The Fetus Video Described by Carly Fiorina Was Just Released in Full. It Still Means Absolutely Nothing.

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 12:58 PM EDT

On Tuesday, an anti-abortion activist released the full recording of the video discussed by Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina during a GOP debate earlier this month. In her remarks, Fiorina memorably described the video showing a "fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

Time first reported the full video today, despite the fact that activist Gregg Cunningham was unable to confirm where the video was found or if it even had anything to do with Planned Parenthood.

"I am neither confirming or denying the affiliation of the clinic who did this abortion," Cunningham told Time

The video was released just hours ahead of today's much anticipated Planned Parenthood hearing before the House Oversight Committee, where Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood's president, is speaking before Congress for the first time to defend the health organization against Republican attacks. The push to defund the organization comes in the wake of an ongoing sting campaign using secretly recorded and selectively edited videos that suggest Planned Parenthood officials are discussing the sale of fetal tissues from abortions.

Fiorina's description of the abortion video during the September GOP debate was quickly praised by conservatives and her overall performance catapulted her to second place in several polls among the slew of Republican presidential hopefuls. But after the video described by Fiorina was questioned, her supporters scrambled to create their own abortion video using heavily edited footage of several different clips.

Cunningham's refusal to state the video's source on Tuesday, combined with Time's own observation that "there are no images on the full video of any attempt to harvest the brain of the fetus, and there is no sound," was ignored by many on social media who still insist the full recording lends credibility to Fiorina's initial description.

But our own Kevin Drum points out the problem:

The video was not taken at a Planned Parenthood clinic. The fetus shows some reflexive movement, but that's all. No one says the fetus has to be kept alive. No one harvests the brain.

But other than that, Fiorina was 100 percent correct!

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Snowden Just Joined Twitter. Guess Who His First Follow Is.

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 12:33 PM EDT

Fugitive leaker Edward Snowden has bunkered down in Russia, but he has remained in the public eye via media interviews, Skype chats, and the like. And now he's taken another step at increasing his profile: He's joined Twitter.

On Tuesday, he put out his first tweet.

And, in a way, he trolled the former government agency he once worked for as a contractor: His first and, initially, only follow was an NSA Twitter account.

Within half an hour of being a tweeter, Snowden had nearly 65,000 followers. As of now, the NSA has 74,000 followers.

Update: Snowden's first Twitter exchange was with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who welcomed Snowden to Twitter. Snowden replied:

Conservatives Have a New Worst Enemy: Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 12:16 PM EDT

In a story which appeared sometime in the past few days,1 LA Times reporter David Savage notes something that's been nibbling at the back of my mind but hadn't quite made it to the front. It's about Chief Justice John Roberts:

He voted against gay marriage, in favor of weakening a federal law against racial bias in housing and for the Arizona Republicans who challenged the state’s independent panel that draws election districts. He joined 5-4 majorities to block an Obama administration clean-air rule and to uphold a state's use of substitute drugs to carry out lethal injections.

But as Roberts this week marks the 10th anniversary of becoming chief justice, he finds himself in the crosshairs of right-leaning pundits and GOP presidential hopefuls who brand him a disappointment and openly question his conservative credentials because of the one case of the six in which he voted with the court’s liberals. The decision marked the second time Roberts had voted to uphold President Obama’s healthcare law.

Roberts has indeed been getting a lot of flak from conservatives, despite the fact that on high-profile cases he's been pretty much a conservative's dream. The only big case in which he deviated was Obamacare. But whether conservatives like it or not, this really does demonstrate a very conservative sense of judicial restraint. Obamacare was a historic and substantial piece of legislation duly passed by Congress and signed by the president shortly after a landslide election, and in the end Roberts was unwilling to strike it down on a thin pretext.

But relitigating Obamacare isn't the point here. The point is that this is the only major case where Roberts has deviated from political conservatism, and he's been practically disowned because of it. Compare that to the fate of liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. They both joined conservatives in striking down mandatory Medicaid expansion, a major piece of the law. Liberals were almost unanimously aghast.2 But that was it. It was one case. There's been no big movement among liberals to disown them and demand that future presidents appoint more reliably liberal justices.

