Kevin Drum - January 2009

DOMA

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 1:28 PM EST

DOMA....Bob Barr, the Georgia congressman who authored the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, writes in the LA Times today that it's time to get rid of it:

The first part of DOMA [] is a partial bow to principles of federalism, protecting the power of each state to determine its definition of marriage. The second part sets a legal definition of marriage only for purposes of federal law, but not for the states. That was the theory.

I've wrestled with this issue for the last several years and come to the conclusion that DOMA is not working out as planned....In effect, DOMA's language reflects one-way federalism: It protects only those states that don't want to accept a same-sex marriage granted by another state. Moreover, the heterosexual definition of marriage for purposes of federal laws — including, immigration, Social Security survivor rights and veteran's benefits — has become a de facto club used to limit, if not thwart, the ability of a state to choose to recognize same-sex unions.

Hopefully DOMA will end up on the ash heap of history, where it so richly deserves to be, before the year is out.

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World Government Watch

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:57 PM EST

WORLD GOVERNMENT WATCH....John Bolton and John Yoo complain today in the New York Times that Barack Obama might be tempted to overstep his constitutional bounds by sidestepping the requirement that all treaties be approved by two-thirds of the Senate:

On a broad variety of issues — many of which sound more like domestic rather than foreign policy — the re-emergence of the benignly labeled "global governance" movement is well under way in the Obama transition.

Candidate Obama promised to "re-engage" and "work constructively within" the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Will the new president pass a new Kyoto climate accord through Congress by sidestepping the constitutional requirement to persuade two-thirds of the Senate?

Steve Benen notes the irony of hearing this argument from John Yoo, who, back when he worked in the Bush administration, was probably the biggest booster of unfettered executive power this side of Dick Cheney. Beyond that, though, I'm a little puzzled about what he and Bolton are even talking about here. Will Obama try to approve the Kyoto Treaty with only a majority vote of Congress? That's easy: no he won't. How about a followup treaty? Not likely. On the other hand, might Obama introduce climate legislation that binds the United States to goals that are similar to Kyoto? Sure, he might. But that's not a treaty, it's just domestic legislation.

Very odd. But toward the end of the piece Bolton and Yoo make it pretty clear that they aren't especially concerned with constitutional delicacies anyway. They just don't like treaties, full stop. But then, conservatives never have, have they?

FoPo Blogging

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:22 PM EST

FoPo BLOGGING....Lots of new foreign policy blogging over at Foreign Policy magazine today. They've rolled out a whole series of new blogs from Dan Drezner, Steven Walt, Tom Ricks, David Rothkopf, Marc Lynch, and Laura Rozen ("The Cable"). There's also — and no, I'm not making this up — Madam Secretary, "an obsessive blog about all things Hillary Clinton." There are also a few new group blogs, and of course, their current blog, Passport, continues as usual.

Dan, Marc, and Laura are old friends around here, and I wish them luck in their new home. The others, especially Ricks and Walt, will be worth keeping an eye on too. The official intro is here.

Smile!

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 11:38 AM EST

SMILE!....I missed posting about this over the weekend, but the Washington Post ran a fascinating article yesterday about a multi-year effort by the Maryland State Police to spy on a wide variety of liberal activist groups. It all started with the infiltration of a group protesting a planned execution, and then spiraled out of control:

Meanwhile, the intelligence-gathering expanded in other directions, to activists in New York, Missouri, San Francisco and at the University of Maryland. Shane Dillingham's primary crime, according to the six-page file classifying him as a terrorist, was "anarchism." Police opened a file on the doctoral student in history a week after an undercover officer attended a College Park forum featuring a jailhouse phone conversation with Evans.

Investigators also tracked activists protesting weapons manufactured by defense contractor Lockheed Martin. They watched two pacifist Catholic nuns from Baltimore. Environmental activists made it into the database, as did three leaders of Code Pink, a national women's antiwar group, who do not live in Maryland.

PETA was labeled a "security threat group" in April 2005, and by July police were looking into a tip that the group had learned about a failing chicken farm in Kent County and planned on "protesting or stealing the chickens."

This all started in 2005 and went on until 2007, so it wasn't some kind of panicked reaction to 9/11. It's been stopped since, and according to the Post, the Maryland State Police "plan to solicit advice from the ACLU, the General Assembly, prosecutors and police about regulations that would raise the bar for intelligence-gathering to 'reasonable suspicion' of a crime." Good to know.

Negotiating With Themselves

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 1:50 AM EST

NEGOTIATING WITH THEMSELVES....Paul Krugman surveys the current political scene and wonders if Barack Obama is going to be undone by his insistence on bipartisanship:

Here's my nightmare scenario: It takes Congress months to pass a stimulus plan, and the legislation that actually emerges is too cautious. As a result, the economy plunges for most of 2009, and when the plan finally starts to kick in, it's only enough to slow the descent, not stop it. Meanwhile, deflation is setting in, while businesses and consumers start to base their spending plans on the expectation of a permanently depressed economy — well, you can see where this is going.

