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Here Comes Huntsman

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The bombastic non-Romney Republican Presidential hopeful, Herman Cain, has been providing us with a very entertaining meltdown.  He has attempted to silence the handful of women, who came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, with threatened defamation suits.  Nevertheless, a woman who claimed to have been his paramour for thirteen years – Ginger White – possessed something the other women lacked:  documentation to back up her claim.  She has produced phone records, revealing that Cain was in contact with her at all hours of the day and night.  Cain’s humorously disingenuous response:  He was providing advice to Ms. White concerning her financial problems.  When I first heard about Ginger White’s allegations, I assumed that she was motivated to tell her story because she felt outraged that Cain had been trying to cheat on her by making inappropriate advances toward those other women.

The next non-Romney candidate to steal the Republican spotlight was Newt Gingrich.  Aside from the fact that Newt exudes less charisma than a cockroach, he has a “baggage” problem.  Maureen Dowd provided us with an entertaining analysis of the history professor’s own history.  The candidate and his backers must be counting on that famously short memory of the voting public.  The biggest problem for Gingrich is that even if he could win the Republican nomination, he will never get elected President.

Meanwhile, Romney’s fellow Mormon, Jon Huntsman, is gaining momentum in New Hampshire.  Huntsman has something the other Republicans lack:  the ability to win support from Independent and Democratic voters.  The unchallenged iron fists of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, currently in control of the Republican party, have dictated to the masses that the very traits which give Huntsman a viable chance at the Presidency – are negative, undesirable characteristics.

Conservative commentator Ross Douthat of The New York Times, took a hard look at the mismanaged Huntsman campaign:

Huntsman is branded as the Republican field’s lonely moderate, of course, which is one reason why he’s currently languishing at around 3 percent in the polls.

*   *   *

Huntsman has none of Romney’s health care baggage, and unlike the former Massachusetts governor, he didn’t spend the last decade flip-flopping on gun rights, immigration and abortion.

*   *   *

At the same time, because Huntsman is perceived as less partisan than his rivals, he has better general election prospects.  The gears and tumblers of my colleague Nate Silver’s predictive models give Huntsman a 55 percent chance of knocking off the incumbent even if the economy grows at a robust 4 percent, compared to Romney’s 40 percent.

*   *   *

On issues ranging from foreign affairs to financial reform, Huntsman’s proposals have been an honorable exception to the pattern of gimmickry and timidity that has characterized the Republican field’s policy forays.

But his salesmanship has been staggeringly inept.  Huntsman’s campaign was always destined to be hobbled by the two years he spent as President Obama’s ambassador to China.  But he compounded the handicap by introducing himself to the Republican electorate with a series of symbolic jabs at the party’s base.

As Ross Douthat pointed out, New Hampshire will be Huntsman’s “make-or-break” state.  The candidate is currently polling at 11 percent in New Hampshire and he has momentum on his side.  Rachelle Cohen of the Boston Herald focused on Huntsman’s latest moves, which are providing his campaign with some traction:

Monday Huntsman introduced a financial plan aimed at cutting the nation’s biggest banks and financial institutions down to size so that they are no longer “too big to fail” and, therefore, would never again become a burden on the American taxpayer.

“There will be no more bailouts in this country,” he said, because taxpayers won’t put up with that kind of strategy again.  “I would impose a fee [on the banks] to protect the taxpayers until the banks right-size themselves.”

The strategy, of course, is likely to be music to the ears of anyone who despised not just the bailouts but those proposed Bank of America debit card fees.  And, of course, it gives Huntsman a good opening to make a punching bag of Mitt Romney.

“If you’re raising money from the big banks and financial institutions, you’re never going to get it done,” he said, adding, “Mitt Romney is in the hip pocket of Wall Street.”  Lest there be any doubt about his meaning.

