2009 - %3, May

How Many Nuke Tests Until North Korea Matches the US?

| Tue May 26, 2009 3:08 PM EDT

Talk abounds of North Korea's decision to conduct a second nuclear test over the weekend. The old thinking on Pyongyang was that it was just a problem child that used nukes to get attention. But as Glenn Kessler points out in the Washington Post, in the form of the Obama administration Kim Jong Il has found a negotiating partner whose stated goal is to "demonstrate that engagement with hostile nations is more effective than antagonism."  That, apparently, is not enough to keep him from rattling his saber, and has intelligence analysts all over Washington working to attribute new motivations to North Korea's antagonistic behavior. For their part, the North Koreans issued an official statement, saying "the nuclear test will contribute to protecting the sovereignty of the country and the nation and socialism, and ensuring peace and security on the Korean peninsula and neighboring region." We'll see about that. South Korea and Japan certainly didn't view the test as a peaceful gesture. 

Beneath all the hub-bub, though, is an interesting statistic. The AP reports that nuclear weapons have been detonated 2,054 times since 1945. How many will it take for North Korea to catch up with the the world's most prolific tester of doomsday weapons, the United States? Answer: 1,030. Consider the AP's numbers:

UNITED STATES - 1,032

RUSSIA (SOVIET UNION) - 715

FRANCE - 210

CHINA - 45

BRITAIN - 45

INDIA - 3

PAKISTAN - 2

NORTH KOREA - 2

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Gay Marriage in California

| Tue May 26, 2009 1:19 PM EDT

The latest on Prop 8 from the LA Times:

The California Supreme Court today upheld Proposition 8's ban on same-sex marriage but also ruled that gay couples who wed before the election will continue to be married under state law.

....Although the court split 6-1 on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the justices were unanimous in deciding to keep intact the marriages of as many as 18,000 gay couples who exchanged vows before the election. The marriages began last June, after a 4-3 state high court ruling striking down the marriage ban last May.

This doesn't surprise me on either count.  The argument that Prop 8 was a constitutional "revision" requiring a two-thirds vote, not a constitutional amendment requiring a majority vote, never seemed legally defensible.  At the same time, all the marriages performed prior to Prop 8 were as legal as church on Sunday.  I don't know if even an initiative could retroactively annul them, but at the very least it would need to do so specifically and directly, which Prop 8 didn't.

But it might soon be moot anyway.  Prop 8 passed by only a bare majority, and public sentiment is continuing to change.  An initiative to legalize gay marriage might well pass in 2010, and if it doesn't it certainly will by 2012 or 2014 at the latest.  Time is on the side of the good guys.

Is Trojan Squeezing Out The Competition?

| Tue May 26, 2009 12:53 PM EDT

Condoms are not things people tend to linger over before buying, comparing prices and such. Unlike greeting cards, these purchases tend to be more of the grab and go variety. So the condom maker that can command the best real estate on store shelves is definitely going to have the upper hand. A quick survey suggests that the ubiquitous Trojan wins that battle, hands down. Apparently, this is no accident.

According to the trade pub FTC: Watch, the Federal Trade Commission wants to know whether Church & Dwight, the maker of Trojan condoms, has made illicit deals to ensure that its battery-powered vibrating rings and other products get the best possible store placement. The FTC is investigating whether the condom maker is unlawfully squeezing out Lifestyles and other smaller competitors through such arrangements.  Who'd a thought a company so perennially linked to safe-sex campaigns and public restroom quickies could also be a ruthless corporate actor? If the FTC finds the condom-maker violated anti-trust laws, condom-buyers everywhere might be treated to a better variety of latex behind the counter at their local 7-11--without having to linger.
 

Breakdown of Prop. 8 Decision

| Tue May 26, 2009 12:36 PM EDT

At 10 a.m. this morning, the California Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 to uphold Proposition 8. In doing so, they ruled that the 18,000 gay marriages already performed in California would be valid, but that going forward, "marriage" in California will only be between "a man and a woman." The judges' decision is about 50,000 words, so in summary, they said they based it on two main issues: 1) whether Proposition 8 was a constitutional amendment or a constitutional revision, and 2) if Proposition 8 would significantly infringe upon gay people's constitutional rights.

