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What's It Like Being a Gay Soldier Fighting ISIS?

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 10:32 AM EST

I took my third dose of dexamethasone yesterday, and then a low-dose sleeping pill at midnight. I slept from 3-5 am. My body is currently a battlezone between the buzz from the dex and the sedative effect of the Temazapam, so perhaps my sense of humor is skewed. Still, I couldn't help but snicker at the cover of the latest Harper's that I took to bed last night:

I love all my fellow lefties, even the ones who think I'm a squishy centrist sellout. You keep me honest. But sometimes you just have to laugh at our obsessions. A package about the war against ISIS is a fine idea, but using a third of it to highlight the plight of gay soldiers in the Syrian army? That's so PC it makes your teeth hurt.

Of course, you might not find it funny at all—and you'll let me know it. If so, there's no point in explaining why this is so amusing. Like religion, you either get it or you don't.

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Female Genital Mutilation Is Not a Uniquely Muslim Problem

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 10:10 AM EST

The Independent reports that about 5,000 girls and women in Britain are subjected to female genital mutilation each year: "FGM is carried out for cultural, religious and social reasons within families and communities where it is believed to be a necessary preparation for adulthood and marriage." Ian Tuttle is exasperated by their kid-glove treatment of the practice:

True. But which cultures? Which religions? Hint: It’s not Anglicans....Let’s be frank: FGM is not spontaneously afflicting preteen and teenage girls; it’s not an illness being randomly caught. It’s a barbarous act being perpetrated by parents of young girls in specific and identifiable cultural/religious groups. Refusing to acknowledge that reality does not help to protect vulnerable women; it aids those who seek to repress them.

Hmmm. "Not Anglicans." Obviously Tuttle is blaming Muslims. Oddly, though, he doesn't come right out and say this. Why? The map on the right might provide a clue.

According to UNICEF, the practice of FGM is mostly limited to central Africa. It's not common in Morocco or Algeria or Libya or Saudi Arabia or Oman or Jordan or Syria or Iran. Basically, it's concentrated in a small swath of states in western Africa and another swath of states along the Red Sea (those in red and orange). With the exception of a handful of countries, only a small percentage of women who undergo FGM believe the practice is required by religion.

Still, that religion is Islam. There's no need to tiptoe around that ugly fact. Or is there?

Basically, FGM is a practice limited to certain parts of Africa—and although it's more common among Muslims than other religions, Christians are pretty close in most countries. As for Britain, its FGM problem is more due to where their African immigrants come from than it is to Islam per se.

Female genital mutilation is a barbaric practice, and Muslims in many countries are far too tolerant of it. Anyone who fights it—as do many feminist NGOs as well as Islamic clergy and scholars—is literally doing God's work. But it's uncommon in the heartland of Islam, and in Africa it's practiced by plenty of Christians too. The only way to represent it as a uniquely Islamic problem is to imply it with a wink and a nudge but without actually producing any evidence.

Voters in New Hampshire Are Asking John Kasich About Ohio's Poisoned Water

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 8:18 AM EST

John Kasich's town halls are different than anyone else's in New Hampshire, and the first person who will tell you that is John Kasich. "White Stripes at a Republican town meeting!" he said, after taking the floor to "Seven Nation Army" Friday evening in Bedford, New Hampshire. "That has never happened before in American history." He likes to make a lot of jokes, sometimes even funny ones, and to direct non-sequiturs at unsuspecting audience members. (Before taking questions, he paused to reflect on a snowball fight he'd taken part in earlier in the day: "I tackled one of my friends!") When it ended, there was a confetti machine and a triple-layer cake for the attendees.

But there's a serious message underlying his irreverence: he's a results guy. Take a look at Ohio, and if you like what you see, you should vote Kasich on Tuesday. The problem arises when those voters look at Ohio and instead read about the town of Sebring, where elevated levels of lead were found in the drinking water and residents weren't notified for five months. (Read the Columbus Dispatch for a fuller accounting.) With Kasich in a fight for second place in New Hampshire, and the water crisis in Flint making national headlines, he's finding the issue impossible to avoid.

Midway through the event, Kasich took a question from a man who had read about the crisis in Sebring this morning. He wanted to know one thing: "I was wondering if you've had a chance yet to personally apologize?"

"Well first of all, our top administration, the [Ohio] EPA, went immediately to the village," Kasich said. "We had warned the village to tell everybody that there was a risk. We have sent tests out; we have had controllers in there working to make sure the chemicals are right, because the water coming in, sir, is clean. And so at the same time we have done that, we took the operator and we got rid of him. And the federal EPA came in and said he did more than was even federally required of him. So we worked on it all the time, we worked on it with the formulas, the chemicals, and we worked to make sure that at the end of the day people are gonna be okay."