That issue also happens to be the Achilles heel for President Obama.  Immediately after he was elected, Obama smugly assumed that Democratic voters would have to put up with his sellout to Wall Street because the Republican party would never offer an alternative.  Huntsman’s theme of cracking down on Wall Street will redefine the Huntsman candidacy and it could pose a serious threat to Obama’s reelection hopes.  Beyond that, as Ms. Cohen noted, Huntsman brings a unique skill set, which distinguishes him from his Republican competitors:

But it’s on foreign policy that Huntsman – who served not only in China and Singapore but as a deputy U.S. trade representative with a special role in Asia – excels, and not just because he’s fluent in Mandarin.

This is the guy anyone would feel comfortable having answer that proverbial 3 a.m. phone call Hillary Clinton once talked about.

If that phone call is coming from China – Huntsman won’t have to wake up an interpreter to conduct the conversation in Chinese.

Any other Republican candidate will serve as nothing more than a doormat for Obama.  On the other hand, if Jon Huntsman wins the Republican nomination, there will be a serious possibility that the Democrats could lose control of the White House.


 

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Plutocracy Is Crushing Democracy

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It’s been happening here in the United States since onset of the 2008 financial crisis.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  One year ago, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.

As it turns out, a few of those same banks are flexing their muscles overseas as the European debt crisis poses a new threat to Goldman Sachs and several of its ridiculously-overleveraged European counterparts.  Time recently published an essay by Stephan Faris, which raised the question of whether the regime changes in Greece and Italy amounted to a “bankers’ coup”:

As in Athens, the plan in Rome is to replace the outgoing prime minister with somebody from outside the political class.  Mario Monti, a neo-liberal economist and former EU commissioner who seems designed with the idea of calming the markets in mind, is expected to take over from Berlusconi after he resigns Saturday.

*   *   *

Yet, until the moment he’s sworn in, Monti’s ascension is far from a done deal, and it didn’t take long after the markets had closed for the weekend for it to start to come under fire.  Though Monti, a former advisor to Goldman Sachs, is heavily championed by the country’s respected president, many in parliament have spent the week whispering that Berlusconi’s ouster amounts to a “banker’s coup.”  “Yesterday, in the chamber of deputies we were bitterly joking that we were going to get a Goldman Sachs government,” says a parliamentarian from Berlusconi’s government, who asked to remain anonymous citing political sensitivity.

At The New York Times, Ross Douthat reflected on the drastic policy of bypassing democracy to install governments led by “technocrats”:

After the current crisis has passed, some voices have suggested, there will be time to reverse the ongoing centralization of power and reconsider the E.U.’s increasingly undemocratic character. Today the Continent needs a unified fiscal policy and a central bank that’s willing to behave like the Federal Reserve, Bloomberg View’s Clive Crook has suggested.  But as soon as the euro is stabilized, Europe’s leaders should start “giving popular sovereignty some voice in other aspects of the E.U. project.”

This seems like wishful thinking.  Major political consolidations are rarely undone swiftly, and they just as often build upon themselves.  The technocratic coups in Greece and Italy have revealed the power that the E.U.’s leadership can exercise over the internal politics of member states.  If Germany has to effectively backstop the Continent’s debt in order to save the European project, it’s hard to see why the Frankfurt Group (its German members, especially) would ever consent to dilute that power.

Reacting to Ross Douthat’s column, economist Brad DeLong was quick to criticize the use of the term “technocrats”.  That same label appeared in the previously-quoted Time article, as well:

Those who are calling the shots in Europe right now are in no wise “technocrats”:  technocrats would raise the target inflation rate in the eurozone and buy up huge amounts of Greek and Italian (and other) debt conditional on the enactment of special euro-wide long-run Fiscal Stabilization Repayment Fund taxes. These aren’t technocrats:  they are ideologues – and rather blinders-wearing ideologues at that.

