2011 - %3, October

Mitt Romney is the Perfect Cyborg Tea Party President

| Wed Oct. 5, 2011 10:00 AM PDT

Andrew Sullivan reacts to Jon Stewart's evisceration of Mitt Romney's flip-flopping:

If Romney's shifts were connected to new facts, or new arguments, they would have some punch. But what's amazing about him is that all of them seem clearly caused purely by opportunism in a party lurching toward fundamentalism in religion (the Bible), economics (no revenue increases ever) and politics (the Constitution, as viewed by someone in the late eighteenth century).

OK, sure. Point taken. Romney is a shameless panderer. He'll do whatever you want him to do as long as you'll promise to vote for him.

It's not a pretty sight. But it also makes him the perfect tea party candidate. Don't they see this? With a guy like Rick Perry, you never know. The right person whispers in his ear and suddenly he decides that he hates cancer so much that he doesn't care about conservative principles. Cancer is more important. Do you think Mitt Romney would ever do that? No siree. He'd run that baby dispassionately through the Computron 9000 that passes for a brain and then he'd do exactly what you want him to do. Because he wants you to vote for him. So as long as you keep the pressure on, Romney will never disappoint you.

Romney's big problem, of course, is that tea partiers won't necessarily figure this out on their own — they just think he's an unreliable flip-flopper — and it's hard to figure out how to get the message across to them. It's not like he can give a speech saying he doesn't care about principle and will just abjectly do whatever the tea party wants him to do, so help him God. Still, good politicians always figure out how to get messages like this across with a wink and a nudge in just the right place. Romney can do it too if he devotes enough CPU cycles to the problem.

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Newt Gingrich Doesn't Need No Stinking Economic Advisers

| Wed Oct. 5, 2011 9:50 AM PDT
GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has no problem with flying solo. After his campaign imploded this summer, with the departure of his longtime spokesman, campaign manager, and key aides around the country, Gingrich took it in stride, forging on with his thin, debt-ridden campaign. On Monday, Gingrich promised to bring that go-it-alone mentality should he win the White House in 2012. (RealClearPolitics' average polling data shows Gingrich mired in fifth place, with 9.2 percent of support. Mitt Romney leads with 22 percent.)

At a gathering of the Conservative Club of Des Moines, Gingrich said he wouldn't make the mistake of surrounding himself with sharp-elbowed, opinionated economic advisers offering conflicting advice—a criticism leveled at President Obama, most clearly in Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men. Here's what Gingrich said, as quoted by Huffington Post's Michael J. Hunt:

Calling the President "the best food stamp president ever," Gingrich didn't hesitate to take further jabs at Obama by saying that he "won't need to rely on [Treasury Secretary] Timothy Geithner or [former White House economic adviser] Larry Summers for counsel when I am president," and said "the best economic advisor I'll have is me." This statement seemed to resonate with the audience members.

This, of course, is the same Gingrich whose campaign racked up $1 million in debt in a short period of time (and is still paying it off), and the same Gingrich who, in 1993 as House speaker, slammed President Bill Clinton's budget, which raised taxes, as a job-killer and a big step down the road to recession. Of course, the opposite happened: Thanks in part to Clinton's policies, the US economy added 21 million jobs during his spell as president. The economy soared through the 1990s. Gingrich got it wrong.

Gingrich, you could say, is promising the opposite of what Reagan preached. After all, it was Reagan who described his leadership style thusly: "Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere." Surely Gingrich—a history buff and a Reagan lover if there ever was one—must know that defying the Gipper is no way to win the GOP presidential nod.

The Big Pitfall of Online Education

| Wed Oct. 5, 2011 9:33 AM PDT

Sorry for the late start this morning. Here in the third-world city-state of Irvine the power went off yet again last night, and this morning my computer was corrupted in some strange way. I have since tossed some garlic at it, shaken some oracle bones in its vicinity, and used my ISP's web interface to delete a bunch of email. This has produced conditional success. If everything continues working after a restart later today, I'll declare victory over Windows and Southern California Edison. Wish me luck.

Anyway. Speaking of online education — isn't that what we were just speaking about? — Matt Yglesias makes a point so obvious today that I've long wondered why I so seldom hear anyone acknowledge it:

There’s just a basic problem with the general incentives-focused view of the world. Investing some time during the years 15-22 to equip yourself with a quantitative analysis toolkit is something that’s definitely rewarded in the marketplace. And you can find all the relevant textbooks, lectures, information, etc. online already. And yet the number of people who’ve self-taught calculus is tiny. 

