, N.H., Romney defended his Saturday wager, saying, “this was an outrageous number to answer an outrageous charge from him, and it’s been proven time and time again … it’s like saying, ‘hey, I betcha a million bucks X, Y or Z.”

In that single stroke, Romney made a bad situation worse. By equating the improbability of a bet of $10,000 with one of $1 million, Mitt suggested, however accidentally, that there’s no difference between the two.

And in the universe of Mitt Romney’s disposable income, that may well be true. Romney spent about $44.7 million on his first run for the presidency, according to Bloomberg. It’s an open question how much of his personal money he’s using in the 2012 contest, since the burn rate of campaign source funds and campaign donations isn’t historical, but going on as we speak. (One Huffington Post report estimated that the Romney campaign spends 86 cents for every dollar contributed by donors.)

But for all his experience in the Private Sector, Romney should be better about making distinctions between $10K and $1M, even in the benign context of a riposte at a debate. It’s a safe bet the American people know the difference.

Is this how Romney would manage the national purse? Would he be any less cavalier about smudging distinctions between one amount of money and another when the money isn’t even his?

Somebody check the old books at Bain Capital. Right now.

◊ ◊ ◊

At the end of the day, this may not add up to very much. Given the other challenges facing the Romney 2012 campaign, this may ultimately be that proverbial tempest in a teapot. But there’s no escaping it: For Mitt Romney, it’s just one more thing to have to deal with it, another loose rock in Sisyphus’ uphill path, another unwelcome perception of Romney created not by prog media or Democratic presidents or Republican challengers, but by Romney himself.

The candidate has gotten a lot of advice since his $10K misunderstanding went viral: most of it professionally, defensively, strategically political. He probably got some of the best advice — no surprise —from his wife, Ann: Stick to your knitting.

“A lot of things you do well. Betting isn’t one of them.”

Image credits: Romney top, Perry and Romney: ABC News. $10K banknote: via pennylicious.com.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

War of the alpha dogs: The Drake debate (live blog)

"This is the biggest alpha dog battle of the campaign so far," Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said to Politico. Will this come down tonight as a battle between Newt and Mitt? Or will one of the other comparative campaign doormats rise, and change the race again? Let’s monitor this latest three-ring Republican event, courtesy of ABC News. Feel free to jump in and have your say.

Go big or go home: The Drake debate


At 9 p.m. eastern time (6 p.m. Pacific) the moderators, ABC News’ Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopolus, will kick off the only broadcast network debate in prime-time before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary —the formal start of the madness of the primary season.

Tonight’s GOP presidential candidates debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, promises to be some kind of watershed for six of the seven remaining contenders for the nomination.

There’s a slow acclimation of opinion that this run for the roses is coming down to two people: Mitt Romney, stump-speech mannequin, philosophical shape-shifter and former Massachusetts governor; and Newt Gingrich, the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex, Tiffany’s supershopper and former Speaker of the House.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the darling of the libertarian sub-wing of the GOP, has lately been showing strength in recent surveys; tonight could be a breakthrough.

But for the others, their performance tonight will be the pivot point — the time to go big or go home. For Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the walking non sequitur and former frontrunner; Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the daffy Joan of Arc manqué; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (whose relative earnestness hasn’t gained him any traction in the polls), tonight’s crucial for making the case for staying in a race they’re statistically out of.

For politics junkies, tonight’s proceedings should be at least as entertaining as the others, and with Gingrich as the new anointed frontrunner, probably more. It’s just the thing for live blogging. Thanks to the Cover It Live live stream platform, I’ll be live-blogging the event tonight starting at 6 o’clock Pacific time. Feel free to jump in with your reactions and comments.

Image credit: Gingrich and Romney: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton,

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Newt’s figment VII:
'The tallest building in Wichita' gains stature


You know you’re the frontrunner in the 2012 Republican presidential campaign when David Letterman broadcasts a computer animation of you having sex with a vending machine.

The CBS late-night king pulled that lil’ electronic stunt last Thursday night, just as the perceived fortunes of Newt Gingrich were in fact beginning to gel into something real in the world of politics. The bottom rail’s on the top right now.

After more than six months of being adrift and closing in on the rocks, the Newt Gingrich 2012 presidential campaign has apparently corrected course.

For weeks now, Newt has parlayed his wantonly corrosive style of politics and a weak Republican field of dreamers into a poll position that left him on the edge of acceptability. Despite strong performances in several debates, he could never break through.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s been a lot for Republican likely voters to look into. They’ve tried out the newer, sleeker, louder machinery — a few weeks behind the wheel of the 2012 Bachmann; about the same amount of time test-driving the new Perry; then a long, wild jaunt in that improbable concept vehicle, the Mark IX IX IX model Cain — but they just couldn’t see themselves taking this year’s Newt out for a spin.

