2012 - %3, January

Ron Paul Is Not an Ally Worth Having

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 4:56 PM EST

A couple of days ago I argued that, if anything, Ron Paul is such a profoundly toxic messenger that his support for a non-interventionist foreign policy probably does the cause more harm than good. Daniel Larison isn't convinced:

The amusing conceit in all of this is that Paul has been or will be bad for non-interventionism. Far fewer people paid any attention to these ideas just five years ago. Non-interventionism has gone from being a more or less marginal position to one that is starting to receive a lot more attention and at least a little serious consideration. It’s impossible to ignore that this wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Paul’s last two presidential campaigns.

Look: I'll concede up front that it's not possible to know for sure what impact Ron Paul is having on public views toward non-interventionism. But come on. It's true that the American public is less enamored of war these days than it used to be, but the obvious reason for this can be summed up in two words: Afghanistan and Iraq. Americans are more skeptical of military adventurism than they were ten years ago because the shock of 9/11 has worn off and we've gone through two spectacularly disastrous foreign wars. Ron Paul has played almost no role in this at all. Hell, even Iraq and Afghanistan themselves probably haven't had much effect. We won't know for sure about this until some kind of serious military action rears its head again, but here's a guess: if Iran makes even the slightest overt military move to block the Strait of Hormuz, the American public will be every bit as keen for blood as they've ever been.1 And frankly, that's probably about as true among Ron Paul's supporters as everyone else. They've always cared mostly about his economic crankery and his opposition to social welfare, not his foreign policy views.

If you're a libertarian, I understand that you won't agree about Ron Paul's general toxicity. That's why my post on Monday was addressed primarily to lefties. For us, even before we learned about his newletters, it should have been crystal clear that he was no cuddly little teddy bear. He's a destructive, insanely-far-right crank, and anything we do to give him a bigger audience is bad for liberalism and bad for the country. After all, let's say that you were, for unimpeachably progressive reasons, really and truly devoted to the cause of federalism. Would you be happy that George Wallace was running for president? Of course not. Because you get the whole package or nothing, and anything that makes George Wallace more popular is bad for the country. Ditto for Ron Paul.

If you want to advance the cause of a less interventionist foreign policy, you need to find a way to persuade the American public to agree with you. Ron Paul doesn't do that. He's never done that. He's such a stone libertarian that he literally doesn't know the language to do it. Because of this, giving him a bigger spotlight does little for the cause of a saner foreign policy. At the same time, it does plenty for less sanity everywhere else because you don't get to control where the spotlight falls. Politics may make for strange bedfellows, but there are limits. There are some allies that aren't worth having.

1I should add that I'm not trying to pretend to be something I'm not here. I'm in favor of a less interventionist foreign policy, a view that has plenty of voices these days not named Ron Paul, but I'm not a hardcore non-interventionist like Paul. If Iran seriously tried to mine the Strait of Hormuz, for example, I'd fully expect the U.S. Navy to put a stop to it, even if that meant sinking a few Iranian vessels.

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Rick Santorum, Friend of the Little Guy

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 3:06 PM EST

Matt Yglesias examines Rick Santorum's 12-point tax plan:

It is actually true that this means Santorum stands out from the GOP pack in expressing a non-zero level of concern for the after-tax income of low-income people. Fully one of the twelve planks of his tax agenda would help an economically struggling family, which is more than I believe Mitt Romney or any of the others have mustered.

Not bad for a modern Republican! In fact, I think you could even made a plausible case for two of Santorum's planks (#5 and #6). That makes him practically a socialist. What's more, if the Tax Policy Center ever scores his plan, I suspect that it would come out slightly less staggeringly plutocratic than any of the others they've scored. Rich people would probably see their taxes cut by no more than a third or so. What a mushball.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mitt Romney?

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 2:54 PM EST

Mitt Romney has a win in Iowa under his belt and is now headed to the friendlier environs of New Hampshire, where he's got a good chance of all but wrapping up the Republican nomination. Turns out, though, that this poses a problem for the Obama campaign: they aren't sure yet how best to trash the guy:

President Obama and his campaign aides are facing a conundrum as they decide how to tarnish the man they see as their likely opponent in the battle ahead.

Do they go the flip-flopper route? Or do they go the out-of-touch, protector-of-Wall-Street route? 