In the first issue, the court referenced the large number of amendments to the California constitution that have been passed since the 1800s and determined, using the requirements for both a revision and amendment, that Proposition 8 was just one of many amendments, not the larger, rarer, revisions. (You can read the entire decision here). The second issue is far more contentious. The judges found that allowing only opposite-sex partners to have the designation of the term "marriage" was not in itself an abrogation of gay citizen's rights. As they wrote:

"Contrary to petitioners’ assertion, Proposition 8 does not entirely repeal or abrogate the aspect of a same-sex couple’s state constitutional right of privacy and due process that was analyzed in the majority opinion in the Marriage Cases—that is, the constitutional right of same-sex couples to “choose one’s life partner and enter with that person into a committed, officially recognized, and protected family relationship that enjoys all of the constitutionally based incidents of marriage”  (Marriage Cases, supra, 43 Cal.4th at p. 829). 

Essentially, the judges said that because same-sex couples have so many rights in California already, they don't need the official designation of "marriage." Protection of gay people's rights under California law, the judges ruled, "has not generally been repealed or eliminated by Proposition 8." While the judges did say that they understood same-sex couples' desire for the term "marriage," they emphasized that their task was "not to determine whether the provision at issue is wise or sound as a matter of policy or whether we, as individuals, believe it should be a part of the California Constitution."

The crowds in San Francisco, however, who started gathering at the city's Civic Center early this morning, were not satisfied with the judges' opinion that they don't need the term "marriage" to define their unions. As of about 30 minutes ago, 200+ protesters were blocking traffic in downtown San Francisco. Protesting is all well and good, but what's next? Most likely, a new ballot measure in 2010 that would overturn Proposition 8. One good thing from the ruling: now that the judges have ruled that Proposition 8 was an amendment, next year's pro-gay marriage ballot measure would also likely be ruled an amendment and could supplant Proposition 8. For the 90-second YouTube explanation of what's next, filmed on location in San Francisco, click here.

 

Waiting for the Meltdown

| Tue May 26, 2009 11:57 AM EDT

Leaving aside Jonah Goldberg's contention that Sonia Sotomayor is "the most left-leaning Hispanic possible/confirmable" Supreme Court nomination, this actually strikes me as an interesting point:

If Obama picked a centrist, opposition would have been principled, but pro-forma. By picking Sotomayor, conservatives will no doubt demand full-throated opposition, which plays perfectly to Obama's purposes (so long as he doesn't dump Sotomayor for some, any, reason). I don't think this was the key factor in his decision, but you can be sure the White House will love casting conservative opposition in those terms.

I also doubt that this was a key factor, but it wouldn't surprise me if a few people in the West Wing did indeed figure that this was a nice bonus.  The wingnut wing of the Republican Party seems hugely energized by Sotomayor's nomination and ready to go ballistic over it.  This might be good for them in the short term (it's a nice fundraising opportunity, brings internal factions together, etc.), but Obama, as usual, is looking a few moves ahead and understands that a shrieking meltdown from the usual suspects will mostly help the liberal cause: the American public already thinks the conservative rump running the Republican Party is crazy, after all, and this will help cast that feeling in stone.  Most normal people think empathy is a good thing, not a code word for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

And Obama?  He gets to be the calm at the center of the storm, providing his usual striking contrast to the seething stew of preachers, radio screamers, and Gingrich acolytes who will be making themselves ever more tiresome to Mr. and Mrs. Heartland with their ranting jeremiads.  I don't blame conservatives for opposing Sotomayor even though they know that she'd only be replaced by someone equally liberal if they did somehow manage to derail her (liberals did the same with Roberts and Alito, after all), but if they're smart they'll realize that the usual shriekfest is playing right into Obama's hands.

But they're not smart, are they?

North Korea

| Tue May 26, 2009 10:45 AM EDT

Dan Drezner remarks on the DPRK's recent nuclear test:

I think the Obama administration has come up with a novel way of dealing with the North Koreans — get everyone to talk about something else.

That is novel — at least compared to the nonsense normally spewed by the Bush administration every time Kim Jong-il decided to yank their chains.  And in any case, if meaningless bluster isn't your thing, there aren't a whole lot of choices available:

The alternatives to the repeated short-term carrot strategy are even less appealing.  There is no viable military option unless everyone is comfortable with the destruction of Seoul; there is no viable sanctions option unless China decides to cut off the energy tap, and they'll only do this if they're sure it won't lead to a stream of North Korea refugees entering Manchuria.

In other words, there's really not a lot we can do about this unless China, against all odds, (a) finally tires of Pyongyang's antics, (b) beefs up its suprisingly porous border with North Korea, and (c) decides to cut off aid.  There's some evidence of (a), but not much for anything else.

