2010 - %3, July

Bob Jones University's Last Days

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 3:39 PM EDT

Cup o' Jones: BJU's history may offend many, but credit where credit's due: A Jonathan Edwards themed coffee shop is an idea whose time has come (photo: Tim Murphy).Cup o' Jones: BJU's history may offend many, but credit where credit's due: A Jonathan Edwards themed coffee shop is an idea whose time has come (photo: Tim Murphy).

Greenville, South Carolina—Some of you may know Bob Jones University as the fun-loving school that briefly held the Guinness World Record for largest kazoo ensemble. More likely, though, you know it as a bastion of the far right: For decades, big-shot conservative politicians from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have traveled to the self-described "fundamentalist" outpost to pander to the Christian right, all the while pleading ignorance to its institutional opposition to Catholicism ("a Satanic counterfeit") and its longstanding ban on interracial dating.

The dating policy was reversed in 2000 (provided you have parental consent and a chaperone, of course), but the school still has a pretty detailed personal conduct code, which bans, among other things, phones that have Internet access, "contemporary Christian music," Gmail, and "posters of movie and music stars." I stopped by BJU on Tuesday hoping to speak with some current students about what brought them there (the art program is supposed to be excellent), how they like the school, and what they make of the school's not-so-distant history. But, alas, when I approached a group of undergrads, they broke the bad news: "We're not technically allowed to talk to reporters unless we have the school's permission," as one of them explained.

So much for that. Instead, I ended up walking across campus, checking out the Renaissance art museum (quite impressive, in addition to being the only place at BJU where you'll find Catholics); the Shakespeare-centric theater; and the memorial to the school's namesake, which places him in the tradition of transcendent historical figures like George Whitefield and Billy Sunday.

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Does Kelly Ayotte Have A Sarah Palin Problem?

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

On Monday, Sarah Palin endorsed Kelly Ayotte, the leading candidate for the GOP nomination for Senate in New Hampshire. In many ways, this is good news for Ayotte. Despite her political stature (she was the state's attorney general), she's faced an unexpectedly tough primary, with six opponents. (The nominee will be decided on September 14.) Over at Blue Hampshire, Ray Buckley speculates that Ayotte was seeking Palin's aid as far back as May, when she traveled to Washington to attend a fundraiser for the anti-abortion rights Susan B. Anthony List that featured Palin as the keynote speaker. 

But although there's some evidence that Palin endorsements help in Republican primaries, Palin's support could end up being a decidedly mixed blessing for Ayotte. Palin is very popular among GOPers, but her overall favorability numbers are not high. Only 39 percent of voters surveyed in a recent Pew poll viewed the former Alaska governor positively, while 52 percent had negative opinions. It's not like Palin is particularly familiar with New Hampshire, either—when she was there in 2008, she called it the "great Northwest." 

Rep. Paul Hodes, the presumptive Dem nominee, is certainly pleased that his rival has Palin's backing. "We couldn't be more thrilled that Sarah Palin chose to endorse Kelly Ayotte," Hodes' campaign communications director told reporters on Tuesday. The Hodes campaign even sent out an email explaining that they "hope" Palin comes to New Hampshire to campaign for Ayotte. And Palin's endorsement isn't popular with New Hampshire's most important newspaper, either. On Wednesday, Joseph McQuaid, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, slammed the endorsement:

The race will be won by the candidate who impresses New Hampshire voters, and New Hampshire voters are rarely impressed by what outsiders have to say....

Palin isn't making these endorsements because, as she claims, she has spent time in New Hampshire and thus knows that the people here are a lot like Alaskans. She spent a few hours here on one day during the 2008 Presidential election. That's still more time than she spent getting to know Ayotte, but it takes quite a bit longer to know New Hampshire.

McQuaid says that Palin's endorsement shouldn't reflect poorly on Ayotte. But she embraced it, and perhaps even sought it out. She must think that New Hampshire voters are "impressed by what outsiders have to say." Shouldn't that reflect on her?