Right. Professors lecturing in front of whiteboards may not seem very whiz bang in the era of Facebook, but the medium is definitely not the message here. Aside from the social virtues of a physical college campus, its real virtue is that it sets up a commitment structure: you feel obligated to go to class, and once you're in class you feel obligated to do the homework, etc. Even at that lots of students don't go to class and don't do the homework, but lots do. But if you're studying online, you have to self-motivate at a much higher level. And it's a level that, frankly, most of us just aren't capable of.

I'm sure that eventually someone will come up with a solution to this. Until then, though, this is really the key issue, not the quality or widespread acceptance of online learning. We have to figure out a way to make even average students willing to sit through hours and hours of instruction alone in their rooms. That's not something the human brain was really evolved to do.

House Dems Call For Hearings on Clarence Thomas

| Wed Oct. 5, 2011 8:37 AM PDT
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

This October marks the 20th anniversary of the infamous confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in which he almost didn't make it to the high court due to allegations that he'd sexually harassed Anita Hill at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. House Democrats would apparently like to commemorate this event by subjecting Thomas to a new round of hearings on the Hill. On the steps of the Supreme Court this morning, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and others held a press conference calling on the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings investigating some of Thomas's alleged ethical lapses. These include allegations that he failed to disclose at least $1.6 million in income earned by his wife Virginia, who worked for the conservative Heritage Foundation and has been an active opponent of the Obama health care law. Thomas has also been accused of taking unreported free trips on a corporate jet and a yacht from real estate magnate Harlan Crow.

Blumenauer wrote to the House Judiciary committee members:

"Reports of potential ethical lapses by Justice Thomas’s actions give rise to concerns about conflicts of interest undermining appellants’ rights of due process and also raise substantive questions about Justice Thomas’s ability to retain his seat. We urge that your committee hold hearings regarding the nature of these questions, their factual basis, and their potential to undermine the public’s trust in the Supreme Court."

The request comes on the heels of demands by 19 House members that the US Judicial Conference, which oversees the federal courts, ask the Justice Department to investigate Thomas's alleged violations of the Ethics in Government Act for all of the omissions on his financial disclosure forms. Thomas has said it was simply an oversight and that he misunderstood how to fill out the forms. He has since amended the forms to include the missing income.  (In a statement, Slaughter has dismissed his explanation saying, "To believe that Justice Thomas didn't know how to fill out a basic disclosure form is absurd.")

None of the congressional grandstanding is likely to amount to much, given how difficult it is to remove a sitting Supreme Court justice from the bench. Besides, House Republicans would have to agree to any hearing on Thomas's conduct, and that's never going to happen. But liberal activists and their partners in Congress aren't necessarily looking for Thomas to step down. They want him to recuse himself from voting on the Obama health care reform law that the court is likely to hear before the next presidential election. Of course, conservatives are doing the same thing. They're waging a concerted campaign to pressure new Justice Elena Kagan to also recuse herself from the health care case based on her service in the Obama administration as solicitor general. In the end, both justices will probably ignore all the background noise. But the fight will certainly make for interesting political theater along the way.

Cain on #OccupyWallStreet: Get a Job

| Wed Oct. 5, 2011 8:02 AM PDT
GOP Presidential candidate Herman Cain says poor people have only themselves to blame.

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain was having a pretty good week. On Tuesday, three polls from Public Policy showed the businessman/gospel singer in the lead in North Carolina, Nebraska, and West Virginia. Another recent poll had Cain trailing only Mitt Romney in the key Florida primary. Then, on Wednesday, he put his foot squarely in his mouth in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Here's what Cain said when asked about the #OccupyWallStreet movement:

I don't have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration. Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself! It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded.

Cain added that the banks "did have something to do with the crisis in 2008, but we're not in 2008, we're in 2011! Okay?"

To put it bluntly: Cain really doesn't have any facts to back him up. The protests were initially organized by Adbusters, which is hardly an organ of the Obama administration. As my colleague Andy Kroll reported this morning, organized labor has made a push to get behind the movement, but they're piggybacking on a movement that has already taken off.

This is not the first time Cain has found himself on the wrong side of facts. Citing debunked conspiracy theorists, he alleged that Islamic Sharia law was already being forced on American courts in Oklahoma and Texas (he meant Florida), and despite touting himself as a constitutionalist, argued that the First Amendment does not apply to the Muslims of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (Cain has since apologized, and then denied that he changed his position.)