Forget about euphemisms such as:  “technocrats”, “the European Union” or “the European Central Bank”.  Stephen Foley of The Independent pulled back the curtain and revealed the real culprit  .  .  .  Goldman Sachs:

This is the most remarkable thing of all:  a giant leap forward for, or perhaps even the successful culmination of, the Goldman Sachs Project.

It is not just Mr Monti.  The European Central Bank, another crucial player in the sovereign debt drama, is under ex-Goldman management, and the investment bank’s alumni hold sway in the corridors of power in almost every European nation, as they have done in the US throughout the financial crisis.  Until Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund’s European division was also run by a Goldman man, Antonio Borges, who just resigned for personal reasons.

Even before the upheaval in Italy, there was no sign of Goldman Sachs living down its nickname as “the Vampire Squid”, and now that its tentacles reach to the top of the eurozone, sceptical voices are raising questions over its influence.

*   *   *

This is The Goldman Sachs Project.  Put simply, it is to hug governments close.  Every business wants to advance its interests with the regulators that can stymie them and the politicians who can give them a tax break, but this is no mere lobbying effort.  Goldman is there to provide advice for governments and to provide financing, to send its people into public service and to dangle lucrative jobs in front of people coming out of government.  The Project is to create such a deep exchange of people and ideas and money that it is impossible to tell the difference between the public interest and the Goldman Sachs interest.

*   *   *

The grave danger is that, if Italy stops paying its debts, creditor banks could be made insolvent.  Goldman Sachs, which has written over $2trn of insurance, including an undisclosed amount on eurozone countries’ debt, would not escape unharmed, especially if some of the $2trn of insurance it has purchased on that insurance turns out to be with a bank that has gone under.  No bank – and especially not the Vampire Squid – can easily untangle its tentacles from the tentacles of its peers. This is the rationale for the bailouts and the austerity, the reason we are getting more Goldman, not less.  The alternative is a second financial crisis, a second economic collapse.

The previous paragraph explains precisely what the term “too-big-to-fail” is all about:  If a bank of that size fails – it can bring down the entire economy.  Beyond that, the Goldman situation illustrates what Simon Johnson meant when he explained that the United States – acting alone – cannot prevent the megabanks from becoming too big to fail.  Any attempt to regulate the size of those institutions requires an international effort:

But no international body — not the Group of -20, the Group of Eight or anyone else — shows any indication of taking this on, mostly because governments don’t wish to tie their own hands. In a severe crisis, the interests of the state are usually paramount. No meaningful cross-border resolution framework is even in the cards.  (Disclosure:  I’m on the FDIC’s Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee; I’m telling you what I tell them at every opportunity.)

What we are left with is a situation wherein the taxpayers are the insurers of the privileged elite, who invest in banks managed by greedy, reckless megalomaniacs.  When those plutocrats are faced with the risk of losing money – then democracy be damned!  Contempt for democracy is apparently a component of the mindset afflicting the “supply side economics” crowd.  Creepy Stephen Moore, of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, has expounded on his belief that capitalism is more important than Democracy.  We are now witnessing how widespread that warped value system is.


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An Early Favorite For 2010

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February 11, 2010

It appears as though the runner-up for TheCenterLane.com’s 2009 Jackass of the Year Award is well on his way to winning the title for 2010.  After reading an op-ed piece by Ross Douthat of The New York Times, I decided that as of December 31, 2009, it was too early to determine whether our new President was worthy of such a title.

Since Wednesday morning, we have been bombarded with reactions to a story from Bloomberg News, concerning an interview Obama had with Bloomberg BusinessWeek in the Oval Office.  In case you haven’t seen it, here is the controversial passage from the beginning of that article:

President Barack Obama said he doesn’t “begrudge” the $17 million bonus awarded to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon or the $9 million issued to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein, noting that some athletes take home more pay.

The president, speaking in an interview, said in response to a question that while $17 million is “an extraordinary amount of money” for Main Street, “there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don’t get to the World Series either, so I’m shocked by that as well.”

