2011 - %3, September

A Short Debate Recap, Because That's All I've Got

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 10:07 PM EDT

Man, I just don't have anything to say after that debate. Was it just my mood, or was the crazy really amped up to 11 this time around? I could barely pay attention to most of the raving coming from my TV.

I guess Perry is naturally the big news. My take is, I suspect, the conventional one: he didn't do so well. He didn't hurt himself really badly or anything, but he stumbled a lot. I mean, Social Security just isn't a Ponzi scheme. Period. Taxpayers pay taxes, and those taxes get sent to retirees. End of story. It's pretty much the same way we fund the Pentagon, the courts, the FBI, and everything else. Taxes come in, benefits go out. It'll keep working forever with only minor tweaks.

On climate change he was weirdly hesitant. I mean, he must have known this was coming, right? But he couldn't get a grip on himself and give a coherent answer. He just repeated over and over that lots of scientists weren't sure about global warming, which is just flatly wrong, and then flailed around a bit on Galileo — which didn't exactly illustrate his case the way he thought it did — before shifting into some completely irrelevant story about how Texas reduced air pollution. "That's the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, 'Here is what we think is happening out there.'" WTF?

Other than that, Perry just seemed generally unprepared and unwilling to really engage with the issues. I guess now we know why he's been afraid to give any interviews since he announced his candidacy. He's afraid he'll look like a kid who got called on in class after failing to study the night before. He needs to raise his game.

UPDATE: David Frum says Perry seemed "nervous and irritable." Will Wilkinson: "Perry came off halting, slightly confused, and peevish." I thought so too. I'm a little surprised that so many people thought Perry showed off his alpha male qualities tonight. Sure, he was generally aggressive and refused to back down from anything he'd said before, but his overall demeanor seemed a little twitchy and high-strung to me. But then, I'm not exactly the target audience here.

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Rick Perry Happily Grabs the Anti-Science Brass Ring

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 10:02 PM EDT

Congratulations to tonight's GOP debate hosts at MSNBC for asking Rick Perry to explain his distrust of scientists regarding human-induced climate change—and then asking a follow-up. Too bad Perry didn't really answer either query.

First, Perry was asked whether he thinks climate change is happening. He responded with the old trope that the "science isn't settled" on climate change. The models could be wrong, he said, and he asserted that we shouldn't make political decisions based on what could be flawed science. And even if a lot of scientists (actually, 97 percent of them, to be exact) agree that the science is settled, that's not enough according to Perry. "Galileo got out-voted for a spell," he said.

But then he was asked to name a scientist that he "finds compelling" on the subject of climate change. One scientist. Any scientist! But Perry declined to name a single one. Instead, he pivoted. "Let me tell you what I find compelling," Perry said. "What we've done in the state of Texas."

Immediately before that exchange, the moderators quoted John Huntsman's allegation that his fellow candidates in the GOP contest are "anti-science." Huntsman, though, declined to name names. Instead, he stuck to the broad criticism of Republicans who make "comments that don't reflect the reality of the situation." Perry did Huntsman the favor of proving his point.

Santorum Gets It All Wrong on Poverty in America

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 8:47 PM EDT
Rick Santorum.

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, was asked by NBC's Brian Williams at tonight's Republican debate how he would tackle the issue of poverty in America. One in seven Americans, Williams noted, currently live in poverty.

For his part, Santorum trumpeted his record as a US senator in reforming America's welfare programs to serve fewer people and so nudge lower-income people into the jobs market. Santorum then claimed that, as part of his reform effort, poverty reached its "lowest level ever in 2001."

Bzzt. Sorry, Rick. According to the US Census Bureau (PDF), poverty actually rose in 2001, to 32.9 million Americans from 31.6 million. Percentage-wise, that's an increase to 11.7 percent of Americans from 11.3 percent. In fact, most of the government's poverty measurements—by family, race, ethnicity, location—increased in 2001. Santorum may want voters to believe that he helped shrink poverty, but no one did.

Romney On Immigration: All Over The Place

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 6:51 PM EDT
A young girl at a pro-immigration reform protest in San Francisco, California, in 2006.

Massachussetts Governor Mitt Romney’s flip-flops on immigration are less dramatic than his switch from ardent pro-choicer to opposing abortion in almost all circumstances, but they might be more convoluted.

