Rick Perry defends undocumented immigrants, Herman Cain perpetuates an EPA conspiracy theory, Rick Santorum advocates abstinence in the military, and other highlights from Thursday's GOP presidential debate.
In one sense, the Republican debate tonight wasn't too interesting: Most of the candidates repeated pretty much the same talking points as before. But Perry really stuck to his talking points. He remains completely unable to say anything really substantive, and he stumbles badly when he's trying to dredge up a new talking point from the depths of his brain. I know that deep policy expertise isn't his big selling point, but he's really starting to sound like a schoolboy who memorized a few index cards 10 minutes before showtime, delivers them haltingly when the teacher calls on him, and then tries to joke and grin his way into a passing grade.
So what was interesting was listening to Frank Luntz's focus group after the debate. There were a ton of defectors from Perry to Romney. I don't know if this means anything, but if it does it means that even the Republican base may be getting a little weary of Perry's audio-animatronic good ol' boy shtick. Plus a lot of the focus groupers really bought in to Romney's criticism of Perry's policy of letting illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at Texas universities, and they were really upset at Perry's defense. They did not—not not not—appreciate his suggestion that anyone who disagreed with him about this was heartless. That's the kind of thing they hear from liberals, and they're sick of it.
Perry now has the base firmly upset with him over both immigration and the HPV vaccine; he was unable to really defend himself on either Social Security or the number of uninsured in Texas; and his lack of policy seriousness is starting to go beyond winsome and edging instead into not-ready-for-prime-time territory. So we'll see. I keep thinking that Perry's smugness and lack of depth is eventually going to wear thin even among the faithful, and maybe tonight was the night where that started to happen. Maybe.
At Thursday night's Fox News/Google debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry stood firm on his decision to allow in-state tuition for undocumented students at state universities, despite harsh criticism from his rivals.
At this point, all of Perry's opponents have recognized that he's vulnerable to attacks from the right on immigration, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) took a swipe at Perry immediately when the topic of immigration was brought up. Bachmann said she would build a border fence on "every mile, every inch" of the southern border, and she said "illegal aliens" shouldn't get any government assistance. Both were veiled swipes at Perry, who has also dismissed the idea of a border fence as unworkable.
When it came time to respond however, Perry defended his decision, saying that "we need to be educating these children because [otherwise] they will be a drag on our society" and adding that if you don't sympathize with the plight of undocumented immigrants brought here as children, "you don't have a heart."
Perry's answer got a decidedly mixed response from the audience, some of whom clapped, some of whom booed loudly. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum took the bait, accusing Perry of being "soft" on illegal immigration and saying it was wrong to give undocumented immigrant students "preferential treatment." Mitt Romney seconded Bachmann on the border fence and said it was wrong for Perry to grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students. This is the one issue where Romney is on Perry's right—he vetoed a similar proposal as governor of Massachusetts.
The problem for Perry is that despite his stated opposition to the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform, the moral arguments he uses to defend his actions in Texas double as justifications for policies he says he opposes. And the GOP primary audience knows it.
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is worried that the EPA is going to regulate farm dust. So worried, in fact, that he pledged to eliminate the EPA during Thursday's presidential debate.
"It's out of control," Cain said. "The fact that they have a regulation…to regulate dust…says they've gone too far."
Cain's not alone in this (mistaken) belief that the Obama EPA is going to issue fines on dirt. It's one of the tea party's favorite EPA conspiracy theory. Sadly, it's not true. Despite much outrage on this subject in Congress, the agency has said repeatedly that it isn't issuing new rules on dust.
Yes, the EPA is revisiting its dust standards—but those standards have been in place since 1987. In April, the EPA issued an evaluation of particulate matter pollution standards, because the report is a requirement under the Clean Air Act. And while the report suggested that dust standards should be tightened, the EPA has no plans to "regulate" dust any time soon.
The EPA certainly isn't going to do so by January 2012, as Cain falsely claimed. Even if they intended to, the rule-making process would take a lot longer than that. And, for whatever it's worth, the Bush administration EPA actually did issue dust regulations.
For the third consecutive GOP presidential debate, the audience stole the show. At the Reagan Library debate in California, attendees memorably broke into a spontaneous round of applause in support of Rick Perry's record on the death penalty. At last week's debate in Tampa, a handful of audience members cheered the prospect of a man without health insurance being left to die. And on Thursday in Orlando, a chorus of boos erupted when a gay Army veteran asked former Sen. Rick Santorum if he should still be allowed to serve the country in Iraq.
Santorum's answer was characteristic: Looking uncomfortable and stammering slightly, he said that the military was practicing "social engineering" by allowing gays to serve openly. He also effectively suggested that service members should practice abstinence, stating that "any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military." He declined to thank the questioner for his service, normally standard operating procedure for an American politician.