“I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen,” Obama said in the interview yesterday in the Oval Office with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands Friday.  “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth.  That is part of the free-market system.”

Many commentators have expounded upon what this tells us about our President.  I’d like to quote the reactions from a couple of my favorite bloggers.  Here’s what Yves Smith had to say at Naked Capitalism:

There are only two, not mutually exclusive, conclusions one can reach from reading this tripe:  that Obama is a lackey of the financiers, and putting the best spin he can on their looting, or he is a fool.

The salient fact is that, their protests to the contrary, the wealth of those at the apex of the money machine was not the result of the operation of  “free markets” or any neutral system.  The banking industry for the better part of two decades has fought hard to create a playing field skewed in their favor, with it permissible to sell complex products with hidden bad features to customers often incapable of understanding them.  By contrast, one of the factors that needs to be in place for markets to produce desirable outcomes is for buyers and sellers to have the same information about the product and the objectives of the seller.

Similarly, the concentrated capital flows, often too-low interest rates, and asymmetrical Federal Reserve actions (cutting rates fast when markets look rocky, being very slow to raise rates and telegraphing that intent well in advance) that are the most visible manifestations of two decades of bank-favoring policies, are the equivalent of massive subsidies.

And that’s before we get to the elephant in the room, the massive subsidies to the banksters that took place during the crisis and continue today.

We have just been through the greatest looting of the public purse in history, and Obama tries to pass it off as meritocracy in action.

Obama is beyond redemption.

At his Credit Writedowns website, Edward Harrison made this observation:

The problem is not that we have free markets in America, but rather that we have bailouts and crony capitalism.  So Americans actually do begrudge people this kind of monetary reward.  It has been obvious to me that the bailouts are a large part of why Obama’s poll numbers have been sinking.  It’s not just the economy here — so unless the President can demonstrate he understands this, he is unlikely to win back a very large number of voters who see this issue as central to their loss of confidence in Obama.

Is it just me or does this sound like Obama just doesn’t get it?

Victoria McGrane of Politico gave us a little background on Obama’s longstanding relationship with The Dimon Dog:

Dimon is seen as one of the Wall Street executives who enjoys the closest relationship with the president, along with Robert Wolf, head of the American division of Swiss bank UBS.  A longtime Democratic donor, Dimon first met Obama in Chicago, where Dimon lived and worked from the late 1990s until 2007.

And both Dimon and Blankfein have met with the president several times.  In their most recent meeting, Obama invited Dimon to Washington for lunch right before the State of the Union, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

Some commentators have expressed the view that Obama is making a transparent attempt to curry favor with the banking lobby in time to get those contributions flowing to Democratic candidates in the mid-term elections.  Nevertheless, for Obama, this latest example of trying to please both sides of a debate will prove to be yet another “lose/lose” situation.  As Victoria McGrane pointed out:

But relations between most Democrats and Wall Street donors aren’t as warm this cycle as the financial industry chafes against the harsh rhetoric and policy prescriptions lawmakers have aimed at them.

As for those members of the electorate who usually vote Democratic, you can rest assured that a large percentage will see this as yet another act of betrayal.  They saw it happen with the healthcare reform debacle and they’re watching it happen again in the Senate, as the badly-compromised financial reform bill passed by the House (HR 4173) is being completely defanged.  A bad showing by the Democrats on November 2, 2010 will surely be blamed on Obama.

As of February 11, we already have a “favorite” in contention for the 2010 Jackass of the Year Award.  It’s time for the competition to step forward!



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2009 Jackass Of The Year Award

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December 31, 2009

Well, it’s that time once again!  The 2008 competition brought us a robust field of candidates, probably because it was an election year.  This year, I’ve decided to ignore the one-event wonders and stick with nominees demonstrating a consistent pattern of jackass behavior.  The isolated exhibitions of foolishness illustrated by Richard Heene’s “balloon boy” hoax and Janet Napolitano’s “the system worked” gaffe, just don’t rise to the level of an award-winning honor.  I’m also avoiding individuals categorized as “the usual suspects” — the media darlings who are already getting beaten-up in the 2009 retrospective shows.  That list includes such notables as Tiger Woods, Carrie Prejean and “The Undiebomber” (Umar Mutallab).

