2012 - %3, May

Heartland Institute Adviser: "The People That Warm Spells Kill Are Already Moribund"

| Tue May 22, 2012 7:35 PM EDT

The Heartland Institute

This story first appeard on the Guardian website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

It was an odd choice of icon for the ultra-conservative Heartland Institute. But there he was in round glasses, beard, and halo of curls staring out from T-shirts and coffee mugs at their gathering of climate change contrarians this week, the scientist whose internet sting set Heartland on its current course of collapse.

Heartland's seventh climate conference, which runs until Wednesday, was a much diminished event, compared to earlier lavish gatherings which spilled out over several floors of a hotel in New York City's Times Square and attracted up to 800 followers.

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Obama in 2008: Not That Positive

| Tue May 22, 2012 6:21 PM EDT

Slate's Dave Weigel offers an important corrective for the amenesia about Obama's supposedly positive 2008 campaign:

The myth that Obama ran a Different Kind of Campaign is based on a few bold bets -- like rejecting an early summer gas tax holiday -- that paid off. But we're also talking about a campaign that completely fabricated an anti-NAFTA position, and a campaign that tipped off Ben Smith to the haircut that destroyed John Edwards.* We're talking about a campaign that outspent John McCain by as much as a 3-1 ratio in the final stretch, and devoted most of that money to negative ads. The "hope and change" campaign was the happy cover on a dogged, overwhelming attack campaign. It used to benefit Democrats to obscure this; now, it benefits Republicans.

The most memorable negative ad the Obama campaign ran was the "fundamentals" ad, which mocked Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) saying "fundamentals of our economy are strong" and was apparently cut the afternoon of the day McCain said it. There are a lot of contrasts between 2008 and 2012, but a willingness to go negative isn't one of them. Journalists hyping Obama "going negative" this time around are probably just reacting to the fact that the president faces a much closer election than he did four years ago.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Is One Superhero's Same-Sex Marriage an Existential Threat to Comic Book Marriages?

| Tue May 22, 2012 4:47 PM EDT
Superhero marriages are pretty extravagant.

Marvel Comics' Northstar, a French-Candian superhero who came out as gay in the 1990s, is getting married to his longtime boyfriend Kyle. Jill Pantozzi at The Mary Sue explains:

In a press release Axel Alonso, Marvel Editor in Chief, said, "The Marvel Universe has always reflected the world outside your window, so we strive to make sure our characters, relationships and stories are grounded in that reality. We've been working on this story for over a year to ensure Northstar and Kyle’s wedding reflects Marvel's 'world outside your window' tradition."

Judging by the images, Northstar and Kyle appear to be getting married in New York, which legalized same-sex marriage last year. Popular culture has played a significant role in humanizing gays and lesbians to straight audiences—Vice President Joe Biden literally (literally) cited the NBC sitcom Will & Grace as contributing to his "evolution" on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Like many other subcultures, comic book geeks can veer from the open-minded to the distressingly homophobic. Marvel rival DC Comics will soon be letting one of its established characters out of the closet, which for the reasons Alyssa Rosenberg outlines here seems much more risky than a same-sex wedding. Marrying off Northstar, who's long been understood to be gay, is different from altering an existing character. Comic book geeks, you must understand, are frequently possessing of a Burkean reverance for tradition. Same-sex marriage is no big deal, but a writer who changes the color of Superman's costume could get burned in effigy.

Given how some corners of the conservative media reacted to Marvel introducing a black, Latino Spider-Man last year, we can probably expect some culture war rage over this latest attempt to warp the minds of children into thinking that gays and lesbians are people. But take heart, anti-marriage equality conservatives! Comic book marriages tend to be doomed, because happily ever after doesn't work out so well when you have to keep writing new adventures every week. Between telepathic affairs, space-time continuum altering Faustian bargains, homicidal rage, and plain old continuity reboots, Northstar's straight colleagues face existential threats to their unions that are far more serious than a gay superhero getting hitched. Those existential threats are a lot like the "existential threat" marriage equality supposedly poses to "traditional marriage" in that they're also entirely fictional.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

The Catholic Legal Assault on the Contraception Mandate

| Tue May 22, 2012 4:16 PM EDT

On Monday, 40 Catholic agencies and institutions across the country launched a veritable legal holy war against the Obama administration, filing coordinated lawsuits against the Department of Health and Human Services over the proposed contraception mandate in the new health care reform law. The effort is being spearheaded by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which has been clashing with the Obama administration for months over the mandate and other White House decisions that the bishops view as anti-Catholic.