A pro-immigration reform group, America's Voice, released a report Wednesday in advance of the GOP presidential debate tracing the Republican candidates' evolution on immigration policy. Romney is all over the place.

As governor, Romney vetoed a state-level DREAM Act that would have granted in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students and pushed for a larger role for local authorities in enforcing federal immigration laws. But he also stuck up for Bush's comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005, defending the president from charges of pursuing "amnesty." In 2006, Romney said Republicans opposing Bush on immigration had "made a big mistake."

Then, of course, Romney started competing with Senator John McCain, an immigration moderate, for the 2012 GOP nomination. The ex-governor tried to thread the needle between attacking the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill as "amnesty" and currying favor with the White House, which was trying to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed. Romney called McCain's proposals "reasonable" in 2006, but by 2007 he was on "Meet The Press" trying to explain that although he supported granting a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants. How that was somehow different from the "special pathway" McCain's bill would have created is unclear.

Now Romney, who is suddenly facing an uphill battle against Texas Governor Rick Perry for the GOP nomination, has started running to Perry's right on immigration. Speaking to Hispanic Republicans in Florida, Romney highlighted his veto of a state-level DREAM Act, drawing a contrast with Perry, who signed one in Texas. Romney also reiterated his support for an employer verification system and a "high tech fence" to "secure the border." Perry recently restated his opposition to a border fence, saying that "if you build a 30-foot wall from El Paso to Brownsville, the 35-foot ladder business gets real good."

That's not to say that Romney doesn't have his eye on the general election, and possibly even that 40 percent Latino vote threshold former Bush pollster Matthew Dowd said Republican candidates have to reach to win the White House—and judging by Obama's drop in approval among Latinos, there might actually be an opening to exploit. During the last Republican debate, Romney proposed "stapling a green card" to the degrees of highly skilled immigrants. Perry, on the other hand, recently endorsed a path to citizenship exclusively for undocumented immigrants who serve in the military. Both GOP frontrunners are trying to grope for a sensible center-right on immigration in a party that no longer has room for one.

Racial Resentment and the Tea Party

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 5:47 PM EDT

Hey, did you know that Adam Serwer now writes for Mother Jones? Now you do! He's blogging over at the mothership MoJo blog, and today he highlights a new Brookings/PRRI survey of American attitudes toward—how to put this? The official title is "Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11," but the blunter version is "attitudes toward people who aren't like me."

Adam focuses on the retrograde attitudes of Fox News viewers, but before we get to that, I think the most interesting part of the survey is that it explicitly breaks out the views of self-described tea partiers. Here's a sampling of attitudes among tea party followers:

  • 63 percent believes that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups.
  • 66 percent believes that the values of Islam are at odds with American values.
  • 54 percent believes that American Muslims are trying to establish Sharia law in the U.S.
  • 56 percent believes that newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American customs and values.
  • 72 percent believes we should deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries.

This is apropos because there's been a wee bit of discussion lately about whether tea partiers are a bunch of stone racists hiding behind the Constitution, or whether that's just another offensive "race card" canard dreamed up by the usual suspects on the left. This survey probably won't change any minds, and I happen to think the term "racist" conceals more than it explains anyway. Still, what this survey does show is that tea partiers clearly harbor a pretty strong set of racial resentments. That doesn't make them all racists, but it is a simple descriptive fact, and it's something that's perfectly kosher to discuss openly as it relates to public policy.

As for Fox News, I think it's safe to say that Fox considers tea partiers to be its core audience. And so its programming needs to appeal to that audience. This explains why Fox put Jeremiah Wright on virtually 24/7 rotation during the 2008 campaign, and why, over the past year or so, they've spent so much air time on Shirley Sherrod, anchor babies, Common's invitation to the White House, birtherism, the Ground Zero mosque, Glenn Beck and "liberation theology," Van Jones, the New Black Panthers, various reverse discrimination outrages, the D'Souza/Gingrich/Huckabee "anti-colonialism" meme, minority preferences from the CRA as the cause of the housing bubble, the general panic over Shariah law, and much, much more. Any one or two of those could be a coincidence. Put them all together and you'd have to be pretty gullible to believe that they were just randomly chosen topics.

Fox News is America's headquarters for festering racial resentments. The Brookings/PRRI survey is just one more piece of evidence on this score.