This year I have narrowed the competition down to two people.

In just a few short weeks, our first nominee will be celebrating the anniversary of his inauguration as President of the United States.  During his early days in office, he enjoyed an approval rating as high as 69 percent, according to Gallup.  By early December, Gallup reported that his approval rating had taken a 22-point drop to 47 percent.  At that time, Rasmussen Reports revealed that not only had the President’s approval rating dropped to 48 percent — his disapproval rating actually reached 52 percent! On December 9, Quinnipiac University published the results of a poll conducted during December 1 – 6.  The results gave the President a job approval rating of only 46 percent, and those disapproving Obama’s performance amounted to 44 percent.  The Ipsos/McClatchy Poll taken during that period, disclosed that the President received his highest “unsatisfactory” rating on the issue of “jobs and the economy” with 45 percent giving the President an unsatisfactory grade (D or F) while only 36 percent gave him a satisfactory grade (A or B) and 19 percent gave him a C.

Many commentators have pondered over the reasons for President Obama’s decreasing approval ratings.  I have previously discussed the subject here, here and here.  In doing so, I found the criticism of Obama’s performance as expressed by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns, to be particularly insightful.  In his December 27 posting, Mr. Harrison posed a question that has obviously been on the minds of many disappointed Obama supporters:

The question is this:

  • Did President Obama sell out (i.e. he was a good guy but has been corrupted in short order) or;
  • Did Obama find out he couldn’t change the status quo so easily (i.e. he was a good guy who was naive about the President’s real power)or;
  • Did the President simply bamboozle us (i.e. he was a bad guy who tricked the electorate with his silver tongue)?

Mr. Harrison contended that the foregoing inquiry is actually irrelevant because it involves ascribing an intent behind the President’s behavior, when we should be looking at either motive or outcome.  Mr. Harrison eventually focused on a recent op-ed piece by Ross Douthat of The New York Times entitled:  “The Obama Way”.  Obama’s track record of broken campaign promises, including “no more trickle-down economics” and those documented on The Obameter, is something that obviously weighs on the minds of dispirited Obama supporters.  Ross Douthat explained how the President’s leadership style is itself a broken campaign promise:

He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf.  He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.

*   *   *

It’s also puzzling because Obama promised exactly the opposite approach while running for the presidency.  He campaigned as a postpartisan healer who would change the cynical ways of Washington — as a foe of both back-room deals and ideology-as-usual.  But he’s governed as a conventional liberal who believes in the existing system, knows how to work it and accepts the limitations it imposes on him.

*   *   *

The upside of this approach is obvious:  It gets things done.

*   *   *

The downside, though, is that sometimes what gets done isn’t worth doing.  The assumption that a compromised victory is better than no victory at all can produce phony achievements — like last week’s “global agreement” on climate change — and bloated, ugly legislation.  And using cynical means to progressive ends (think of the pork-laden stimulus bill or the frantic vote-buying that preceded this week’s Senate health care votes) tends to confirm independent voters’ worst fears about liberal government:  that it’s a racket rigged to benefit privileged insiders and a corrupt marketplace floated by our tax dollars.

Ross Douthat’s conclusion implied that it’s still too early determine whether Obama’s political approach will ultimately result in success or failure.  By this time next year, the mid-term elections will be over.  If the careers of many Democratic politicians are over at that point, we will then have to assess whether President Obama’s leadership style helped to bring them down.  As a result, we will have to defer to next year’s competition before deciding whether our new President rates the title “Jackass of the Year”.