So this is our moment of truth. Will we in fact do what's necessary to prevent Great Depression II?

I've been getting the same sense recently: Obama's team is so focused on getting a big bipartisan majority for their stimulus legislation that they're negotiating their goals down even before they actually start negotiating. I'm reluctant to critique Obama's political instincts, since they've proven shrewd so often in the past, but I gotta say: this isn't going to work. Obviously Obama needs a modest level of Republican support just to get the bill passed, but he doesn't need 80 votes, and straining to get there will just produce a watered-down plan without getting anything in return.

The American public really doesn't know or care if this bill passes by one vote or thirty votes. So why waste time on this? It's just a gold-embossed invitation for Republicans to obstruct and posture endlessly, something they hardly need any encouragement for.

Yet Another Reason to Hate Bankers

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 10:50 PM EST

YET ANOTHER REASON TO HATE BANKERS....Headline from the Wall Street Journal tonight:

Twin Risks for Treasurys in Year Ahead

This is the second time I've seen this in the past couple of days, and I don't remember seeing it before. Is the plural of treasury really treasurys? Shouldn't it be treasuries?

Via Google, I see that both forms are fairly common. But why? Where did treasurys burble up from? Is Wall Street, not content merely to ruin our economy, now taking a crack at ruining the English language too?

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Settlements

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 9:19 PM EST

SETTLEMENTS....Todd Gitlin calls this admission from Aaron David Miller "shocking." The subject is Israeli-Palestinian relations:

In 25 years of working on this issue for six secretaries of state, I can't recall one meeting where we had a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that settlement activity — including land confiscation, bypass roads and housing demolitions — does to the peacemaking process.

It's sort of hard to imagine an equally important topic on the Palestinian side never even being raised with its top leadership, isn't it?

Forthwith

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 7:48 PM EST

FORTHWITH....CQ reports that Nancy Pelosi is planning to limit the ability of Republicans to delay legislation via motions to recommit bills to committee. That would be nice. However, as I recall, Pelosi and Steny Hoyer made noises about doing this a couple of years ago but then backed down. Perhaps they're more serious this time.

In case you're curious — and I don't blame you if you aren't — here's what this is all about. Just before the House holds its final vote on a bill, House rules allow the minority party one last motion to recommit the bill to committee. However, if they opt for just a straight recommit, it's almost certain to get voted down and nothing is accomplished. So instead, they usually move to "recommit with instructions."

This is where it gets complicated. If the motion requires the bill to be returned "forthwith," then it's just a fake recommittal. The bill never leaves the floor, the entire House gets to vote on the amendment immediately, and then the final vote is held.

But if the motion requires the bill to be returned "promptly," then it really goes back to committee. And given the fact that it's already probably been in committee for months, and the calendar is packed full of other stuff, this is likely to mean that the bill dies. So the majority party will almost always want to vote down this kind of recommittal.

(Are you bored already with this parliamentary minutiae? Join the club. When Richard Hudson, chief of staff to Texas Republican Rep. John Carter, left the Hill last year, Politico asked him, "What word or phrase do you never want to hear again once you leave?" His answer: "Should this motion to recommit be 'promptly' or 'forthwith'?")

Anyway. Back to our story. So here's what happens with these recommittals. The minority party proposes an amendment that will make great campaign fodder. On the reauthorization of the AmeriCorps volunteer program last March, for example, Randy Kuhl proposed language requiring criminal background checks on prospective volunteers. If he were genuinely concerned with background checks, he would have accepted "forthwith" language and allowed a vote on his amendment, which probably would have passed. But he didn't. He insisted on "promptly" language instead. Why? Because he knew that the majority would resist delaying the bill by sending it back to committee, and that's what he was really after. He wanted to force them to vote down his motion so that Republicans could all go home and claim that Democrats had voted against background checks on AmeriCorps volunteers.

Dems, of course, would explain that they weren't against background checks at all, and they would have voted for it if the motion had been written differently, and ... and — well, after their constituents had finally roused themselves again after falling into a stupor listening to this, all they'd remember is that....Dems voted against background checks on AmeriCorps volunteers.

So it's all political gamesmanship. And there's a case to be made that, after all, the job of the opposition is to oppose, and if they can find a way to use the rules to delay, obstruct, or embarrass the majority party, then more power to them. It's up to the majority to suck it up and get their agenda passed anyway. However, there's a better case to be made that the unending search for clever parliamentary tactics doesn't need to be allowed to go on without limit. Forcing the majority to vote down popular amendments is an ancient and legitimate political tactic, but the "promptly" gambit is a completely empty scam. Pelosi is on firm ground getting rid of it.

Via Needlenose.

More Movie Musing

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 5:57 PM EST

MORE MOVIE MUSING....Responding to my earlier kvetching about Ron Howard's dramatic liberties in A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, Sempringham asks:

Were you annoyed with Milos Forman's Amadeus? Or, for that matter, with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar? Fictions, both of them. But if you can get over that ... not awful.