Hmmm. Today's shiny new conventional wisdom is that the GOP primary campaign has already forced Romney so far to the right that he'll have trouble tacking to the center for the general election. This is nonsense. The fact is that Romney has reserved almost all of his most extreme rhetoric for laughably over-the-top denunciations of Barack Obama, and that's not really a problem for him. By contrast, most of his issue positions have remained relatively tolerable. The truth is that Romney is unusually well positioned to moderate his image by summer, which is when people actually start paying attention.

I don't think the Republican primary season is going to last nearly as long as most people seem to think. Bachmann has already dropped out, Huntsman is going nowhere, Paul is a novelty candidate, Perry is fatally wounded and may leave the race soon, and Gingrich looks all set to self-destruct in typically bitter, spectacular fashion. That leaves Santorum. I guess it's barely possible that if, say, Bachmann and Perry both drop out and endorse Santorum, he might give Romney a good run. But I doubt it. Santorum is just like all the others: a weak candidate who's going to wilt as soon as the spotlight is on him. He's avoided serious attacks so far simply because no one really took him seriously, but does anyone doubt that there's a huge trainload of highly effective negative advertising that Romney can unload on him whenever he wants to? I mean, come on. This is Rick Santorum.

I'll be surprised if the GOP primary race goes much beyond the end of February, and I'll be shocked if Super Tuesday on March 6 doesn't end it completely. This means that the Republican base will have six months to resign themselves to their fate and come to the conclusion that Romney is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being ever to run for president. And they will. When Job 1 is beating the anti-Christ, learning to love Mitt Romney will be a piece of cake.

So what does this mean for Team Obama? My guess: the flip-flopper charge probably won't get much traction. It's mostly a problem for conservatives, who don't fully trust that Romney is one of them, but by the time summer rolls around they're going to be his most fire-breathing supporters. They'll have long since decided to forgive and forget, and independents won't care that much in the first place as long as Romney seems halfway reasonable in his current incarnation. It's possible that Obama can do both — Romney is a flip-flopper and a right-wing nutcase! — but if he has to choose, my guess is that he should forget about the flip-flopping and simply do everything he can to force Romney into the wingnut conservative camp. That'll be his big weakness when Labor Day rolls around.

Paul Supporter Likely Violated Military Conduct Code

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 2:36 PM EST

Following a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul held a boisterous rally, featuring a speech from Army Corporal Jesse Thorsen. Thorsen, who was in uniform, voiced impassioned support for Paul's non-interventionist views. "We don't need to be picking fights overseas," he said, and pledged to help "make sure this man is the next president of the United States."

It was an understandable sentiment from a soldier who said he had served in the military for 10 years, which included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the appearance likely violated the protocols for service members included in Defense Department Directive 1344.10, which states explicitly that they are not to participate in political rallies as anything more than spectators. And if they do attend a political function, they're not supposed to do so in uniform.

Active-duty service members can "register, vote, and express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the Armed Forces," the directive states. It also stipulates:

4.1.2. A member of the Armed Forces on active duty shall not:
4.1.2.1. Participate in partisan political fundraising activities (except as permitted in subparagraph 4.1.1.7.), rallies, conventions (including making speeches in the course thereof), management of campaigns, or debates, either on one's own behalf or on that of another, without respect to uniform or inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement. Participation includes more than mere attendance as a spectator.

And it says that service-members shall not:

4.1.2.5. Speak before a partisan political gathering, including any gathering that promotes a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.
4.1.2.6. Participate in any radio, television, or other program or group discussion as an advocate for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.

"My immediate reaction, upon watching Congressman Paul's event, was that the soldier in question was in flagrant violation of department of defense regulations," said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. "Lord knows there are people in the military, as in the rest of American society, who have very strong feelings about who is elected president. But the tradition is the military stays out of partisan politics."

The issue wasn't necessarily showing up in uniform; it was speaking out at a partisan political gathering. "If he was on active duty, it wouldn’t matter if he was wearing a Santa Claus costume or his birthday suit," said Fidell. "Wearing the uniform only makes it worse."

Thorsen could be formally reprimanded for doing so, with a court-martial or an administrative discharge, though Fidell didn't seem to think that was very likely. More likely, he could get "chewed out" by a superior. Even if Thorsen volunteered, the Paul camp should have taken this into account before inviting him on stage last night. (The Paul campaign did not respond to a request for comment. We'll update the post if they do.)