"Have you apologized?" the man asked again. Kasich wanted to move on, but the next question was about lead, too. A middle-aged woman in the second row, more sympathetic to Kasich than the first man, raised the spectre of the "800-pound donkey in the room" (that would be Hillary Clinton).

Clinton had made clear at Thursday's debate that she would be campaigning on getting justice for Flint, this voter noted. And she "wasn't remotely nice" about it. "I understand sodium is being added back into the water and I understand that Sebring is a lot smaller than Flint. But she will, I am sure, bring it up. It's the Clinton machine. So my question to you is she will look at you and say, 'You hired Butler, he even went on television and said that he was a little slow in responding to the situation there.' How do you stand up to Hillary and debate?" (Craig Butler is the head of the Ohio EPA.)

Kasich pivoted. "Look, our guys acted immediately and that's how we handle every crisis," he said. Then he switched gears and talked about how many Democrats he won over in his 2014 re-election. But it's a question that's not likely to go away any time soon.

Let Us All Take a Random Walk Through New Hampshire

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 8:53 PM EST

I'm feeling a little bored, and that means all of you have to listen to me regaling you with a bunch of random political tweets from my timeline. This is, truly, the best way of getting a real feel for the campaign trail from afar. First up is Donald Trump, who canceled an event today because airports were closed in New Hampshire:

Apparently so. CNN reports that Trump's operator at LaGuardia was open for business, and the operator in Manchester says it is "always open for business, 24 hours a day." And even if Trump did have airport trouble, it was only because he insists on going home to New York every night. Apparently the man of the people just can't stand the thought of spending a few nights at a local Hilton.

This whole thing cracks me up because of Trump's insistence that he's a "high energy" guy. But he can't handle a real campaign, the kind where you spend weeks at a time on the road doing four or five events a day. He flies in for a speech every few days and thinks he's showing real fortitude. He'd probably drop from exhaustion if he followed the same schedule as Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush.

Next up is Marco Rubio:

This is what makes it hard for me to figure out Rubio's appeal. To me he seems like a robot: he's memorized a whole bunch of virtual index cards, and whenever you ask a question he performs a database search and recites whatever comes up. The index cards aren't bad, mind you, and I suppose they allow him to emulate a dumb person's notion what a smart person sounds like. This is despite the fact that he normally talks with the same kind of hurried clip employed by nervous eighth graders reading off actual index cards.

Of course, this is just a specific example of a more general problem. Every four years, it looks to me like none of the Republican candidates can win. They all seem to have too many obvious problems. But of course someone has to win. So sure, Rubio reminds me of an over-ambitious teacher's pet running for student council president, but compared to Trump or Carson or Cruz or Fiorina or Christie—well, I guess I can see how he might look good.

And now for some old-school Hillary Clinton hate:

Well, I'll be happy to credit the Intercept, but I can hardly say it reflects well on them. This is yet another example of hCDS—Hillary Clinton Derangement Syndrome.1 I mean, has any candidate for any office ever been asked for transcripts of their paid speeches? This is Calvinball squared. Besides we all know the real reason Hillary doesn't want to release the transcripts: she gave the same canned speech to everyone and happily pocketed an easy $200 grand for each one. Hell, who wouldn't do that? Plus there's the obvious fact that the hCDS crowd would trawl through every word and find at least one thing they could take out of context and make into a three-day outrage. Hillary would have to be nuts to give in to this.

Who's next? How about Ted Cruz?

Cruz really pissed off Ben Carson in Iowa, just like he seems to piss off nearly everyone who actually gets a whiff of him up close. This is bad for Cruz because he's trying to appeal to evangelical voters. Unfortunately, Carson has apparently decided that as long as he's going to lose, he might as well mount a kamikaze attack against Cruz on the way down. And evangelicals listen to Carson. If he says Cruz bears false witness, then he bears false witness.

Finally, some good news for Bernie Sanders:

As it turns out, the Quinnipiac poll is probably bogus. Sam Wang points out that the median post-Iowa bounce was +6 percent in New Hampshire and +4 nationally—in Hillary's favor. So everyone should take a deep breath.

Still, the big Bernie bounce is what people were talking about today, and it will contribute to an irresistible media narrative. And let's face it: Hillary Clinton has never been a natural politician. Most Democrats like her, but they don't love her, and this makes Sanders dangerous. What's more, since Clinton already has a record for blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead to a charismatic opponent, he's doubly dangerous. If Democrats convince themselves that they don't have to vote for Clinton, they just might not. She has lots of baggage, after all.

Is this fair? No. It's politics. But Clinton still has more money, more endorsements, more superdelegates, more state operations, and—let's be fair here—a pretty long track record as a sincerely liberal Democrat who works hard to implement good policies. Sanders may damage her, but she's almost certain to still win.