Cain's not the only Republican candidate to weigh in on the #OccupyWallStreet: On Tuesday, Mitt Romney called the protests "dangerous" and "class warfare."

h/t Think Progress.

Participating in a Lynching: No Longer a "Serious" Crime in California

| Wed Oct. 5, 2011 6:30 AM PDT
Gov. Jerry Brown.

In late May, California Governor Jerry Brown was faced with an impossible problem: The Supreme Court decreed that the state's 33 adult prisons were subjecting their offenders to "cruel and unusual punishment," as defined by the 8th amendment of the Constitution, due to prison overcrowding. Consequently, the court ordered that the state remove some 33,000 inmates from its prisons within the next two years. Anticipating the high court's decision, Brown had signed a bill in April engineered to address both the massive overcrowding issue as well as the state's ongoing budget woes.

But the bill, which goes into effect this week, could potentially upend the balance between state prisons and local jails. Under the new law—which deploys a strategy known as "realignment"—only those convicted of nonviolent or non-serious crimes will be sent directly to county jails instead of state prison. What sorts of crimes qualify for local sentences? The Associated Press went looking for an answer and found a troubling one:

[A] review…of crimes that qualify for local sentences shows at least two dozen offenses shifting to local control that can be considered serious or violent.

Among them: Involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, killing or injuring a police officer while resisting arrest, participating in a lynching, possession of weapons of mass destruction, possessing explosives, threatening a witness or juror, and using arson or explosives to terrorize a health facility or church. Assault, battery, statutory rape and sexual exploitation by doctors or psychotherapists are also covered by the prison realignment law and carry sentences that will be served in a county jail instead of state prison.

"These crimes include a variety of offenses that would strike many civilians as far from trivial," Public Policy Institute of California researcher Dean Misczynski wrote in a recent analysis of the new law.

And there are other problems with the law. Parole will no longer be an option for those who serve out their terms in county lockup—meaning that parole officers won't be able to keep tabs on ex-cons, and make sure they're staying on track with their rehabilitation.

The law could have other calamitous consequences for localities. To make room for more serious offenders, local jails will be forced to release less serious offenders prematurely. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley estimates that that number could be in the thousands. "Realignment casts too wide a net in defining 'low level offenses,'" Cooley told the AP. Meanwhile, local police departments will be forced to shift resources and manpower from patrol and other assignments to keep tabs on the glut of new ex-offenders back on the streets.

At issue here is whether local jails and police departments are prepared for the potential deluge of convicts in their jurisdictions, particularly those who could be more dangerous than advertised. Judging from what local officials have been saying in the past week, they also just don’t have the money needed to accommodate the increased number of inmates.

Just as troubling: The utter absence of attention—and accompanying lack of dollars—paid to rehabilitation programs that could help keep these offenders (of the serious and non-serious variety) from cycling through the criminal justice system. Brown, a Democrat, and the California legislature apparently saw this as an investment they just can't afford.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 5, 2011

Wed Oct. 5, 2011 2:57 AM PDT

Cpl. Kristine Tejada, a truck commander for 1st Platoon, Higher Headquarters Battery, Task Force 2-82 Field Artillery Regiment, provides security at the ancient Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq, on Sept. 24, 2011. Photo by the US Army.

Why Republicans Should Like Mitt Romney

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 3:18 PM PDT

Ramesh Ponnuru says that David Brooks is right to suggest that Mitt Romney is a perfectly fine Republican candidate:

In particular, I agree that the programmatic differences among the major candidates are small and not especially important: The party has reached a consensus on most issues. He’s right as well about the general-election appeal of a solid-citizen candidate. But there are several important questions Brooks does not address.

1) How much of that consensus would Romney actually act on? That question has to be asked about any candidate but for various reasons it has to be asked especially of Romney.

2) Can Romney mobilize public opinion behind the Republican program? Brooks describes Christie as someone who could do that, then drops the subject.

3) Is that consensus correct? If not can Romney supply what it lacks?

4) When new issues come up for which the consensus has no answers, what would President Romney do?