Food Fight at the RNC

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

The treasurer of the Republican National Committee says that RNC chairman Michael Steele conspired to cover up their financial woes:

The Republican National Committee failed to report more than $7 million in debt to the Federal Election Commission in recent months — a move that made its bottom line appear healthier than it is heading into the midterm elections and that also raises the prospect of a hefty fine. In a memo to RNC budget committee members, RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen on Tuesday accused Chairman Michael S. Steele and his chief of staff, Michael Leavitt, of trying to conceal the information from him by ordering staff not to communicate with the treasurer — a charge RNC officials deny.

Mr. Pullen told the members that he had discovered $3.3 million in debt from April and $3.8 million from May, which he said had led him to file erroneous reports with the FEC. He amended the FEC filings Tuesday.

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

Michele Bachmann's Congressional Tea Party

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 12:46 PM EDT

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and 20-some other House Republicans launched their newly formed Tea Party Caucus with a meeting Wednesday morning in the House Armed Services Committee hearing room—a seemingly appropriate nod to the movement's hopes for political insurrection. The Tea Party Caucus has now turned the anti-government uprising into part of the Washington apparatus itself, becoming the latest litmus test for whether House Republicans have opened their arms to the activists. But it's still unclear what the caucus will actually do for the movement, because members insist that the group will not represent or speak for tea partiers—merely listen to their concerns.

At the press conference that followed the caucus' first session, Bachmann spent more time explaining what the group wasn't, that what it was. "We are not the mouthpiece of the tea party," Bachmann told reporters. "We are not taking the tea party and controlling it from Washington, DC. I am not the head of the tea party. We are also not here to vouch for the tea party, or to vouch for any tea party organizations… we are here to listen and to be a receptacle." When a reporter pointed out that she was, in fact, the titular head of a caucus named after the movement, Bachmann simply added: "This is a listening post...I'm the chairwoman of the listening ear, I'm not speaking on behalf of the tea party."

And the Tea Party Caucus insists that the movement it's based on certainly isn't racist. At the press conference, Bachmann paraded out a whole roster of minority tea party members to counter the mounting accusations that the movement is biased and hateful. First up was Danielle Hollars, a black stay-at-home mother of five from Virginia, who clutched her 9-month-old infant while she denounced accusations that tea partiers were "terrorists" and "racists." Next came Ana Puig, a immigrant who declared that America "was going down the same path to 21st century Marxist dictatorships" that has supposedly taken hold in President Lula's Brazil and Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

The Free Market Blues

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 12:27 PM EDT

James Pethokoukis makes a good argument and a bad one today. Let's start with the bad one:

To hear many U.S. CEOs tell it the nation’s free enterprise system, as they call it, is faltering....The cranky guys in the suits make some good points. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out in an open letter to the White House and Congress last week, the U.S. corporate tax rate is the second-highest among advanced economies, Congress has failed to push through key trade agreements and federal spending is on a worrying trajectory.

Actually, the cranky guys in the suits don't make any good points here. Effective U.S. corporate tax rates, which are all that matter, are pretty average. The "key" trade agreements in question are with Panama and Colombia and are virtually unnoticeable. And federal spending in the long term depends almost entirely on healthcare spending, which the cranky guys in suits seem just as unwilling to address as anyone else.

But enough kvetching. Here's Pethokoukis's good argument:

While a pro-business agenda may intersect at points with a pro-market one, they are not the same thing. Pro-market public policies make markets function fairer and more efficiently for everyone. They encourage competition and “creative destruction” and entrepreneurial capitalism. Pro-business policies often shift taxpayer money and other government goodies to favored companies, raise barriers to entry and otherwise defend the status quo.

For instance, the Chamber wants the government to cut spending by reforming the social insurance system. That sounds good — but how about also reducing the $90 billion a year in subsidies and tax breaks that the Cato Institute reckons businesses get every year? The oil and gas industries alone benefit to the tune of $4 billion annually. It would be better to eliminate such distorting political blessings and then lower the corporate tax rate for everyone.

....Or take financial reform. While big banks may complain about the tidal wave of new regulation, they also know they got off easy in some respects. They weren’t broken up, nor were size limits put in place. In fact, the biggest banks have gotten bigger since the financial crisis and have every incentive to keep doing so since the bigger they are, the more likely Uncle Sam will see them as too big to fail.