What the hell was different?, they thought. It looked about the same as the old model. It sure as hell sounded the same. And its habit of suddenly accelerating for no reason, veering down uninhabitable culs-de-sac, had never been corrected at the factory. Nor had the problem with noisy engine run-on, which could happen months or years after it was parked in the garage.

But those voters have discovered that all the other vehicles had faulty batteries, or no batteries at all. This year’s Newt has a lot in common with its previous models. Never exactly sleek, its design stayed conservative, and the thing maintained enough horsepower to go the distance. And it always started right up, even in the discontented winters. It was reliable, more or less. For more and more of those early voters, making their feelings known in several new opinion polls this year, that may be enough.

◊ ◊ ◊

Several of the latest of those surveys, released in a flurry Tuesday and today, point to a resurgent consideration of Gingrich for the nomination. In a Gallup daily tracking poll, Gingrich outpaced former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his nearest challenger, by 15 percentage points, 37 percent to 22 percent.

In the new ABC News Poll of likely GOP voters, Gingrich topped Romney by 15 points, 33 to 18. And in the Winthrop Poll, Gingrich laps Romney by 22 percentage points, 38 percent to 16 percent. Three polls commissioned by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation, conducted in the battleground states of Iowa, Florida and South Carolina, had Gingrich amassing leads of between 13 and 23 percentage points.


Gingrich’s anointing as frontrunner has been wide, if not entirely universal. Bill O’Reilly congratulated him on Fox News. Mainstream media has shifted its focus to the man from Georgia. At Intrade, the predictive wagering market Web site, bets on Gingrich winning the nomination have risen sharply in recent days. And Letterman offered his backhanded computer-cartoon tribute to Newt’s lead in the polls.

On Tuesday, no doubt in the strength of some of these surveys, Steve Schmidt, former McCain campaign strategist and political analyst, said Gingrich now “exists in an alternate reality.”

We’ll see how long that lasts.

◊ ◊ ◊

In assessing Gingrich’s future political fortunes, there’s a sense that past always threatens prologue. On Nov. 22, just as Gingrich hit the glide path, Edward-Isaac Dovere of Politico wrote a compelling piece that sampled the opinions of conservative thought leaders, analysts and policy brains for a candid assessment of Gingrich’s big-idea intellect. Sometimes, candor ain’t pretty.

“Gingrich is interested in ideas and at his best has been highly skilled marketer of them — as when he distilled decades of conservative thought into the “Contract with America” in 1994,” Dovere writes. “But as he surges in the 2012 polls on the strength of professorial debate performances, some skeptics on the academic and think tank right say that the former speaker’s showy intellectualism and endless reservoir of obscure historical trivia are not the same as being an original or rigorous thinker."

David Boaz of the conservative Cato Institute was not charitable: “He strikes me as a guy who thinks of lots of ideas and never runs them through a sanity test before spilling them on a stage,” Boaz told Politico.

Roderick Hills Jr., a law professor at New York University and member of the conservative Federalist Society, would agree. “I don’t think of him that way, and I don’t know of any professor who thinks of him that way,” he told Politico.

Some say not so fast. Lee Edwards of The Heritage Foundation, said Newt’s bona fides are very much in order. “He may not be as deep a thinker as Russell Kirk or an F.A. Hayek or Richard Weaver, but certainly I’d say he’s as intelligent and as thoughtful as any politician who comes along,” Edwards told Dovere. “I haven’t read one of his more recent books, but I think he pays proper attention to and gives credit to all the right people in the conservative movement.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Gingrich is a tireless champion of himself, a man whose unsaid but implicit self-advertisement is as a conservative intellectual Da Vinci, a right-wing, tough-love polymath for our time and all time. Dovere reports that Gingrich “is author or co-author of 21 books that include fanciful policy explorations, alternate-history novels, a self-help book and an environmental treatise he co-authored with the former director of the Atlanta Zoo.”

(We’re all waiting breathlessly for his dissertation on quantum mechanics.)

But with a breadth of thoughts like that, with the great thinker venturing a concept here and a treatise there with an absence of follow-through in the academy and the wider culture, Gingrich mostly generates a picture of him as someone who’s intellectually 1,000 miles wide and three inches deep.

This has already led to Gingrich overreaching on the campaign trail. He may have already made a misstep borne of hubris: pivoting aggressively toward the general election, focusing on President Obama rather than the six other candidates he faces in the upcoming primaries.

◊ ◊ ◊

That willingness to go five bridges too far was obvious on Tuesday night, in an interview with Lawrence Kudlow on CNBC, when he laid into the president: “He represents a hard-left radicalism, he is opposed to free enterprise, he is opposed to capitalism, he is opposed to virtually everything that made America great.”

