Kevin Drum - May 2012

Friday Cat Blogging — 25 May 2012

| Fri May 25, 2012 5:10 PM EDT

Last week, when I mentioned that I lived with four orange cats, some folks were disappointed I didn't post pictures of all four. If you were one of those people, today is your lucky day.

Here's Pumpkin, who says it's time to get off the computer:

And here are Butters and James, hanging out:

Here are Burns and James (right), who happen to be twins although Burns takes much better care of himself:

Now, you might be wondering whether they all decide to crowd on one person ever. The answer is yes, and this is what it looks like when the herd of Garfields is at full strength:

This is about sixty pounds of pure, uncut marmalade tabby.

Anyway, I'm going on vacation next week, so some of my other Mother Jones colleagues will be pitching in. I'd like to thank Kevin for giving me the opportunity to blog in his absence, and all of you guys for putting up with the lack of charts in the meantime.

Adam is now done filling in for Kevin while Kevin is on vacation.

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Obama and Marijuana

| Fri May 25, 2012 4:43 PM EDT

Turns out young Barack Obama was a fairly frequent weed smoker, according to a forthcoming biography by David Maraniss:

A self-selected group of boys at Punahou School who loved basketball and good times called themselves the Choom Gang. Choom is a verb, meaning "to smoke marijuana."

[...]

Barry also had a knack for interceptions. When a joint was making the rounds, he often elbowed his way in, out of turn, shouted "Intercepted!," and took an extra hit. No one seemed to mind.

This shouldn't and won't bear on Obama's reelection prospects, which seems about right. But we shouldn't ignore it, particularly given the president's recent campaign against medical marijuana in states that have legalized it. It's past time that public officials who have smoked weed acknowledge that youthful marijuana use doesn't consign individuals to a life of crime and addiction, and that current policy is at odds with that basic fact. 

Liberals' Targeted Killing Problem

| Fri May 25, 2012 4:15 PM EDT

The Associated Press recently reported that White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan is America's new death czar—the individual most responsible for overseeing the Obama administration's targeted killing of suspected terrorists. 

There's long been a right-wing meme comparing targeted killing to torture, with the conclusion that torture is obviously less immoral. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf doesn't make this argument directly, but he alludes to it in his post on Brennan's new authority:

So to sum up, Barack Obama insists while campaigning that "enhanced-interrogation techniques" are a euphemism for illegal, immoral torture that makes us less rather than more safe from terrorism, and insists that the Bush Administration was imprudent for using those tactics.

After being elected, Obama forbids those tactics from being used. And he names as a top counterterrorism adviser someone who advocated the tactics he regards as imprudent and immoral -- ultimately entrusting him with more power than anyone else to decide whether various figures should be assassinated by our classified flying robot army.

There's a really important moral and legal distinction to be made between torture, which is always illegal and always wrong, and killing, which can occasionally be both justified and legal. And conservatives who argue that targeted killing is worse than torture are not saying we should stop killing people—they're saying we should also torture them. There is an obvious legal and moral bright line between mistreating people in our custody and killing on the battlefield.

Blurring the lines between custodial treatment and killing combatants only aids lawlessness. The laws of war exist to contain violence to combatants, who have consented to fight one another with the knowledge that doing so could lead to their deaths. This is why we should (but we sometimes don't) make a distinction between those who fight willingly and those who cannot consent, such as child soldiers. By definition, no one consents to being tortured. 

Nevertheless, liberals' uncritical embrace of the Obama administration's widespread use of targeted killing represents a significant departure from their stated values. Although the ethics of targeted killing don't parallel the ethics of torture (except as far as disclosure is concerned), they do resemble the ethical debate around detention. For most of the Bush administration, liberals fought against President Bush's attempt to place suspected terror detainees in a legal black hole without habeas rights. Bush's critics understood that the concept of membership in a terrorist group is far more nebulous than being a soldier in a uniformed military. Establishing that the individuals we're treating as terrorists are actually terrorists is therefore a moral imperative. 

With targeted killing, the same issues are at play. Unlike detention, however, the results of targeted killing are irreversible. Dead is dead. And the collateral damage is considerably greater, because civilians can be killed along with the target. Osama bin Laden's death was the most justifiable use of targeted killing in the past decade, but he's obviously also a unique case. What percentage of the thousands who have died in American drone strikes represent as clear-cut a choice as killing the man responsible for carving a bloody hole into New York City? That lethal force is sometimes justified does not absolve the government to ensure that it is only used when it is justified.