National Review Blogger Discovers Gay Lawyers At DOJ

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 4:51 PM EDT

National Review blogger Ed Whelan has found a terrible case of politicization at the Justice Department! It turns out that two Justice Department attorneys assigned to a case involving whether or not a religious school is excepted from federal anti-discrimination laws are in same-sex relationships!

What does this have to do with the merits of the case? Unclear, except that gay people, wanting all those special rights and whatnot, don't really belong in a case involving a religious organization, since gay rights infringe on the rights of religious people to discriminate against gays, even though that's not what the case is about. It's about a teacher who claims she was fired because of her narcolepsy, and whether or not the so-called "ministerial exception" to federal anti-discrimination laws applies in this context. But you let gays near religious freedom cases, and pretty soon they'll be…something terrible:

A reader passes along that Schuham’s same-sex partner is (or, at least as of the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll, was) Chris Anders, federal policy director for the ACLU’s LGBT Rights project.

Another of the attorneys on the DOJ brief is Sharon M. McGowan. As another reader calls to my attention, McGowan was also a staffer on the ACLU’s LGBT Rights project, and the New York Times announced last year her same-sex marriage to the Family Equality Council’s “federal lobbyist on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender family issues.”

Thus, insofar as personnel is policy,* it may well be that the Obama DOJ’s hostility to the ministerial exemption in the Hosanna-Tabor case is part and parcel of a broader ideological agenda that would have gay causes trump religious liberty.

Part of Whelan's problem is that since both Schuham and McGowan have backgrounds in civil rights law, they have no business um, working on civil rights cases. This is kind of a meme on the right these days, it's part of an effort by veterans of the notoriously politicized Bush Justice Department to accuse the Obama administration of being just as bad.

But Whelan's bigger problem, judging by his value-added, is that only straight people should be allowed near the law, lest it get all gayified. In April Whelan complained that the judge in the California Prop 8 case, Vaughn Walker, should have recused himself because he was in a same-sex relationship and so he stood to benefit directly from overturning the law. Of course by the logic of anti-gay rights advocates like Whelan, a straight judge trying to preserve his "traditional marriage" would also benefit directly, and should also recuse themselves. But since the latter wouldn't have "trumped" the right of conservatives like Whelan to define and limit the civil rights of same-sex couples that wouldn't have been so terrible.

This is getting complicated. All you need to know is there are gay people in Obama’s Justice Department. They’re doing stuff. And that's really bad.

UPDATE: Previous version of the post didn't have a link to Whelan's original post.

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Views Differ on Shape of Earth, Climate Edition

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 2:24 PM EDT

Brad Plumer points us to a new survey from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, and the news is grim. As usual, plenty of people don't believe in global warming, and tea partiers really, really don't believe in global warming. But in a way, that's not the most appalling result of the survey. This is:

Holy cow. This is a straightforward factual question, and the correct answer is something in the neighborhood of 98%.1 But even among Democrats, only 42% think that most climate scientists believe global warming is happening. It's even worse among the other groups.

Hell, if it were really true that 60% of climate scientists believed in global warming and 40% didn't, I probably wouldn't believe in it either. But nationally, that's what a large majority of Americans think. They think that within the scientific community, there's roughly an even split among believers and deniers.

If this were limited to the far right, we could blame it on Fox and Drudge and Limbaugh and all the other usual suspects who peddle climate absurdities just because they conveniently buttress their worldview. Chris Mooney describes here how this kind of "motivated reasoning" helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal.

But it's not just a phenomenon of the right. It's a phenomenon of everybody, including those who get their news from the mainstream media. It's what happens when reporters insist that every story about climate change has to include a quote from at least one or two skeptics to "balance out" the other scientists. Is it any wonder that the public is so wildly misinformed?

1I wasn't going to bother with this, but a reader emails to point out that, actually, 100% of climate scientists believe global warming is happening. Something like 98% of them believe that it's mostly caused by humans. But I'm giving our survey respondents a break, since I suspect most people automatically think "human-caused global warming" whenever they hear "global warming."

Human Rights Watch Author Defends Report on South African Wine

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 2:05 PM EDT

A farm worker collects grapes during harvest time in South Africa's wine country. : Marcus Bleasdale/Human Rights WatchA farm worker collects grapes during harvest time in South Africa's wine country. Marcus Bleasdale/Human Rights WatchYesterday, South Africa-born filmmaker Adam Welz and I had an exchange on my recent post on labor conditions in South Africa's wine country,  which discussed a Human Rights Watch report on the topic. I asked the report's lead researcher and author, human-rights lawyer and writer Kaitlin Y. Cordes, to join the conversation. Her response follows.