It’s towering claptrap like that — rendered in Newt’s sermon-on-the-mount rhetorical style — that will appeal to many primary voters, but which will likely fall on the deaf ears of moderates and independents, and which will fail him utterly in the general election. If he gets that far.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Citizen Cain / Citizen Kane



Up until Saturday, Herman Cain had been using the most hopeful language to define the future of his tattered presidential campaign, but even before that day, the writing was on the wall. Deep down, in his heart of hearts, he always knew which conditional conjunction to use. It was never a matter of if the Herman Cain reality series would face cancellation; it was always a matter of when.

Cain more or less came to that conclusion when he formally ended his campaign on Saturday, announcing at his brand new Atlanta headquarters that he was "suspending" his campaign -- basically a legal dodge that idles his quixotic bid for the presidency while still letting Cain raise funds and engage in some political activity, but without the issues of actually ending the Cain 2012 pursuit.

“As of today,” he said, “with a lot of prayer and soul-searching, I am suspending my presidential campaign … because of the continued distraction, the continued hurt caused on me and my family, not because we aren’t fighters, not because I’m not a fighter ...”

It's the end of a presidential bid that had few parallels in modern American political history, but which dovetailed with at least one life in the wider culture.



Some of you reading the title of this blog entry will probably say “oh please, it's too easy,” rolling your eyes at its cute juxtaposition of politics and pop culture, the linking by homonym of two men — one real, one fictional — in a blogpost that will reach (or strain) to find a connection.

But the comparisons between Cain the candidate and Charles Foster Kane, the tragic protagonist of Orson Welles’ 1941 film classic “Citizen Kane” aren’t strained at all, in some ways hardly the reach you might think. What’s compelling is the way in which both the narratives, the trajectories into and out of the public life, are much the same. They are men of power and wealth, vast or otherwise, relative to the rest of the people in the country; they used the communication tools of their eras to advance their identities; and they were consumed by ravenous personal ambition and a calling to higher public service — a calling ultimately compromised by hubristic infections of the ego and the id.

◊ ◊ ◊

Lord Acton’s famous dictum holds up here. Power corrupts, and it utterly corrupted Charles Foster Kane. And while in real life, Herman Cain isn’t so financially blessed — he’s hardly the ruler of “an empire upon an empire” — there are parallels enough.

What corrupted absolutely in his case was the absolute power of a self-branded presidential run that’s been as much a book tour as a quest for the presidency, a venture starring a blustery, willfully parochial businessman who has repeatedly demonized Muslim Americans and undocumented immigrants, offered the nation an economic policy prescription named like something from a pizza-chain price war, and said he wanted to be president of the United States even though he probably still can’t identify Libya on an unmarked map. Even now.

To his advantage, Cain has brandished a sturdy sense of humor throughout this non-campaign campaign, as well as a very strong sense of being on the inside of his own joke. He has a self-confidence and a sense of the theatrical that plays large in a media-rich world. He’ll be right at home at Fox News when all this plays out.

◊ ◊ ◊

But that self-confidence, that Dolemite swagger has morphed into hubris more than once. Cain’s ambition, the drive to write his own biography, confronted the past much the same way it did for Charles Foster Kane. Despite his facing the headwinds of sexual harassment allegations and claims of a 13-year affair, Cain tried to bluff his way through it all, blowing off the blossoming controversy as no big deal in a visit to “The Late Show With David Letterman” on Nov. 18. But for the conservative values voters in Iowa, the ones he needed in the Iowa caucuses for any shot at political credibility, sexual harassment of women would not have been so easily dismissed.

At the end of the day, Herman Cain wasn’t serious about pursuing the presidency. First, his pockets weren’t deep enough to sustain a prolonged race; he told Letterman he launched the campaign with “$675,000 of my own money.” That’s not nearly enough to support a serious run at the Oval Office, and fundraising gets you just so far in the early going. The allegations that have surfaced in the last four weeks certainly cut into that.

Cain’s pockets of intellect, charity and experience weren’t deep enough either. We like candidates from other, non-political walks of life taking a shot at the presidency. Jimmy Carter was a former Navy man and a peanut farmer before he was elected governor of Georgia. He parlayed a formidable intellect, a weak Republican field, a smoldering weariness with the party responsible for Watergate, and the fact of having actually being elected to a statewide office into a presidential campaign that handily captured the White House in 1976.

Cain’s résumé has its bright and novel moments of accomplishment, but they could never overcome his own shortcomings of preparation, and a streak of intolerance that played to the cheap seats in the church of the GOP, but which would never have resonated with a wider, more diverse American public.

Herman Cain didn’t want to be president any more than Sarah Palin did. And Herman Cain knows that. And he knows we know that, too.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...