Now, you can argue that conservatives have good reason to be ultra-vigilant, having been serially disappointed by justices Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter. Still, this backlash against Roberts carries real risks for conservatives:

That same month [when he upheld Obamacare for the second time], he joined with Kennedy and the court’s liberals to block most of an Arizona law that targeted immigrants living there illegally. Roberts agreed that federal authorities, not the states, had control over immigration policy.

Since then, [Brianne] Gorod says there has been some shift in Roberts’ votes and opinions. “He now occasionally breaks company with his conservative colleagues,” she said. “He is concerned about the reputation and legitimacy of the court. He’s also concerned about increasing partisanship in Washington. This doesn’t mean he is becoming a liberal.”

One of the things that conservatives have generally done better than liberals is to avoid mocking people who might one day join the cause. Here they're running the risk of doing just that. If conservatives make it clear that they now hate Roberts' guts, his tribal affiliations are going to weaken. That may not be judicially defensible, but it's human nature. If they don't want to end up with another David Souter, they should cool it on Roberts. Otherwise they might end up with one sooner than they think.

1It was on the front page of the print edition today. The search function says it doesn't exist at all. The online version—finally located via Google—says it went up on the 25th. Typical LA Times.

2Except for me. I continue to think it was the legally correct decision.

Carly Fiorina Now Even Wronger About Planned Parenthood Video

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 11:15 AM EDT

During the Republican debate earlier this month, Carly Fiorina referred to the Planned Parenthood sting videos made by the Center for Medical Progress: "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table," she said, "its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

That does not appear on the video. The video does include an interview with a technician who claims that she has seen this happen, and there's some spliced footage of an abortion used to illustrate her testimony. But that's it. Nevertheless, Fiorina has doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on the accuracy of her obviously inaccurate statement.

Today, the provider of the footage released the entire 13-minute video:

He [] made no claim that the images shown in the video had anything to do with Planned Parenthood, the organization that Fiorina and others have targeted for federal defunding. “I am neither confirming or denying the affiliation of the clinic who did this abortion,” Cunningham said.

....The full source video, which is extremely graphic, lasts about 13 minutes, and shows a fetus being extracted from the mother, placed in a metal bowl, prodded with medical instruments and handled by someone in the room. At times the fetus appears to move, and at other times it appears to have a pulse. There are no images on the full video of any attempt to harvest the brain of the fetus, and there is no sound. Cunningham said the jump cuts in the video are the result of the camera being turned off and on.

So there you have it. The video was not taken at a Planned Parenthood clinic. The fetus shows some reflexive movement, but that's all. No one says the fetus has to be kept alive. No one harvests the brain.

But other than that, Fiorina was 100 percent correct!

Trevor Noah Debuts on the "Daily Show" With Pledge to Continue "War on Bullshit"

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 9:24 AM EDT

Last night, Trevor Noah premiered as the new host of the Daily Show with a fresh round of jokes about the pope's recent visit to the United States and John Boehner's surprise decision to resign as House speaker late last week.

But before diving into the news of the hour, the South African comedian used his opening monologue to thank Jon Stewart for the opportunity and promised to continue fighting his predecessor's 16-year "war on bullshit."

"Jon Stewart was more than just a late-night host," Noah said. "He was often our voice, our refuge, and in many ways our political dad. It's weird, because Dad has left and now it feels like the family has a new stepdad—and he's black."

"Thank you, John," he continued. "Thank you for believing in me. I'm not quite sure what you saw in me, but I'll work hard everyday to find it. And I'll make you not look like the crazy old dude who left his inheritance to some random kid from Africa."

One Good Thing to Come Out of California's Drought Is This Luminous Book

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

What if, contrary to current El Niño predictions, California never again catches a break from drought? Such is the world imagined by Mojave Desert-bred Claire Vaye Watkins in her electrifying debut novel Gold Fame Citrus. 

Watkins was born in Bishop, California, a small city in the Sierra Nevada's eastern foothills, and grew up in parched territory nearby. She first made waves with her short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas prize and the New York Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Vogue called Watkins "the most captivating voice to come out of the West since Annie Proulx."