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The Sotomayor Nomination

| Tue May 26, 2009 9:55 AM EDT

Jack Balkin thinks that Barack Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is likely to go smoothly:

Senators are just as aware of the politics of appointments as Obama is.  Obama will likely need one or two Republicans to avoid any threat of a fillibuster; a candidate who appeals to important constituencies that Republicans also need will be harder to oppose and can help provide the 60th vote. Also helpful may be the fact that Sotomayor was first appointed to the bench by a Republican and is being positioned as a moderate or pragmatic liberal. In this respect, the careful positioning of Sotomayor as not the most liberal candidate Obama was considering helps to make her confirmation easier and also helps establish Obama's own image as a non-doctrinaire pragmatist.

But if you prefer to be prepared for the worst, Tom Goldstein at ScotusBlog outlines the most likely lines of attack against her:

Opponents’ first claim — likely stated obliquely and only on background — will be that Judge Sotomayor is not smart enough for the job....The second claim – and this one will be front and center – will be the classic resort to ideology:  that Judge Sotomayor is a liberal ideologue and “judicial activist.”....The third claim — related to the second — will be that Judge Sotomayor is unprincipled or dismissive of positions with which she disagrees....Finally, critics will characterize her as gruff and impersonable, relying on excerpts from oral arguments and anonymous criticisms in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary.

There's more at both links.  In the end, I don't think Sotomayor will have any real trouble winning confirmation.

Gun Owners Stockpiling Ammo in Anticipation of Tougher Regulation

| Tue May 26, 2009 9:51 AM EDT

The economy is in the toilet, but there's at least one industry that appears to be going great guns (sorry...): the firearms business, particularly the firms that manufacture ammunition for American gun owners. You may have read Yasha Levine's piece about the surge in ammo sales in Victorville, California, where, Levine reports, fears of tighter gun regulations under the Obama administration have given way to a new kind of arms race.

The same phenomenon exists in Montana. According to the Missoulian, ammo is racing off the shelves at a record pace. Darren Newsom, owner of Bitterroot Valley Ammunition's three local manufacturing facilities, told a reporter that his company produces 300,000 rounds a day, but is still unable to meet demand. "We probably have about six months of back orders right now," he said, adding that he sold more than 300,000 rounds in just two hours at a recent gun show. "It's just unreal... Somewhere in lots of basements around the country, there are millions of rounds of ammunition being stored." 

Pelosi Considering Republican for Commission Investigating Financial Crisis

| Tue May 26, 2009 9:36 AM EDT

Is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acceding to Republican demands that the membership of a special commission to investigate the global economic crisis be evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats? The 10-member commission was originally slated to have a 6-4 split in favor of the Democrats. Earlier this month, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, urged Pelosi to follow the model of the 9-11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, on which both parties were equally represented. He may be getting his wish: at her weekly press briefing on Friday Pelosi suggested that she had a Republican in mind for one of her two picks.   

Previously, a Pelosi spokesman had been quick to defend the idea of a panel made up of six Democrats and four Republicans. While asserting that the speaker would choose the "most qualified" people regardless of political affiliation, the spokesman argued that 50-50 commissions have been the exception, not the rule, in recent years. He even sent Mother Jones a detailed set of commission-related statistics:

Counting all the commissions identified by CRS Report R40076 and subtracting out the commemorative commissions (such as the Ben Franklin Tercentenary Commission), there are a total of 23 congressional commissions created by legislation between the 107th and 110th Congress (2001-2008).

Of these 23 commissions:

7 had an even partisan split

4 had a one-appointment advantage to the majority party

8 had a super-majority advantage to the majority party

4 were appointed entirely by the executive branch, with only recommendations or consultation with congressional leaders

Pelosi's spokesman, Nadeam Elshami, also noted that two other bills introduced by House Republicans would have created similar bodies with majority-Democratic memberships. Plus, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who sponsored the original Senate amendment creating the commission, has said he thinks Republicans are already getting a fair shake, even if they're outnumbered on the panel.

So why is Pelosi bowing to Issa's demands?  Maybe she has come around to the view that an even split would help the commision's credibility. Or maybe she just thinks she's found the best person for the job.

Obama to Nominate Sonia Sotomayor to Supreme Court

| Tue May 26, 2009 9:04 AM EDT

President Barack Obama will nominate Sonia Sotomayor, a judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court, numerous sources are reporting. What you need to know right now:

Judge Sotomayor, 54, who has served for more than a decade on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals based in New York City, would become the nation’s 111th justice, replacing David H. Souter, who is retiring after 19 years on the bench. Although Justice Souter was appointed by the first President George Bush, he became a mainstay of the liberal faction on the court and so his replacement by Judge Sotomayor likely would not shift the overall balance of power.

But her appointment would add a second woman to the nine-member court and give Hispanics their first seat.

President Obama is set to announce the nomination in a statement at 10:15 EST. More on this as it develops.