And that's that. Isn't Twitter great? It's practically like being there. I can almost feel my shoes crunching on the snow drifts.

1This is a good example of a retronym. At first, we just had CDS. But then Hillary ran for president, so we had to make up a new term for insane Bill hatred: bCDS. And that, of course, means we also need hCDS. It's like brick-and-mortar store or manual transmission.

Clinton's Pitch to New Hampshire: Electing a Woman Is the Real Revolution

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 3:10 PM EST

Hillary Clinton had some company at a rally for campaign volunteers in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Friday afternoon: four Democratic women who serve as US senators, and a fifth, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who wants to join them next January. As she makes her final push in a state whose first-in-the-nation primary she won eight years ago, Clinton is traveling with a group of prominent women politicians who are saying explicitly what she dances around—that electing the first woman president would be a big effing deal, and you should absolutely think about that when you go to the polls.

"This is the torch that must be passed on, that you'll be passing on when you're out there door-knocking—you know how important this historical moment is for us," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She told a story about a photo of her late mother with Clinton that she keeps on her desk, and related an anecdote about a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee on the subject of paid maternity leave. "A male Republican across the table says, 'Well, I don't know why that'd be mandatory, I never had to use it,'" Klobuchar recalled. "Without missing a beat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow said, 'I bet your mother did!'" The audience ate it up.

Stabenow, from Michigan, used her five minutes to tear into the sexist standards female candidates are subjected to—something that flared up recently when the Washington Post's Bob Woodward (among other male pundits) suggested the former secretary of state shouted too much. Stabenow was blunt:

Anyone see the movie Sufragette, yeah? You need to see that if you haven't. We're almost at the 100th anniversary of the women's right to vote. But there's always a message we get about we're too this or too that. Wait your turn. You smile too much, you must not be serious. You don't smile enough, you must not be friendly! You talk too much and you're too serious and you know, I wouldn't want to have a beer with you—or I would want to have a beer with you but you can't run security for your country. Your hair! You know, that—Donald Trump's hair! What about that hair! Come on! So let me say this, and I say this particularly to the women. Guys, you can listen, but the women: Don't do this. Don't do this. This is the moment. 

"When folks talk about a rev-o-lu-tion," she said, elongating the final word in a brief Bernie Sanders impression, "the rev-o-lu-tion is electing the first woman president of the United States! That's the revolution. And we're ready for the revolution."

The presence of Klobuchar, Stabenow, and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire had another effect: It reminded voters that, notwithstanding her claim to not be a member of the Democratic establishment, Clinton has the backing of almost all of Sanders' colleagues in the Senate Democratic caucus. And they're not shy about explaining why.

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 February 2016

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 2:54 PM EST

Here are the furballs up on the balcony surveying their domain. All is well in the kingdom—though Hilbert does appear to be alarmed about something. Probably a patch of light on the opposite wall or something. Hilbert is quite convinced that we humans don't take the threat of light patches seriously enough. Someday, perhaps he'll have the last laugh.

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The Bernie vs. Hillary Fight Is Kind of Ridiculous

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 2:50 PM EST

Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow supports Hillary Clinton: "I think Bernie's terrific as an advocate. There's a difference between a strong community advocate and being someone who can get things done." Martin Longman says this is an example of how nasty things are getting: "Breaking out the Sarah Palin talking points isn't smart. Talk about how people view socialism all you want, but don't dismiss community organizers or advocates. This isn't a Republican campaign."

I had to laugh at that. Nasty? I'd rate it about a 1 on the Atwater Scale. Toughen up, folks.

And speaking of this, it sure is hard to take seriously the gripes going back and forth between the Hillary and Bernie camps. Is it really the case that we can't even agree on the following two points?

  • Sanders is more progressive than Clinton.
  • Clinton is more electable than Sanders.

I mean, come on. They're both lefties, but Sanders is further left. The opposing arguments from the Clinton camp are laughable. Clinton is more progressive because she can get more done? Sorry. That's ridiculous. She and Bill Clinton have always been moderate liberals, both politically and temperamentally. We have over two decades of evidence for this.

As for electability, I admire Sanders' argument that he can drive a bigger turnout, which is good for Democrats. But it's special pleading. The guy cops to being a socialist. He's the most liberal member of the Senate by quite a margin (Elizabeth Warren is the only senator who's close). He's already promised to raise middle-class taxes. He can't be bothered to even pretend that he cares about national security issues, which are likely to play a big role in this year's election. He wants to spend vast amounts of money on social programs. It's certainly true that some of this stuff might appeal to people like me, but it's equally true that there just aren't a lot of voters like me. Liberals have been gaining ground over the past few years, but even now only 24 percent of Americans describe themselves that way. Republicans would tear Sanders to shreds with hardly an effort, and there's no reason to think he'd be especially skilled at fending off their attacks.