Gold Fame Citrus opens with young couple Luz and Ray eking out an existence in a vacant mansion in what was once Los Angeles, during a "drought of droughts," under the "ever-beaming, ever-heating, ever-evaporating sun." Bronzed Luz, wafer-thin and grimy, traipses around the mansion in a starlet's old robes, dodging rats and scorpions and living as "basically another woman's ghost," while Ray, usually shirtless with long, unbound curls, attempts to turn the villa into a survival bunker. 

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements.

In this vision of the not-so-distant future, the West has run dry. Its citizens, who had once crowded California in search of "gold, fame, citrus," are now referred to as Mojavs and are all mostly banned from the more lush parts of the country. Water is rationed in paltry jugs at precise points of the day.

While attending a demented raindance festival, Luz and Ray encounter a strange girl they call "Ig," who clings to the couple and soon thrusts herself into their lives. Afraid of the vagabonds who might come looking for Ig, the improvised family flees Southern California in a search for more fertile territory, passing nomads, forest graveyards, and anthropomorphized sand dunes along the way.

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements. While surrealist fiction is often striking for the fantastical scenery it conjures, Gold Fame Citrus haunted me with its references to objects I now take for granted. In a passage describing the only fruit still available in Luz and Ray's world, Watkins writes:

Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.

Just as she turns a familiar landscape into a mysterious and foreboding geography, Watkins breathes new life into words we thought we knew well. Gold Fame Citrus will hypnotize you like a dream, and make you want to take a big swig of the water we have left.

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There Are Thousands of Clinics That Could Replace Planned Parenthood, Right? Nope.

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

This week, the Congressional controversy over Planned Parenthood could come to a head as investigations continue through the House of Representatives. Today, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, will testify before the House Oversight Committee, one of several committees conducting an investigation in the wake of videos from anti-abortion activist David Daleiden, who is also expected to testify in the continuing discussion.

Most of the clinics listed don't even appear to have a certified OB-GYN on staff.

One of the claims they may address has been neatly presented in a map circulating on social media. The graphic claims that there are 13,540 clinics where women can find comprehensive health care, as opposed to a mere 665 Planned Parenthood locations. It has become a popular talking point in the conservative push to defund Planned Parenthood—most notably mentioned by Jeb Bush in the GOP debate earlier this month. The map in question seems to be referring to a list of clinics, organized by state, from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.

But what the graphic doesn't mention is that most of the clinics listed don't even appear to have a certified OB-GYN on staff. The clinics are mostly general practice, meaning they may lack equipment and expertise to deliver reproductive health care to women. It's not clear what criteria the groups circulating the map used to define viable options to replace Planned Parenthood's services, and the groups did not respond to requests for comment.

While the clinics on this list do accept Medicaid, they are not set up to take the massive influx of patients that would result from a shutdown of Planned Parenthood. What's more, many private reproductive health care clinics—those that aren't represented on the list—don't take Medicaid at all. That's because the program pays just a fraction of what private insurers will reimburse.

The claim that community clinics could replace Planned Parenthood represents "a fundamental misunderstanding of how the health care system works."

Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, is set up to handle large numbers of Medicaid patients. Nearly half of all Planned Parenthood patients use Medicaid coverage, and more than a third of women who receive publicly funded family planning care rely on Planned Parenthood.

Mark DeFrancesco, president of the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, says it's common for practitioners not to accept Medicaid patients, because the reimbursement rates can't come close to offsetting the operating costs of their clinics. "The reimbursement is such that Medicaid just by definition doesn't pay anywhere near what private insurers pay for OB-GYN visits," says DeFrancesco.

Sara Rosenbaum, a health law professor at George Washington University, agrees. In a blog post for Health Affairs, she writes that the claim that community clinics could replace Planned Parenthood represents "a fundamental misunderstanding of how the health care system works."

Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in a report issued earlier this month that if Planned Parenthood were defunded, as many as 650,000 women "in areas without access to other health care clinics or medical practitioners who serve low-income populations" would lose their reproductive health care. And a survey by the Guttmacher Institute found that women often value specialized family planning clinics such as Planned Parenthood over primary care clinics for reasons such as affordability, increased confidentiality, and a greater range of contraceptive options. Guttmacher also reports that in 103 counties, Planned Parenthood is the only "safety net" family planning service, meaning that a large portion of their patients are either uninsured or reliant on Medicaid.