Yet that same insistence on accuracy, on making sure that we "had the right guy," so to speak, is largely absent in the debate over drone strikes. Liberals have been largely content to use Obama's body count to defend his foreign policy record without confronting the moral implications of our vastly expanded covert battle against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. The admirable skepticism towards Bush's claims that those imprisoned at Gitmo were "the worst of the worst," long since vindicated, is absent.  Many of the same people who fought the Bush-era imperial presidency—groups like the ACLU and the CCR—still hold fast to their banners, but for the most part political liberals have quit the field, preferring to defend their president from right-wing lunacy about Democratic weakness. That's a tragic abdication of responsibility that will have profound implications for national security in the future.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Explaining Black Voters' Shift on Same-Sex Marriage

| Fri May 25, 2012 10:23 AM EDT
Obama supporters march in the 2008 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, California.

Black voters in Maryland have flipped on same-sex marriage, going from majority opposed to majority in favor in the space of two months. As I noted on Thursday, that means that Maryland could become the first state to approve of marriage equality by referendum.

So what does this say about the power of the bully pulpit? Empirical data suggests that presidential speeches rarely move public opinion in an affirmative direction, and may even harden it against whatever the president is proposing. The key shift on same-sex marriage, though, comes from a population that was already supportive of Obama. Political scientist John Sides points to an experiment that may shed some light:

Although the polling data thus far generally support the finding that presidents don’t move public opinion very much or very often, there is some reason to believe that Obama himself could move opinion among African-Americans. In a 1994 paper (gated), James Kuklinski and Norman Hurley conducted an experiment in which respondents read a statement urging African-Americans to demonstrate more self-reliance. The statement was attributed to Jesse Jackson, Clarence Thomas, George Bush, Ted Kennedy, or no one.

Among black participants, the most persuasive cue-giver was Jackson, following closely by…? Thomas...This is nothing unique to Jackson or Thomas or even African-Americans, of course. Sources of information are generally more credible when they are perceived as sharing our identities, values, etc.

I'm inclined to think that this doesn't mean that Obama's been holding out on magic pixie dust for influencing public opinion, but that this is a fairly unique circumstance in that black Americans, prior to Obama's endorsement, were more likely to oppose marriage equality and really like Obama. The president has given many more public speeches in support of the Affordable Care Act than same-sex marriage, without moving the dial a notch. Also "really like Obama" is understating it a bit: the president is a singularly unique figure in the black community as a symbol of accomplishment and hope for a better future. 

Another factor here is that I think opposition to same-sex marriage among black Americans is wide, but for the most part not particularly deep. This is why black legislators who support same-sex marriage don't get punished at the polls. There's also a partisanship factor at work here: As Jonathan Bernstein writes, "African American voters who really don’t care very much one way or another about the marriage issue — but do consider themselves on Team Democrat — are now aware that marriage equality is the normal position of that team." I'd say that we saw similar psychological effect with Republicans and climate change.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Feminists Defend Conservative Writer against Sexist Hustler "Parody"

| Thu May 24, 2012 4:09 PM EDT
Hustler founder Larry Flynt at the LA Times festival of books in 2011.

Conservative writer S.E. Cupp was recently the target of a sexist "parody" in Hustler magazine that I won't describe here because it's a family blog. Feminists, in response, have denounced Hustler for essentially telling Cupp that her proper role is as the object of sexual exploitation rather than a source of political commentary. Notably, Sandra Fluke, who was called a "slut" by Rush Limbaugh, tweeted that Hustler was trying to "limit [women] 2 being sexual figures & not more."

Zerlina Maxwell at Feministing writes:

While Hustler claims the picture is intended to be funny "satire," it simply is not funny. It's out of line, it's sexist, and it's an unacceptable form of misogyny. Women are under attack from all sides and no matter what political party you are in, I'm going to defend you from sexist attacks. I will not stand by in silence when a woman, any woman, is attacked in this way and belittled as nothing more than a sexual object. It's about disagreement over ideas; smearing and demeaning women should not part of the equation.

There isn't actually much difference between what Limbaugh was doing to Fluke and what Hustler did to Cupp. In both cases, the objective was to silence a women with contrary political views by insisting that they return to their proper place as objects of sexual desire for men. Conservatives objected to Limbaugh's use of coarse language, but many agreed with his underlying argument in referring to Fluke as a "slut" and a "prostitute."

That's not the only difference: As Digby points out, the forceful condemnations of Hustler from feminist circles stand in contrast to the responses from the right to the Limbaugh/Fluke incident, where mild denounciations were paired with adamant insistence that, whatever Limbaugh said about Fluke, conservative women have it much worse. Conservative writer Michelle Malkin, herself a frequent target of sexist and racist vitriol on Twitter from critics (which is sadly often a byproduct of being a woman who writes stuff on the Internet) pointed out that there were other names Limbaugh could have called Fluke:

I'll tell you why Rush was wrong. Young Sandra Fluke of Georgetown Law is not a "slut." She’s a moocher and a tool of the Nanny State. She’s a poster girl for the rabid Planned Parenthood lobby and its eugenics-inspired foremothers.