I suppose these are the kind of questions I'd be asking too if I were a Republican, but from an outside perspective they all seem like pretty small beer. It's true that the policy differences between Romney, Perry, and Christie are pretty tiny, but I also suspect that the differences in temperament and affect, which seem bigger, really aren't. The whole thing reminds me a lot of the Obama-Clinton primary, which involved a stupendous amount of sturm und drang over two candidates who, frankly, probably would have ended up being mostly the same in office.

As it happens, my preference for Romney isn't due to the fact that I think he's secretly more liberal than Perry. He probably is, but I doubt that would make any real-world difference, and liberals are kidding themselves if they think it would. My preference is based solely on the fact that in a crisis, I think he'd be pretty likely to act soberly and sensibly. I don't have the same confidence in Perry.

As for Ponnuru's questions, I think he's on the wrong track. In 2008, both Obama and Hillary Clinton had ambitious agendas that they had a legitimate chance at passing. The Republican Party had imploded, the financial meltdown provided a crisis atmosphere, and Democrats were likely to win big majorities in Congress. Neither Romney nor Perry has any of that working for them. The battle lines are drawn, neither side is likely to back down much, and even in the best case Republicans aren't going to win anything close to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. A Republican president just flatly won't be able to get an awful lot done. Conservatives are kidding themselves if they think otherwise.

So if Romney is elected president: (1) He'll act on whatever he can get the votes for, which probably won't be a lot. (2) He won't be able to mobilize public opinion any better or worse than anyone else. It's mostly set in stone on the big issues. (3) The conservative consensus isn't going to change, regardless of whether it's right or wrong, so that's not something to worry about. (4) What new issues? When was the last time that something so new cropped up that the conservative movement didn't quickly coalesce around a fairly limited set of correct responses? Even 9/11 and the financial crisis were swallowed by the prevailing conservative consensus pretty quickly.

Romney is an analytic tactician, but that should make Republicans feel good, not uneasy. He knows the base is suspicious of him, and he'll do everything he can to assure them of his conservative bona fides. He's sort of like Richard Nixon but with a different environment. Nixon didn't care much about domestic policy, so he was willing to do whatever Congress and public opinion favored. Romney doesn't care all that much either, but in 2013 that means he'll be willing to do whatever the tea party and the Republican leadership favor. Similar temperaments, different incentives. He'll be the most reliable conservative president imaginable. So instead of Ponnuru's critieria, Republicans should instead be focusing on (1) electability, (2) electability, and (3) electability. And Romney is clearly the most electable candidate in the Republican field.

From my perspective, that's not good. At the same time, I'm pretty sure Romney won't panic and do something really stupid just because the tea party is getting restless. At the moment, that's about the best I can hope for from these guys.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman: Release Awlaki Memo

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 3:10 PM PDT
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

We know from the death of extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki last week that Obama administration's stated authority to kill American citizens suspected of terrorism is no longer a matter of legal theory. What we still don't know is the administration's legal rationale for doing so.

Tuesday, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate armed services committee, told a group of reporters that the administration should release a legal memo drafted by the Department of Justice outlining the government's legal authority to kill al-Awlaki without charge or trial.

"I would urge them to release the memo. I don't see any reason why they shouldn't," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a key ally of President Barack Obama, told reporters...I support the decision to do it. He has declared war on us, and in war you're allowed to attack your enemy[.]"

The Washington Post reported last week on the existence of the memo—the disclosure of which is the one issue that both opponents and supporters of the administration's policy on targeted killing can probably agree. (My colleague Nick Baumann also wrote about the likely existence of the memo—and calls to release it—back in January.) Former Bush-era head of the Office of Legal Counsel Jack Goldsmith called on the administration earlier this week to release a "a redacted version of the opinion, or should extract the legal analysis and place it in another document that can be released consistent with restrictions on classified information." Georgetown Law Professor David Cole, a critic of the administration's targeted killing policy, wrote last week that "If we are engaging the enemy within the rule of law...we should have the courage to make our policies transparent, so that the people, both in the United States and beyond, can judge for themselves."

Administration officials like State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh and White House Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan have outlined the administration's justifications for targeted killing without mentioning al-Awlaki by name. The administration has also spent years leaking information about al-Awlaki's alleged role in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in order to justify targeting him, even as they avoided ever actually indicting him for a crime. Given the administration's past willingness to release Bush-era memos justifying the use of torture, it's difficult to imagine how a lack of disclosure here would be justified. Whether or not you believe al-Awlaki's killing was legal or justified, the legal explanation for how American citizens can be sentenced to death on suspicion of terrorism should not remain a state secret.