The church certainly brings a lot of money and high-powered legal fire to the fight—the lawsuits were filed by the Jones Day law firm, where Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once worked. But the Catholics' legal arguments may not be terribly persuasive, in large part because it's hard for them to get around the fact that they are asking for the right to impose their religious beliefs on a lot of people who don't follow them.

Civil libertarians think the administration is on very solid footing in defending the mandate. "This lawsuit is outrageous," said Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement to Mother Jones. Under the current proposal, church-related institutions don't have to pay for birth control services. Apparently that isn't enough. The bishops want US government health care policy to reflect Catholic teachings, and they're looking to the courts to get what they want. The Obama administration should stand firm. Americans should not be denied birth control services just because one aggressive religious group is opposed to it."

This is the second time in recent months that Catholic institutions have been in court defending their right to deny people of all stripes access to contraception. The ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project recently won its lawsuit against HHS over a federal grant through which USCCB provided services to human trafficking victims. The bishops had refused to allow subcontractors to use the federal money to refer women for reproductive health services. In 2009, the ACLU filed suit arguing that under the contract the USCCB (and by extension, the federal government) was unconstitutionally foisting Catholic religious beliefs on the larger public. (The Obama administration last year refused to renew the contract, prompting even more outrage from USCCB, which accused the administration of operating an "ABC policy," or "Anyone But Catholics.")

The arguments over the anti-trafficking contract echo the ones the Catholic agencies are currently making in their legal campaign against the contraception mandate. Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, says that the Catholic groups are likely to lose their lawsuits over the contraception mandate as well. She explains:

The original rule was perfectly constitutional. In fact, more than half the states already require insurance plans to include contraception, several with very narrow exceptions and some with no exception at all. Many of these laws were passed with broad, bi-partisan support. And now, with the modifications proposed by the Administration, any lingering concerns about the rule's constitutionality should be put to rest. Institutions with religious objections won't be required to contribute to birth control coverage for their employees. And in fact, the high courts in California and New York have rejected claims that requiring birth control coverage violates the First Amendment.

Real religious freedom gives everyone the right to make personal decisions, including whether and when to use birth control, based on our beliefs. It doesn't give one group the right to impose its beliefs on others, or to use religion as an excuse to discriminate by denying employees access to vital services. The fight they are waging isn't about religious liberty at all, but about whether a woman should have insurance coverage for birth control. When you stop and think about it, it's incredible that this is an issue in 2012. 

Rich People vs. Wildlife Conservation Trusts

| Tue May 22, 2012 1:35 PM EDT

It's long been clear that the super rich often believe that the law is just a minor annoyance that expensive lawyers can find away around, especially if it involves off-shore tax havens. Now, apparently, some of them are training their sights on legal restrictions that prevent them from cutting down trees to maximize the panoramic views of their country estates or expand their private jet runways.

Over the past few decades, land owners hoping to preserve wilderness areas or green space have created hundreds of conservation easements that they have then donated to land trusts. This is supposed to ensure that any future owners of the property abide by the environmental conservation restrictions. But lately, according to the New York Times, the nation's land trusts are winding up in epic legal battles with property owners who have bought land covered by such easements and proceeded to ignore them.

The Times reports on cases where wealthy property owners had ignored conservation easements to cut down hundreds of trees on wetlands, built a gravel road over a protected trout stream, and installed a manorial lawn and gardens on land required to remain in a natural wilderness state. Such flagrant violations have forced underfunded land trusts to sue the property owners to prevent more violations and to remedy the damage if possible. The Times notes that the legal battles have a common denominator: "the wealth of the property owners challenging restrictions." The legal battles have become so ubiquitious that the land trusts have been forced to set up an insurance company to help them pay the bills. The trusts typically win the cases, but which can take a decade or more to resolve, as the Times reports:

In East Haddam, Conn., defending one case against a landowner took almost a decade and cost the local trust $415,000, about half of which was covered by insurance. "It nearly brought us to our knees," said Anita Ballek, a co-founder of the East Haddam Land Trust.