In the course of interviewing over 260 people about the human rights situation of farmworkers and farm dwellers in the Western Cape province of South Africa, my colleagues and I uncovered a range of exploitative conditions and rights abuses. The information from these interviews were documented in Human Rights Watch's report, Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa's Fruit and Wine Industries, which was subsequently discussed in Tom Philpott's article, "South Africa's Wine Woes."

The stories I was told by farmworkers and farm dwellers ranged in severity and composition, but what was perhaps most astonishing to me was that very few of the workers with whom I spoke had no problems of which to tell me. Of course, this does not mean that there are no farms without problems. As the report points out, conditions on farms vary, and some farm owners go beyond full compliance with the law to provide a number of other benefits to workers. Ripe with Abuse enumerates a number of these better practices. Yet the situations I discovered were not simply isolated incidents.

Republicans Softening on Immigration?

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 1:46 PM EDT
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

For Republicans, immigration reform usually means "securing the border" now and doing everything else later. So it's news that two House Republicans are floating legislation that could begin to shift the conversation.

Immigration hardliner Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is planning to introduce a bill that modifies an existing guest-worker program, potentially bringing 500,000 foreign workers into the US legally; Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) has a similar bill in the works. Smith's measure modifies the current H-2A visa program used by many agricultural employers to bring workers into the US, creating a new classification called an H-2C (how, exactly, is unclear). Currently, farmers have to apply months in advance for these temporary visas. In a volatile industry like farming, where labor demands can be difficult to estimate, that's no small feat.

So why the change of heart from Smith? Here's the Wall Street Journal's Miriam Jordan:

Stepped-up lobbying by farm groups on the issue amounts to a frank admission about their dependence on a foreign-born work force—whether legal or not. Their argument is that most American workers have shunned farm jobs because many are of a seasonal, migratory nature as well as being physically arduous.

But concern is also rising for a wider swath of corporate America about the need for a more business-friendly rationalization of immigration policy. Other sectors like fast food, hotels and construction, which also employ low-skilled workers, have been subjected to federal enforcement actions that have resulted in the loss of employees who are in the country illegally. 

Will Smith and Lungren's proposals fix a broken system? Not likely. As the Journal points out, over 750,000 people are employed as field workers illegally each year. That's versus the 45,000 farm workers that come to the US on H-2A visas. Even legalizing half a million temporary workers wouldn't be enough to meet the current demand for farm labor.

Bachmann's Pastor Bashed Mormonism in 2007

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 1:23 PM EDT

Utah's Deseret News, which is owned by the LDS Church, has a story out analyzing Rep. Michele Bachmann's views on Mormons, given that she's competing against two of them (Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. The short answer here is that the Minnesota congresswoman has never actually said much about Mormonism—but the same can't be said for her pastor:

[T]he pastor at Eagle Brooks Church in Lino Lakes, Minn., where Bachmann recently became a member, delivered a July 2007 sermon titled, "Raise Your Religious IQ — Investigating Mormonism." (The presentation is available for download via iTunes.)

Although Merritt praised the LDS Church's emphasis on family and missionary service, he suggested the Mormon faith is "untrue" and "diluted."

"I very respectfully push back and I say (to Mormons) you have taken something extra and added it to (God's word) to make all of it untrue," Merritt said. "Think of it this way: what does your car need to run properly? It needs pure, refined petroleum — it needs gasoline. And what happens when you dilute the gasoline with something like water? The car doesn't run. I think that's a good analogy for what our Mormon friends have done with God's word. … The whole thing is diluted, and honestly it just doesn't work."

We went down this path once before, with the to-do over Bachmann's old Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which taught that the Catholic Church was the Antichrist. Never mind that Catholics (a core constituency in Bachmann's St. Cloud district) didn't actually seem to care, and that Catholics and Lutherans have been on pretty good terms since the 30 Years War ended in 1648. It should not come as much of a surprise that Bachmann's pastor believes that another, substantially different faith, is wrong in important ways. If he thought the LDS Church was spot-on, he would have converted by now; that's kind of the point.

There are plenty of issues where Bachmann's religious views conflict with (or inform) her approach to public policy: education, abortion, marriage, and national security, just to name a few. This isn't one of them.