The Republican Party has long been pro-business, not pro-free-market, and the same is largely true for the Democratic Party these days. And while liberals are unlikely to ever team up with conservatives on a pro-business agenda, which generally just means handing out goodies to favored patrons, I think a pretty sizeable number would be willing to team up on some aspects of a pro-market agenda if that were actually on the table. There would still be plenty of areas of disagreement (we liberals remain sort of attached to the idea of helping the poor and the middle class), but some areas of constructive correspondence as well. So if there are some non-wild-eyed pro-market conservatives still left alive out there, let's hear your agenda. It might be interesting.

Puppy Protection Act Offers (Slim) Hope to (Some) Abused Dogs

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 12:13 PM EDT

Congress.org reported this week on bills recently introduced in both houses of Congress. The Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety (PUPS) Act (S 3424 and HR 5434) would “amend the Animal Welfare Act to provide further protection for puppies.”

The bills, from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), were introduced at the end of May and tail a Department of Agriculture inspector general report regarding federal investigations of breeders.

The IG report, released May 25, says large breeders who sell animals covered under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA, PL 89-544) online are exempt from inspection and licensing requirements “due to a loophole in AWA.” The IG says there are “an increasing number” of these unlicensed, unmonitored breeders.

The bills would require licensing and inspection of dog breeders that sell more than 50 dogs per year to the public (including online) and would also outline additional exercise requirements for dogs at facilities – such as having sufficient, clean space and proper flooring.

According to a press release, Durbin said he would work administratively with the USDA to fix problems at its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, and then introduce addition legislation if needed.

Supporting humane treatment of puppies would seem like a political no-brainer, right? As Liliana Segura pointed out on Twitter earlier today, what could be better in the upcoming midterm elections than “to be able to say ‘our opponents HATE puppies’”? Mainstream groups like the Humane Society have been pushing for legislation action on puppy mills for years, to little avail. (Click here to see video of a Humane Society raid on a massive puppy mill in Tennessee, and here to read some gruesome details from the USDA’s report on puppy mills.) Yet the bills are not exactly barreling their way through Congress; both are waiting for attention from agricultural subcommittees, and after two months, the Senate bill has only seven co-sponsors.

In addition, when it comes to animals routinely used in cosmetic testing, and animals (including puppies and dogs) treated cruelly in drug testing and medical research, the federal government has pretty much sat on its hands–or worse. To take one particularly galling example, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine last year exposed an effort on the part of the National Institutes of Health to sell young constituents on the idea of animal experimentation. As Stephanie Ernst wrote on Change.org:

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Conservative Agenda Plays Out Through Health Care Reform

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 12:06 PM EDT

Conservatives may complain bitterly about “Obamacare,” but they “are winning more than even they may realize in the current health care equation.” That’s the point made by Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, in a recent column.

[F]or all of the frustration and even anger within the conservative movement about where health care is headed, the fact of the matter is that they are winning more than even they may realize in the current health care equation. That’s because the nature of health insurance itself is being redefined and moving gradually but seemingly inexorably in the direction conservatives have long advocated: more consumer “skin in the game” through higher patient deductibles.

Item: In our recent survey of people in the non-group insurance market, we found that the average deductible for an individual policy is now $2,498, and for families it’s $5,149. These are very high thresholds by any standard. Consider, for example, that a family with median income facing such a deductible would be spending almost 10% of their annual income just for their deductible before their insurance kicked in.

Item: The percentage of workers facing high deductibles — $1,000 or more for single coverage –  has been growing rapidly. It doubled from 10 percent to 22 percent between 2006 and 2009, and increased from 16 percent to 40 percent in small firms.

Item: Indications are that the share of workers with high deductibles is continuing to grow, a trend I expect our 2010 employer survey to confirm when we release it in September as we have every year for more than a decade now. And a substantial number of these high deductible plans are paired with tax-advantaged savings accounts, which conservatives have long advocated. Facing cost pressures without alternative answers, employers are moving to plans with less comprehensive coverage to reduce their expenses for employee benefits.