More disappointing than Santorum's answer was the fact that he was the only candidate forced to come up with one. Fox News' Chris Wallace grilled Santorum and then moved on to a new subject. But DADT is in the news right now, and it is a tangible policy that the next president, as commander in chief, will be in a position to act on. It speaks not just to social issues, but also national security. Would President Perry block gay soldiers from receiving benefits? Would President Romney move to reimplement DADT? Would President Cain (kidding) move to to create separate housing for gay soldiers and straight soldiers (as some social conservatives have suggested)? If the candidates don't like the current policy, what exactly are they going to do to change it?
Santorum got pegged with the question because he's considered a "social issues" candidate. But this question really deserved to be asked of everyone.
During Thursday's Google/Fox News debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) continued her pattern of making factually suspect statements. At one point, she claimed that "President Obama has the lowest public approval ratings of any president in modern times." Granted, it might all depend on how one defines "modern times." But if we are to interpret "modern times" as including the presidencies of any one other than Barack Obama, then we have to consider the following:
President Obama has thus far experienced a Gallup low of 38 percent. By the laws of first-grade basic math, Obama has sixteen points to go before tying the lowest presidential approval rating Gallup has on record.
Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his leadership team for the "Presidency 5" straw poll in Florida, scheduled for October. Although most of the other major candidates have decided to skip the event, Perry is hoping a strong showing there will give him a boost ahead of the state's important early primary. So what's his strategy for voter outreach? It looks a lot like The Response, the prayer and fasting festival he organized in August at a football stadium in Houston.
Take, for instance, his new co-chair: Pam Olsen, founder of the Tallahassee House of Prayer (dubbed the "prayer lady" in her home state for reasons that should be self-evident) and a leading anti-abortion activist in the state. As Right Wing Watch notes, though, Olsen also believes that gay marriage, and its increasing acceptance among American Christians, is causing destructive natural disasters across the country. Here's what she said back in July:
God is shaking. If anybody looks at the news and has just seen what's been happening recently with the floods, the fires, the tornadoes, God is shaking. Yeah I think you have God shaking, sure you have the Enemy shaking, you have both and I don't want to say oh that's the judgment of God or that's the Enemy. But the reality is God is judging us, and I think it's going to get worse.
It's somewhat unclear why Texas, whose governor supports criminalizing gay sex, would be punished with raging wildfires for having too high a tolerance for gay rights. But Olsen's view is wholly consistent with Perry's other allies on the religious right. The Response, you'll recall, featured a number of controversial pastors who believed that, among other things, 9/11 was God's way of punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and the blackbirds that died suddenly in Arkansas last winter were a harbinger of the End Times.
Despite evidence that threw into question the veracity of testimony that led to his conviction, pleas from a former president and the Pope, and even a last-minute review of the case by the US Supreme Court on Wednesday night, Troy Davis was executed by lethal injection shortly after 11 p.m. on Wednesday in Georgia.
Davis, whose case we wrote about in full detail here, was convicted on 1991 on charges that he murdered a Savannah police officer. Davis had put off eating his final meal in the expectation that he would be granted a stay of execution—as he had three times before in the past—but by Wednesday morning, he had exhausted all of his options, and a standing offer to submit to a polygraph test was rebuffed by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. The final lethal injection was delayed for more than three hours as the state waited to hear from the Supreme Court (which dismissed the appeal without dissent).
By now, you probably know the facts: Of the nine witnesses to the murder, seven have since recanted, and in doing so alleged that they were coerced into identifying Davis. Police tainted the identification process by pointing out Davis' face before he ever appeared in the lineup; new psychological research suggests that the officers went about identifying the suspect in exactly the wrong way. Ballistics evidence used to convict Davis has since been debunked. Another witness has since emerged as a plausible suspect in the murder trial. Three jurors on the case now say that if they knew then what they know now, they would not have voted to convict. Davis was quite possibly innocent, but that was hardly the point. As expressed by the popular Twitter hashtag, the problem was simply that there was #TooMuchDoubt.
Davis' case represented a perfect storm for death penalty opponents. He received support from world leaders and celebrities, including Pope Benedict XVI, Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, former FBI Director William Sessions, Salman Rushdie, and Kim Kardashian. R.E.M., in one of their last acts as a band, asked supporters to sign a petition for clemency. Unlike Duane Buck, the Texas inmate whose sentence was temporarily stayed by the Supreme Court last week, Davis' guilt really was really a matter of debate. Unlike Cameron Todd Willingham, whose 2004 execution was based on debunked forensic science, he had an otherwise clean record and was a reputable character. And perhaps just as importantly, he fit the prototype: Davis, who was black, physically embodied the racial disparities that permeate the criminal justice system, from capital punishment on down to drug sentencing. It was no accident that Amnesty International made him the face of its push to end the death penalty.