The story was buried in the Sunday Times, but was a depressing piece of news, especially for people who had set up the easements in the first place to preserve their little corner of nature. The penalty for cutting down hundreds of protected trees could be a decade of expensive litigation, but the rich offenders will continue to enjoy the unobstructed views from their verandas in the meantime. And of course, once old tress are cut down, it will be decades before they return to their original state, if ever.

Congress Talk Pretty One Day

| Tue May 22, 2012 1:24 PM EDT
Congress lost theirs.

A recent study by the Sunlight Foundation found that Congress is a lot like Benjamin Button. But instead of reverse-aging, members of Congress are regressing in their ability to form complex sentences.

According to the analysis, members of the House and Senate currently speak at roughly a 10th grade level—almost a full grade lower than in 2005. Republicans come in at a 10.4 grade level average, while Democrats perform slightly better at a 10.8. (The study was based on algorithmic analysis—similar to methods used to chart Congressional buzzwords—of floor speeches delivered through April 25, 2012.)

Politico has a rundown:

The study also revealed that only 10 members of Congress have used at least 20 of Kaplan's 100 most common SAT words so far in the current session of Congress, while just 92 members have used at least 10 of those words...[T]he U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 level, and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 level (an analysis by the University of Minnesota showed that President Barack Obama's State of the Union this year had an 8th grade comprehension level – the third lowest score of any SOTU address since 1934).

Here's are a couple of charts from the study:

Sunlight FoundationSunlight Foundation

On its surface, this will probably read like yet another cue to bash the stupidity of our much-derided Congress. But determining the substance or effectiveness of something based on its "grade level" isn't an exact science. People might want to keep this fact in mind: 

You could plausibly argue that our nation's rhetoric has been somewhat dumbed down over the past few years. But great politicians have always tried to speak in populist terms. It shouldn't shock anyone to learn that elected officials don't often channel Aaron Sorkin. If you want to mock the 112th Congress, you run the risk of looking silly if you chuckle at politicians' word choices or the length of their speeches.

Instead, simply highlight their ideas.

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Leave Private Equity Aloooone!

| Tue May 22, 2012 12:45 PM EDT
A screenshot from the latest Obama campaign ad tying Mitt Romney to Bain Capital.

Cory Booker's not alone. A number of other Democrats are criticizing the Obama campaign's decision to attack Mitt Romney for his work at the private equity firm Bain Capital. Here's former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford

"Private equity is not a bad thing," Ford said. "As a matter of fact, private equity is a good thing in many, many instances."

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell called the attack on Bain "disappointing":

"I think they’re very disappointing," Rendell said of the ads attacking Bain. "I think Bain is fair game, because Romney has made it fair game. But I think how you examine it, the tone, what you say, is important as well."

So what's going on here? It seems to be a pretty straightforward case of Democrats not wanting to bite the hands that feed them. Josh Israel at Thinkprogress writes that Booker's first mayoral campaign received large contributions from people who work for Bain and the financial services industry. Ford got Bain money, too—the firm is listed on Open Secrets as his sixth-largest contributor in 2006 cycle. Rendell also received sizeable contributions from the financial services industry. Overall, as my colleague Asawin Suebsaeng noted months ago, Bain Capital's employees have given more to Democrats than Republicans. (Obama himself received a good chunk of change from Bain employees.) 

Demonizing entire professsions is part of politics in the United States. Just ask a trial lawyer, a community organizer, or a Harvard professor. No one is above criticism obviously, but there's something bizarre about watching high-profile Democrats wring their hands over criticism of private equity, particularly given the beating teachers and other public workers have received over the past three years for their alleged "greed." Despite the alarming level of sensitivity over the feelings of financial services executives, private equity isn't going anywhere, particularly not when the industry can afford to have such ardent defenders in both parties. 