Good question! The Shakespeare chestnut comes up every time someone complains about historical inaccuracies in films, but it's a red herring. Shakespeare deliberately fudged a lot of his history because he was a stooge for the Tudors1, and fudged the rest because Elizabethan audences didn't care as long as they got enough blood and gore. But the fact that Shakespeare was a great Elizabethan dramatist doesn't mean we're also required to celebrate Elizabethan mores in historical accuracy, any more than we're required to celebrate Elizabethan mores in race relations, religious liberty, or criminal justice.

Moving on to Amadeus, the answer is yes, I was annoyed — but not all that much. I've never thought too much about why this is, but my guess is that I become more indulgent of this kind of thing the further back in history it is. Libeling Salieri just doesn't seem like that big a deal to me, and having a generation of moviegoers misinformed about him likewise doesn't seem like that big a deal.

But more recent events pose a bigger problem. A correspondent, who shares my view that filmmakers should be free to adapt fiction any way they feel like, tries to analogize this to docudrama:

Even though Frost/Nixon isn't exactly the same thing as adapting literature to film, I think one might make a similar case about adapting history to film. When you translate a story from one context to another, the demands change. I guess I don't have a problem with Howard inventing scenes to flesh out the psychodynamics of the narrative and/or develop his characters ... after all, if you want just the facts ma'am, read the bonafide scholarly historical accounts or get your hands dirty with the primary documents themselves.

....I don't see much ground on which to get all bent out of shape b/c these kinds of stories deviate from the "true" history, unless you go to these sorts of films to see meticulous historical reenactments, and this only makes sense if you think there is some fixed account of History that can be and retold "correctly." The real standard of the film's success ought to be how well it succeeds in conveying its meaning or truth(s) of the Frost/Nixon story.

Leaving aside the whole fraught issue of "truth" vs. truth, I'm still not sure I buy this. Granted, film has its own vocabulary and its own dramatic requirements, and I wouldn't generally have a problem with inventing a few minor scenes to move the story along or deep sixing some detail that doesn't change the main narrative. But A Beautiful Mind didn't do that. It just flat out invented huge chunks of stuff that either never happened or else happened in completely different ways. If, literally, the only thing that matters is (a) mathematician, (b) mental illness, and (c) eventual Nobel Prize, then I guess Howard didn't do anything wrong. But that seems like way too low a bar to me, and based on the reviews and criticisms, it sounds like something similar happened in Frost/Nixon.

So, anyway, I guess that's where I come down. If you're adapting fiction, everything is fair game. Make whatever movie your creative vision tells you to. If you're adapting history, especially recent history, dramatic liberties should be used more sparingly unless the movie is clearly intended to be, say, a visual tone poem (The New World) or a piece of agitprop (JFK) specifically designed to get people arguing.

Aside from that, though, the public wanders around with enough misconceptions about basic facts of recent history already. There's no need to deliberately make things worse, and there are plenty of good stories to tell. If the one you're telling doesn't have enough drama on its own merits, maybe you'd be better off finding a different one.

1Keith G thinks I'm being a wee bit hard on Will here. But see? That's what happens when the rabble gets spoonfed bad (but exciting!) history from its betters.

More on Teaser Blogs

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 2:39 PM EST

MORE ON TEASER BLOGS....Dave Munger responds to my annoyance with "teaser" blogs, which routinely make you click "continue" to read an entire blog post:

This really depends. I mean, if you've got a three-paragraph post, and you're asking people to click through to read one more paragraph, I agree. But what if you've got a post that's 8 or 10 paragraphs long? Or what if you're embedding some bandwidth-heavy content? Most people aren't going to click through, so this can save a lot of bandwidth. Yes, I'm biased, because that's what CogDaily does, but at least you know now why we do it.

FWIW, I don't have a problem with this. My problem is mostly with blogs that do this routinely and for no very good reason. I already mentioned Felix Salmon's blog, and others in the original thread called out Josh Marshall and the Firedoglake crew. Basically, it's a real pain in the butt to have to click "continue" constantly just to finish up a blog post, and there's no question that it reduces my reading of blogs that do this.

But I don't have any problem with doing it for a reason. Occasional long posts, especially ones that have a limited audience, are fine candidates for this treatment. Putting spoilers below the fold is fine. I'm not quite sure what kind of content would be so bandwidth heavy that this would be a good excuse, but I suppose this works too. And doing what CogDaily often does, which is to summarize a new piece of research in enough detail to let you know if you might be interested in reading the gory details, and then putting said details below the fold — that's fine too.

But my plea is to use some discretion here. Actually, use a lot of discretion. 600 words isn't that much, and there's no need to cut a post that long in half. Spoilers are uncommon unless you're running a movie review site. And scrolling past a post you aren't interested in only takes one or two seconds. So please: do this sparingly. The world will be a better place for it.