Davis' execution is a setback for death penalty opponents—and more broadly, death penalty supporters who know a broken system when they see one. It's also a reminder that for all of the fervor generated by cases like Davis', the overwhelming majority of Americans still support the death penalty, and tellingly, the majority of Americans who believe that innocent people are sometimes executed still support the death penalty. In ruling against Davis, the Supreme Court affirmed what Justice Antonin Scalia stated in 2009: "[T]his court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent."
Public policy can be improved (and lives saved) without wading into the furious culture war dispute over capital punishment itself. As the Willingham fiasco led to a reconsideration of the use of forensic evidence, reformers now have another opportunity in the wake of Davis' execution to push more scientific, disinterested witness identification. They can fight split-jury sentencing and raise the threshold required to send someone to death row. (Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal supports ending the requirement in his state that juries be unanimous to secure death warrants; Florida and Alabama are the only two states that don't require unanimity to obtain a death sentence.)
Either way, the debate won't die down any time soon. Next week, the US Supreme Court will consider what course of action to take on the Duane Buck case in Texas.
The state of Georgia is scheduled to execute Troy Davis sometime after 7 p.m. tonight, even though there are serious doubts as to whether he ever committed the crime he was convicted of (seven of the nine witnesses at his trial have since recanted). The debate over capital punishment has picked up noticabely over the last month, with the Davis execution, the Supreme Court's intervention in the case of Texas death row inmate Duane Buck, and Texas Governor Rick Perry's insistence—in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that the state has never executed an innocent man on his watch. In an editorial today, the New York Times takes the occasion to call for capital punishment to be permanently abolished.
They make a pretty compelling case. But this might not be a fight they can win—at least not for a while. Some death penalty supporters believe that the government is infallible when it comes to doling out capital punishment. But the numbers show that even people who think the state sometimes gets the wrong guy are still likely to support the death penalty. Here's a 2009 Gallup poll, via Grits for Breakfast:
[F]or many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.
It's comforting (ish) to think that death penalty supporters just have their heads in the sand, and if they can just be convinced that the system is broken they'll come around to abolition. But that's really not the case; a substantial number of proponents just think a flawed conviction here and there is a small price to pay for justice. Even as folks like the Innocence Project and Pamela Colloff continue to shine a light on the flaws of the system, public support for capital punishment remains pretty high and there's no indication it's in danger of flipping. Here's a handy chart from Pew:
Courtesy of Pew ResearchWe have a notable decline over the last decade (coinciding with the switch in pollsters) but nothing about this graph screams out that the death penalty is on its last legs, and that it's not just a regression to the mean. This one from Gallup is even more ambiguous:
Courtesy of GallupThe takeaway here is that even with cases like those of Troy Davis and Cameron Todd Willingham, death penalty opponents are going to have a pretty tough time winning converts to their cause. But there's plenty of low-hanging fruit to go after: The Davis prosecution, for instance, was aided by a flawed system of witness idenfitification—one that that the New Jersey Supreme Court recently banned entirely. The Willingham case hinged on a school of arson science that was closer to witchcraft—but a consequence of that is the state was pressured into forming a commission that now has the authority to investigate cases where poor forensic techniques were used.
Update:More numbers from PRRI today. There's also an enthusiasm gap: "Three times as many Americans say they strongly favor the death penalty as say they strongly oppose it (33% vs. 11% respectively)."
Democrat Elizabeth Warren (left) now leads GOP Sen. Scott Brown by two points.
Public Policy Polling's Ton Jensen tweeted on Tuesday morning that his new poll of the Massachusetts Senate race was the "most surprising Senate poll we've done since we found [the Republican, now-Sen. Scott] Brown up on [the losing Dem candidate, Martha] Coakley." Whether the poll lived up to the hype is up for debate (it would be a pretty boring debate), but the results are pretty jarring: Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the Wall Street watchdog and Harvard professor who entered the race last week, leads GOP Sen. Scott Brown 46–44. To put it in perspective, when PPP last polled the race in June, Warren trailed Brown by 15 points.
Courtesy of Public Policy PollingThat's a pretty big swing when you consider that a.) Warren has only just started campaigning, and b.) Brown remains fairly popular in the Bay State—and significantly more popular than the national GOP. What's just as striking is the breakdown when Brown is pitted against Warren's Democratic rivals for the nomination (she currently has four). Brown leads every other Democrat by at least 10 points.
We're still more than 13 months away from election day, so the usual disclaimer applies: everything could change. But barring some sort of catastrophic gaffe—say, Warren deciding to shake hands in the cold at Fenway Park in a John Lackey jersey—this is shaping into the marquee Senate race of 2012. And Warren has come a long way from the days when time said she'd rather stab herself in the eye than move to Capitol Hill.