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Romney Education Adviser and His Dropout Scandal

| Tue May 22, 2012 12:26 PM EDT
Mitt Romney.

With President Barack Obama on a tear in recent weeks to keep interest rates on college loans low—an issue that plays well with young voters—Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, on Tuesday unveiled his Education Policy Advisory Group. It features at least ten education experts who served during the George W. Bush administration, most notably Rod Paige, who was education secretary during Bush's first term. The short bio of Paige released by the Romney campaign states that he once was superintendent of Houston's schools. But it fails to mention that Paige, once he was in Bush's cabinet, became mired in an ugly scandal, when the news broke that the Houston school system, the seventh largest in the nation, had falsified its dropout stats during Paige's tenure.

As the Los Angeles Times put it:

A series of internal audits and external investigations that followed found that nearly all of the schools examined in Houston, with the nation's seventh-largest school district and where U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige had been superintendent, were vastly underreporting dropouts.

A New York Times editorial explained why this was particularly embarrassing for Bush and Paige:

As a presidential candidate and Texas governor, George Bush boasted that his state's school accountability system would be a model for the nation. A focus on basic skills and frequent testing had turned around an underperforming set of school systems in a state with a large poor, nonwhite population. In particular, he said, Houston was leading the way. When he was elected president, Mr. Bush selected Rod Paige, the Houston superintendent, as his education secretary.

It turns out the Houston schools have not lived up to their billing. Their amazingly low high school dropout rate was literally unbelievable—the educational equivalent of Enron's accounting results. The school district has found that more than half of the 5,500 students who left in the 2000-1 school year should have been declared dropouts but were not.

Dr. Paige, who has declined to comment on the Houston scandal, can remain silent no longer. He was brought to Washington to provide national educational leadership. With Houston facing a crisis of fiddled data, he owes it to the country to share his thoughts on how this happened and what it means.

Several years later, when 60 Minutes was reporting on the Houston dropout scandal, Paige still wouldn't explain his role: 

60 Minutes also tried to talk to Paige himself, but he declined. His spokesman said the dropout controversy broke after Paige left Houston to become education secretary....

Paige's spokesman suggested that 60 Minutes talk to Jay Greene, a leading expert on dropouts at the Manhattan Institute. Greene supports the kind of accountability reforms Paige enacted in Houston.

But this is what Greene said when asked what he thought about Houston's "official" dropout rates: "I find that very hard to believe. It is almost certainly not true. I think it's simply implausible. I think a reasonable guess is that almost half of Houston's students do not graduate from high school."

If Paige has ever publicly spoken candidly about what happened on his watch in Houston, I couldn't find it. Yet Romney has tapped him as a "special adviser" on education (a move that didn't happen during the GOP primaries, when Romney had to appeal to a base that included conservative voters skeptical of the Bush adminstration's No Child Left Behind legislation, which Paige helped develop). By selecting this former Bush official, Romney once again is rushing back to the future—and embracing a fellow who called for accountability for schools but ducked accountability for himself.

The American Race War That's Not Happening

| Tue May 22, 2012 10:21 AM EDT
As you can see from this picture of Obama and several advisers in the Oval Office, white people can't get a break in Obama's America.

Buzzfeed's McKay* Coppins published a story on Sunday about the Obama-inspired race war being waged against whites by legions of uppity Negroes. In paragraph 23, Coppins explains it's all a myth:

Indeed, the irony of the race war narrative's latest flare-up is that it comes at a time when national crime rates have reached historic lows — including reported hate crimes against whites. According to a report released by the FBI, there were 575 anti-white bias crimes reported in 2010 — up slightly from the 545 reported in 2009, but distinctly lower than the 716 reported in 2008. Overall, the past decade has seen a downward trend in anti-white bias crime. What's more, hate crimes against blacks have continued to outstrip those against whites by about four-to-one: In 2010 alone, there were 2,201 reported. Violent crimes across the spectrum reached a four-decade low in 2010.