UPDATE: The Washington Post talked to a spokesperson for the Army Reserve command who told the paper that as of October, Thorsen was not on active duty. They are determining whether he violated any rules by speaking at the rally.

Adam Serwer contributed reporting for this post.

Chart of the Day: Presidential Recess Appointments

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 2:04 PM EST

President Barack Obama used his authority to appoint former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Wednesday without approval from the Senate, which was in recess. By doing so, Obama defied Senate Republicans who had sought to block any and all such recess appointments by holding "pro-forma" sessions for the sole purpose of obstructing the president's ability to fill executive branch and judicial vacancies.

Obama's decision to appoint Cordray to the CFBP anyway has provoked outrage from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who didn't complain much when President George W. Bush used recess appointments to install Senate rejects including Iraq war architect John Bolton as US Ambassador to the UN. Wednesday, McConnell characterized Obama's move as a power grab that “fundamentally endangers the Congress’s role in providing a check on the excesses of the executive branch.” 

Obama's decision to disregard the Senate's procedural roadblocks sets something of a new legal precedent future Republican presidents may try to take advantage of—presidents typically have not made recess appointments during pro-forma sessions. On the other hand, as TPM's Brian Beutler writes, Republicans were engaging in an "extra-legal attempt to nullify a key portion of an act of law" by blocking Cordray's nomination to head the agency. 

Few presidents have seen their appointments subject to as much obstruction as Obama, and few have been so timid about taking advantage of recess appointments. Here's a chart by Siddhartha Mahanta showing the average recess appointments per year of Obama's predecessors:

Data from the Congressional Research ServiceData from the Congressional Research ServiceAccording to reports from the Congressional Research Service, during their time in office President Ronald Reagan made 240 recess appointments, President George H. W. Bush made 77 recess appointments, President Bill Clinton made 140 recess appointments, and George W. Bush made 171. Obama's first term has seen a paltry 28. In this context, Obama's move seems less like a power grab and more like the proverbial 98-pound weakling taking a second to wipe the sand out of his eyes. 

Obama Plans Recess Appointment of Richard Cordray: It's a Good Idea, But I Want to See the Legal Brief

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 12:48 PM EST

Apparently President Obama has decided that playing patty cake with Republican senators is no longer a winning proposition, and he now plans to make a recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau despite the fact that the Senate is technically in a "pro forma session" and hasn't recessed. Politically, this is pretty defensible: Senate Republicans have refused to allow a vote on Cordray not because of any problems with Cordray himself, but because they simply want to prevent the CFPB from functioning. They're opposed to any CFPB head. Since the CFPB was created by a vote of Congress and the signature of the president, this is little more than modern-day nullification.

But even if this is politically defensible, is it also legally defensible? The Wall Street Journal reports:

White House attorneys have concluded they have the legal authority to make a recess appointment despite Republican efforts to block the move, Democrats said Tuesday, and administration officials say they reserve the option to install Richard Cordray as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau without Senate approval.

....The White House has concluded that it can make the appointment even if the Senate has not formally recessed, said one Democrat familiar with White House thinking. “They have decided no one can stop them.”

This all sounds fine to me, since I think the pro forma sessions are nothing more than a sham. But I also hope that Obama makes his legal reasoning public. This is, after all, a unilateral declaration of expanded executive power, and we've had way too many of those in recent years based on shoddy legal justifications that were kept secret. Obama's decision may end up in court, where his legal reasoning will become public regardless, but I hope he doesn't wait for that. If White House lawyers have written a brief justifying Cordray's appointment, let's make it public and allow everyone to see it.

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Santorum in Your Pants

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 12:35 PM EST

Rick Santorum caught a lot of people off guard with his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday. But just in case you forgot how extreme his views are on a number of issues, here he is earlier this week talking about homosexuality and birth control on ABC News.

Discussing the Supreme Court's 1965 ruling that invalidated a Connecticut law banning contraception, he said:

The state has a right to do that. I have never questioned that the state has a right to do that. It is not a constitutional right. The state has the right to pass whatever statutes they have. That is the thing I have said about the activism of the Supreme Court, they are creating rights, and they should be left up to the people to decide.