Our second nominee is the so-called “Supreme Leader” of Iran, Ali Khamenei.  Khamenei decided to rig the June elections to ensure that his tool, the equally crazy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would be re-elected.  The resulting public outrage was escalated by Khamenei into a bloodbath.  Since that time, Khamenei’s ham-handed tactics in attempting to squelch opposition have only made things worse.  A recent New York Times editorial entitled “Iran’s War on Its People” put it this way:

Iran’s leaders are so desperate to repel a rising tide of popular unrest that even Ashura — which marks the death of Shiite Islam’s holiest martyr — is no longer sacred.

The anniversary, which fell on Sunday, is supposed to be a time of peaceful commemoration.  Even during war, Iranian governments have honored the prohibitions against violence during a two-month period surrounding Ashura.  Tehran’s current rulers have proved again that their only belief is in their own survival.

On Sunday, the police opened fire on a crowd of protesters, reportedly killing at least 10 people, and arrested hundreds more.  Government forces are also believed to be behind the assassination of Ali Moussavi, nephew of the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi, the leading candidate in June’s fraudulent presidential election.

*   *   *

The government still appears to have firm control of the main levers of power, including the brutish Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia.  But Ayatollah Khamenei — who helped lead the 1979 revolution against the shah — should not ignore the echoes of history when protesters defy the death blows of security forces and chant “Death to the dictator” on the streets of Tehran.

Al Jazeera’s Teymoor Nabili reported that Baqer Moin, London-based analyst and Ayatollah Khomeini biographer, explained that Iran’s opposition party, the Greens, would still settle for modest reform, if the regime would compromise.  Nevertheless, Mr. Nabili’s report quoted other sources who expressed concern that the upcoming anniversary of the revolution could be “the next potential spark”.  Will the Supreme Leader negotiate?  Based on his record over the past six months, there is no reason to believe that he will.  His strategy of cracking down on the Greens with more deadly repression is exactly the approach that could lead to the regime’s demise.  Mr. Nabili added this insight to an already gloomy picture:

A contact in Iran tells me that, given the arrests over the past two days, the trend points to the possibility that the regime is slowly tightening the screws, and that before then we might see martial law and the arrest of Mousavi and/or Karroubi/Khatami/Rafsanjani’s daughter (Rafsanjani himself is still beyond the pale, it would seem.)

Brilliant plan, huh?  Another Al Jazeera report revealed that the Iranian government’s desperate actions are a sign of weakness that could ultimately lead to the end of Khamenei’s days as “Supreme Leader”:

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of the Iranian parliament, told Al Jazeera that the government faced a fundamental crisis.

“They can’t control the events so they made the Ashoura incidents as a scenario that could give [them] enough confidence to crack down on the [Green] Movement,” she said from Massachusetts in the United States.

“They think that if they could use more violence, they can stop the movement … if this strategy continues I think we could see the collapse of the government.”

After George W. Bush overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, many commentators expressed concern that this development could bring about an era of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East.  Nevertheless, Iran’s relentless efforts to create a nuclear arsenal and the craziness of its Supreme Leader, who would likely detonate an atomic bomb in Israel if he had such a weapon, have apparently made the Iranian people more than a little uncomfortable with their government.  The events since June could only serve to underscore fears that the Khamenei regime would attempt a nuclear strike on Israel, resulting in a retaliatory move that would wipe Tehran off the map.  The Iranian people are obviously not going to sit on their hands and wait for that to happen.  Al Jazeera’s Teymoor Nabili provided us with some insight on the current mood of the Iranian protesters:

To outside observers, though, the protestors have defied expectations.  Their continued willingness to make themselves targets has been a surprise; now it seems as if they are willing to take it even further, protesting not only against the election result but against the very essence of the regime.

Although it may be too early to celebrate the demise of the Khamenei regime, the time is certainly right to honor Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, with TheCenterLane.com‘s Jackass of the Year Award.   Congratulations, Jackass!



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