Item: Health reform is unlikely to reverse these trends. Large employers will continue to look for ways to address the rising cost of health care. And, for the basic “bronze” insurance plan that people will be required to buy, deductibles could run several thousand dollars for individuals and double that for families. To be sure, other aspects of health reform cut the other way. For example, there will be no cost sharing for preventive services in newly-purchased plans, and insurers will be required to cap consumer out-of-pocket costs at defined levels. And, of course, there are substantial subsidies to reduce premium and out-of-pocket costs for lower-income people. But, for the first time, the government will be defining the threshold that decent insurance must meet, and that minimum coverage will have the kind of high deductibles that conservatives favor.

There’s still another facet to all of this: While many of the effects of health care reform may actually suit a conservative agenda, Republicans will use this self-same health care reform as a “socialistic” bogeyman to help them win the 2010 Congressional elections.

This post also appears on James Ridgeway's blog Unsilent Generation.

A Note to the Right

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 11:44 AM EDT

There have been three big conservative outrages that have choked the airwaves over the past couple of weeks. #1 was about a bunch of scary black men, the New Black Panther Party. #2 was about a bunch of scary Muslims who want to build a triumphal mosque on the sacred soil of Ground Zero. #3 was about a vindictive black woman who works for the government and screws the white people she deals with. The running theme here is not just a coincidence.

Honest to God, someone on the right needs to start talking about this. Not David Frum or Andrew Sullivan, who have long since been purged from the ranks of real right wingers. Someone that conservatives actually listen to. Pronto. Who's going to start?

Corruption in Paradise

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 11:01 AM EDT

Have you heard of the city of Bell? I didn't think so. It's one of the dozens of little municipalities that surround Los Angeles, and it's now on the surprisingly large list of such municipalities that are in trouble. In this case, it's because of an LA Times story revealing that the City Manager earns about $800,000, his assistant earns $400,000, the police chief makes nearly half a million dollars, and the city council members pay themselves $100,000 per year. All for a town with a population under 40,000.

Surprisingly, this is not actually all that surprising. The variety of corruption varies from town to town around LA, but there's a helluva lot of it. And Bell's is typical, the result of a small cadre of insiders who manage to gain control of the municipal apparatus and basically run it as their own little fiefdom. But the question is, have they actually done anything illegal? California law limits the pay of city councilmembers, but they got around that via a technicality: paying themselves not for being on the council, but for being on a variety of planning boards — all of which met infrequently and consisted solely of city councilmembers. The city manager and the police chief got loads of cash, but there's nothing illegal there. The city council voted to pay it to them fair and square.

But it's even worse than that! Here's the latest:

Bell City Council members are seeking the resignations of the city manager and two other top officials amid growing public outcry over salaries that appear to be among the highest in the nation, according to three sources close to the discussions.

Resigning would make City Manager Robert Rizzo, Police Chief Randy Adams and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia eligible for lucrative pensions. But the three also have contracts that protect them from being fired without cause.

As a result, unless they agree to resign, the city would face the prospect of buying out their contracts, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional payments.

Isn't that great? These guys connive with the city council to get paid astronomical salaries, and when the gravy train finally ends they have (enforceable!) contracts that pay them big bucks if they're fired without cause. And since pensions are based on salary levels, they're entitled to astronomical pensions even if they do leave.

All I can say is: there just has to be something illegal here. I don't know what, but is it really possible that such an obvious abuse of the public trust can be legal? I know the answer to this: yes, it's possible. But in practice, I sure hope someone manages to figure out how to pin something on these guys.

The View From My Windshield: Southern Strategy

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 10:43 AM EDT

Wheels of Progress: Greenville, South Carolina espite its namesake's anti-Catholic rhetoric, and the school's longstanding ban on interracial dating, generations of conservative politicians made Bob Jones University a can't-miss spot to speak to the base (Photo: Tim Murphy).Values: Greenville, South Carolina—Despite its namesake's anti-Catholic rhetoric, and the school's longstanding ban on interracial dating (which came to an end in 2000), generations of conservative politicians, from Reagan to George W. Bush, traveled to Bob Jones University to pander to the far right (Photo: Tim Murphy).