I like both Sanders and Clinton. But let's stop kidding ourselves about what they are and aren't. Republicans won't be be swayed by these fantasies, and neither will voters. We might as well all accept it.

Obamacare Enrollment Up About 15 Percent This Year

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 1:07 PM EST

Open enrollment for Obamacare is over, and HHS announced yesterday that 12.7 million people signed up via the exchanges plus another 400,000 via New York's Basic Health Program. So that gives us 13.1 million—up from 11.4 million last year. And since HHS is getting better at purging nonpayers, this number should hold up better throughout the year than it did in 2015. Charles Gaba has more details here.

Add to that about 15 million people enrolled in Medicaid thanks to the Obamacare expansion, and the total number of people covered this year comes to 28 million or so. This means Obamacare has reduced the ranks of the uninsured from 19 percent to about 10 percent. Not bad.

Obamacare's raw enrollment numbers remain lower than CBO projected a few years ago, but that's partly because employer health care has held up better than expected—which is a good thing. The fewer the people eligible for Obamacare the better. More on that here. Generally speaking, despite the best efforts of conservatives to insist that Obamacare is a disastrous failure, the truth is that it's doing pretty well. More people are getting covered; costs are in line with projections; and there's been essentially no effect on employment or hours worked. The only real problem with Obamacare is that it's too stingy: deductibles are too high and out-of-pocket expenses are still substantial. Needless to say, though, that can be easily fixed anytime Republicans decide to stop rooting for failure and agree to make Obamacare an even better program. But I guess we shouldn't hold our collective breath for that.

Obama Wants to Raise Your Gas Prices to Pay for Trains

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 1:02 PM EST

In his final State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama promised to "change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet." A few days later, he followed through on the coal aspect of that pledge, with a plan to overhaul how coal mining leases are awarded on federal land. Now, he seems ready to roll out his plan for oil.

The president's budget proposal for his last year in office, set to be released next week, will contain a provision to place a new tax on oil, White House aides told reporters. According to Politico:

The president will propose more than $300 billion worth of investments over the next decade in mass transit, high-speed rail, self-driving cars, and other transportation approaches designed to reduce carbon emissions and congestion. To pay for it all, Obama will call for a $10 "fee" on every barrel of oil, a surcharge that would be paid by oil companies but would presumably be passed along to consumers…The fee could add as much as 25 cents a gallon to the cost of gasoline.

The proposal stands virtually no chance of being adopted by Congress. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the renowned climate change denier who also chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement, "I'm unsure why the president bothers to continue to send a budget to Congress. His proposals are not serious, and this is another one which is dead on arrival."

Still, the idea may be helped a little by the sustained drop in oil prices, driven by a glut of supply from the Middle East and record production in the United States. Gas is already selling for less than $2 per gallon in all but 11 states, the lowest price point since 2009. Raising that cost would also be a boon for electric vehicle sales, which have stagnated because of low gas prices as sales of gas guzzlers have climbed.

Obama's prospective Democratic successors, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, haven't weighed in on this proposal yet, although they have both been broadly supportive of his climate change agenda. But the proposal could prove to be awkward for Clinton, who has promised not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year.

Ted Cruz Uses Rush Limbaugh in Radio Ad to Take Down Marco Rubio

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 11:46 AM EST

Ted Cruz is hoping Rush Limbaugh can push him over the top in next Tuesday's New Hampshire Republican primary. Here's a spot that the senator from Texas is running on a Boston sports radio station, using the conservative yakker's words to brand Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who holds a slight edge in the race for second place, as a pro-amnesty hypocrite:

Rush Limbaugh: "If you're looking for the Republican candidate who is the most steadfastly opposed to liberalism, whose agenda is oriented toward stopping it and thwarting it and defeating it, it's Ted Cruz."

Narrator: "Rush is right. It's Ted Cruz who's led our fights in Washington. To secure our border. To stop taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants. And it was Cruz who stood up for us against the Washington establishment. When the Gang of Eight proposed amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants, it was wrong. Ted Cruz fought them. But what about Marco Rubio? When Rubio ran for Senate, he made this pledge:

Marco Rubio: "I will never support it, never have and never will support any effort to grant blanket legalization amnesty."

Rush Limbaugh: "That's what he said. It's not what he did. It was Marco Rubio that was a member of the Gang of Eight, and Ted Cruz that wasn't."

Narrator: Ted Cruz, the only one we can trust."

The ad is not an endorsement from Limbaugh, who made the comments on his radio show. Limbaugh isn't quite the voice of God, but in a tight Republican primary, he might be the next best thing. Cruz is talking about immigration every chance he can get in the Granite State—even when he's supposed to be talking about heroin—as he tries to catch up to Donald Trump and keep his rival from Florida at bay.