Santorum also argued that there is no constitutionally protected right to sodomy, and that the Supreme Court's decision in the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas was wrong. "I wouldn't have voted for that law. I thought that law was an improper law, but that doesn't mean the state doesn't have a right to do that," he said. "We shouldn't create constitutional rights when states do dumb things."

Of course, that would be a different idea of what the Constitution is, and why the Supreme Court exists, than most people have.

My New Diet Plan: Always Eat Alone

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 11:51 AM EST

Via Andrew Sullivan, we learn this from the good folks at New Scientist:

Researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta have shown that group size dramatically affects the number of calories consumed. If you are with one other person, you will eat 35 per cent more calories than if you dine alone. In a group of eight, you're looking at a whopping 90 per cent increase.

Really? If I'm in a group of eight I'm likely to eat twice as much as if I eat alone? That seems spectacularly unlikely. Can someone please do some research for me and report back on whether this is really true? The underlying study here is from 1992, and surely there have been followups since. Thanks!

Taste Test: Pricey Winter Tomatoes From Whole Foods

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 8:00 AM EST
Organic winter tomatoes at Whole Foods' flagship store in Austin.

Responding to this great New York Times article on large-scale organic farming on Mexico's Baja Peninsula, I alluded yesterday to the "stacks of pristine, glistening organic tomatoes" now gracing the produce aisles of upscale supermarkets. The Times piece raised some important questions about the ecological impact of large-scale organic tomato production in Baja.

That very same evening, I found myself in what must be one of the most upscale supermarkets on the planet—the flagship Whole Foods in the company's (and my) hometown of Austin. (I'm here for the week visiting family.) And in that cavernous circus of high-end food, I did indeed find a large display featuring several varieties of organic tomatoes from Mexico. But here's the thing: they didn't look very pristine to me. Not unlike the non-organic winter tomatoes found in supermarkets throughout the land, their red hue looked sort of pale. And when I handled them, they didn't seem particularly ripe.

Now, I revere tomatoes. Maverick Farms, the North Carolina operation I help run, grows several varieties, some open-pollinated from old seed lines (i.e., heirloom), some hybrid. Our August-September tomato season is sacred to me, as are the jars of them we put up for the rest of the year. But when they're out of season and not in a jar, tomatoes are dead to me. If I hadn't written about organic winter tomatoes from Mexico that very day, Whole Foods' mediocre-looking display would not have caught my eye at all.

And while Whole Foods' offerings didn't look much different from normal supermarket tomatoes, their price tag did capture my attention. Big beefsteaks and medium-sized greenhouse-grown orbs both went for $4 per pound; "vine-ripened" numbers (with vines still attached) went for an eye-popping $6 per pound.

I decided to take home one of each and subject them to a taste test. Were the tomatoes worth their lofty price? Were they worth the environmental impact they exact on their growing region?

WATCH: Canada for President! (NSFW)

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 7:30 AM EST

Less Iowa, more Ottawa: Courtesy of the Canada Party.Less Iowa, more Ottawa: Photo courtesy of the Canada Party

Have you hit your Iowa caucus threshold? Still waiting for your presidential prince to come? Our neighbors in the north have a humble suggestion: Elect Canada in 2012. A couple of comedic Canucks calling themselves the Canada Party announced their country's candidacy for White House in an online video Tuesday (watch it below). "We've seen your candidates," the party spokesman says, "and frankly, they scare the shit out of us. So we're volunteering our country to lead your country."

They make a pretty compelling case, starting with a list of the commonwealth nation's capstone achievements: Human rights, employment rate, gun control, lumberjack fashion, Bigfoot sightings, human kindness, barley production. "That's just what our hippies have accomplished," the narrator says. "Wait till you see our redneck cred." No, seriously: "Our prime minister is a muppet version of George Bush, our oil sands are so dirty it makes Texas look like a Greenpeace retreat, and we have the same problem you do with illiterate foreigners invading our southern borders to steal our jobs."

So far, the Canada Party appears to be operating on a shoestring budget; its web presence is limited to a sparse Facebook page and Twitter account—a function, no doubt, of their country's more stringent campaign finance laws. But assuming they've got a longform birth certificate on hand (who are we kidding? They've probably been here longer than your ancestors!), this could be the start of something big. Let's just hope that if they're elected, they won't screw with the rules of American football.