As Coppins writes, the conservative "race war" narrative is largely about flooding the zone with stories of white persecution in order to blunt liberals' charges of racism, which conservatives believe are unfair. That strategy, in and of itself, reflects the conservative view that racism against minorities is largely nonexistent; that disparities in wealth, employment, and education are simply manifestations of self-perpetuating discrepancies in human capital; and that the only reason anyone ever brings up race or racism is as a political weapon. Moreover, the notion that explicit racial violence is the only accurate barometer for bigotry ignores the uncountable ways institutional prejudice can sustain itself without explicit violence. Even if hate crimes in 2010 were slightly higher in 2008 instead of being lower, that wouldn't alter the fact that more young black men were "randomly" stopped and frisked in New York City than there are young black men in New York City.

The more disturbing implications of the newfound conservative focus on "black-on-white violence" is the idea that allowing black people to rise to positions of authority places white people in physical danger. Or as Rush Limbaugh so concisely put it, "[I]n Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering." (We can assume an exception for allowing Republican African-Americans to rise to positions of power. As Ann Coulter put it, "Our blacks are so much better than their blacks.")

The conservative race war argument—that if "those people" get something, you're going to lose, or perhaps even get beaten up—is well-suited for a world of budget cuts and public-sector layoffs. The smaller the pie, the more hostile people get to the idea of sharing, particularly with those who are "undeserving." It also helps explain why some people might have thought that now-disavowed ad tying Barack Obama to Jeremiah Wright was a good idea. If you're working back from a predetermined conclusion that the Obama agenda is the product of anti-white racism, you're primed for the ad's explanation that Wright is responsible for a still-sluggish economy.

*An earlier version of this post mispelled McKay Coppins' first name.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Iowa Republican Party Goes Birther

| Tue May 22, 2012 9:42 AM EDT
It's all fun and games until you're thrown off the ballot in Iowa.

As the old saying goes, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as the Republican Party of Iowa.

Via Felicia Sonmez, it looks like the Iowa GOP has gone birther. On Monday, Don Racheter, chairman of the Iowa GOP's 2012 platform committee, told Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson about the state party's new platform. Racheter said the document, which is still being drafted, was deliberately written to call into question President Barack Obama's eligibility for office by including a plank mandating that the commander-in-chief be a "natural born citizen":

There are many Republicans who feel that Barack Obama is not a 'natural born citizen' because his father was not an American when he was born and, therefore, feel that according to the Constitution he’s not qualified to be president, should not have been allowed to be elected by the Electoral College or even nominated by the Democratic Party in 2008, so this is an election year. It's a shot at him.

This comes just one week after Arizona Secretary of State—and Mitt Romney Arizona campaign co-chair—Ken Bennett announced that he might try to keep Obama off the ballot in November unless he can see an original copy of the President's birth certificate. Just when you think birtherism might fade away, it pops up, Jamie Moyer-style, with a surgically reconstructed elbow and a seemingly unending trove of heretofore-undisclosed evidence.

The rest of the Iowa GOP's platform is itself a somewhat spectacular document. The platform says much about the tone and tenor of the conservative grassroots five-and-a-half months out from election day. It advocates nullification of federal laws, the abolition of 10 cabinet-level departments (plus the TSA, FDA, ATF, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac), an end to birthright citizenship, and "the implementation of Lean Six Sigma" at all levels of government. It calls for the rejection of "UN Treaty on the Rights of the Child" (which social conservatives fear will curtail the perfectly justified practice of spanking), aims for the term "assault weapon" to be redefined as something other than a semi-automatic weapon, and asserts that "all individuals have the freedom to choose the quality of air in their home." The "so-called 'NAFTA Superhighway'"—which doesn't exist—should be scuttled. There are 14 different planks pertaining to the United Nations and the North American Union, most notably the pro-sustainability Agenda 21 pact, which the Iowa GOP considers "diabolical."

Update: The Iowa Democratic Party, which is apparently totally fine with having United Nations mullahs regulate your household air quality, wants Mitt Romney to condemn the platform:

This particular Republican conspiracy theory has been debunked time and time again and will have no bearing on the election, but it does present an opportunity for Mitt Romney to finally rise to the occasion and denounce the extreme voices in his party.