If Planned Parenthood were to lose a third of its entire budget, DeFrancesco warns, "these patients won't have anywhere else to go."

House Benghazi Committee Breaks Record — Sort Of

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 7:51 PM EDT

Today's news:

The House committee investigating the Benghazi attacks is now the longest congressional investigation in history, committee Democrats announced today. As of Monday, the House Select Committee on Benghazi, has been active for 72 weeks — surpassing the record previously held by the Watergate Committee in the 1970's.

I suppose this is technically correct. But let's gaze through a broader lens and take a look at the Whitewater investigation:

  • The House Banking Committee began hearings in March 1994, and they petered out in early 1995. Call it 50 weeks or so.
  • The Senate Whitewater Committee began in May 1995 and issued its final report in June 1996. That's 57 weeks.
  • But wait! The Senate investigation was a continuation of the Senate Banking Committee investigation, which began in July 1994. If you count this as one big Senate investigation, as you really should, it lasted 98 weeks.
  • But wait again! The Whitewater investigation really started on January 20, 1994, when special counsel Robert Fiske was appointed. It ended on September 20, 2000, when Fiske's successor, Robert Ray, announced there was "insufficient evidence" to show that the Clintons had done anything wrong. That's 348 weeks.

So sure: in terms of a single congressional committee in continuous existence, Benghazi is now the all-time record holder. But in terms of how long a political investigation has lasted through all its permutations, I'd guess that 348 weeks is unlikely to be beaten anytime soon. When it comes to political witch hunts, Whitewater was—and remains—the king of fruitless idiocy.

It's Really Hard Not to Hate the Pharmaceutical Industry

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 6:35 PM EDT

Another day, another drug. Today comes news of Nitropress, a generic blood pressure drug that was priced at $44 per vial way back in 2013. Then it was sold to Marathon Pharmaceuticals, which raised the price to $257. A few months ago it was sold yet again, this time to Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which raised the price to $806. But no worries! According to a spokesman, no one will ever be denied this medication:

“These are drugs that are only used by hospitals — they are not sold in pharmacies — in accordance with specific surgical procedures. This means that whenever the protocol calls for use of these drugs, they are used. Patients are never denied these drugs when the protocols call for their use.”

And there you have it. Hospitals have to use it, and no one else makes it, so Valeant can charge whatever they want. Satisfied?

Anyway, Democrats are "demanding answers" from Valeant, which will probably do about as much good as it did when they demanded answers from Marathon last year about their price increase. Or all the other companies they've demanded answers from ever since 10x price increases became the pharmaceutical industry's favorite new sport. That is to say, none.

It's a funny thing. I've probably read just about every reason in the book explaining why national health care is supposed to be a terrible idea. Most of these reasons are pretty lousy—either unsupported by the evidence or else directly contradicted by it. But there's one exception: the argument that a national health care plan would drive down the price of drugs—as it has everywhere else in the world—and this would stifle innovation in the pharmaceutical biz. There's some real merit to this claim.

It's not quite that simple, of course, and it would take a longish post to go through this topic in detail. Nonetheless, you can put me in the camp of those who want to tread pretty carefully when it comes to regulating pharmaceutical pricing. But these guys are sure making it hard to maintain that position, aren't they?

Jeb Bush's Tax Plan Is Written in Pixels, Not Stone Tablets

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 3:01 PM EDT

There's nothing Republicans like more than talking about taxes. So Chris Wallace asked Jeb Bush about his tax plan this weekend. In particular, he wanted to know why the rich were getting such a big break under Bush's plan. Jeb replied that this was simply a law of nature:

The simple fact is 1 percent of people pay 40 percent of all the taxes. And so, of course, tax cuts for everybody is going to generate more for people that are paying a lot more. I mean that’s just the way it is.

You will be unsurprised to learn that this isn't true. Bush's plan includes new tax brackets for everyone, and the rich pay a lot less under his plan because he chose to cut taxes in their bracket a lot. He didn't have to do that. He could have left their tax rates where they are or lowered them only a little. Instead he chose to lower them a lot. However, as my comprehensive graphic below shows, this was handed down in pixels, not stone tablets. So Bush can change this anytime he wants.