The reason for the discrepancy here is rather simple: Whereas liberals view sexism as a societal problem that shapes how we live our lives, many conservatives view it as an issue of liberals using sexist rhetoric against conservative women. That's why Malkin, a disciple of the "I know you are but what am I" school of political rhetoric, came up with the "war on conservative women" meme in response to Democratic rhetoric about Republicans "waging a war on women" by opposing access to contraception and holding up legislation like the Violence Against Women Act. This reflects a disciplined commitment to the Bender theory of discrimination: "This is the worst kind of discrimination: The kind against ME!"

Where conservatives look at the Hustler "parody" as indicative of liberal contempt for conservative women, feminists see a larger problem about how women are treated that affects everything from health insurance to how much you take home on your paycheck. To have condemned Limbaugh for his sexism in the same unconditional manner would have been a distraction, because the real problem isn't sexism, it's liberals. For feminists, sexism is the problem, period.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

National Review Still Wrong on Civil Rights History

| Thu May 24, 2012 2:39 PM EDT
National Review founder William F. Buckley and his brother in law L. Brent Bozell in 1954.

Jonathan Chait, Jonathan Bernstein and myself have all weighed in on Kevin D. Williamson's rather ahistorical take on conservatives being the real heroes of the civil rights movement in National Review.

Among Williamson's odd omissions was not mentioning the misty eyed defense of white supremacy National Review founder William F. Buckley penned in 1957. (He also ignores Buckley's view that the Civil Rights Act was "artificially deduced from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution or from the 14th Amendment.") That many liberal Republicans supported civil rights, and many racist Democrats didn't, doesn't alter the fact that the modern conservative movement really begins with a man who campaigned on opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Williamson hasn't responded to any of his critics at National Review, but he did offer this up on Twitter:

"WFB's views have been endlessly documented. I have nothing to add."

Williamson has "nothing to add" to the historical evidence that debunks his argument. I supposed I wouldn't have "anything to add" either, but I'm wondering how that conversation went with National Review's editors.

NR Editor: Do you think maybe in this piece about conservatives being awesome at the time we should acknowledge what was actually written in this magazine in the 1950s and 60s?

Williamson: Well what do we have to add?

Williamson did offer a valiant Chewbacca defense of his piece as well:

Chait: "Why not get behind the next civil rights idea (gay marriage) now?" How about an all-African-American national referendum on that?

Man, listen: The expiration date on that "joke" is rapidly approaching

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

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Did Obama Just Deliver Marriage Equality in Maryland?

| Thu May 24, 2012 11:55 AM EDT
Obama supporters march in the 2008 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, California.

Polls taken since President Obama expressed support for same-sex marriage have shown an astonishing shift in black support on marriage equality. The shift in Maryland is so dramatic that the state may become the first state to actually uphold same-marriage rights in a referendum.

Here's the gist, from Public Policy Polling:

57% of Maryland voters say they’re likely to vote for the new marriage law this fall, compared to only 37% who are opposed. That 20 point margin of passage represents a 12 point shift from an identical PPP survey in early March, which found it ahead by a closer 52/44 margin.

The movement over the last two months can be explained almost entirely by a major shift in opinion about same-sex marriage among black voters. Previously 56% said they would vote against the new law with only 39% planning to uphold it. Those numbers have now almost completely flipped, with 55% of African Americans planning to vote for the law and only 36% now opposed.

These numbers are almost incredible, and if they hold up, they mean almost certain defeat for the National Organization for Marriage and the other conservative groups lining up to oppose same-sex marriage rights in Maryland. The Maryland legislature passed an equality bill earlier this year, but Maryland same-sex couples won't been able to marry until after the referendum—and even then only if they win. I'm generally very skeptical of the power of the bully pulpit, but I can't think of any other reason for this significant a shift than Obama's decision to come out in support of same-sex couples getting married. 

Understand that exploiting the divide between socially conservative but religiously liberal minority groups and social liberals was the linchpin of NOM's strategy in Maryland, which is a very blue state with a large black population. NOM simply can't win without winning black voters, and Obama may have made that impossible. Instead of black voters torpedoeing marriage equality in Maryland, as NOM had hoped, they now stand poised to secure it. 

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Mitt Fenced in on Immigration

| Thu May 24, 2012 10:31 AM EDT

When it comes to immigration policy, Mitt Romney has decided that discretion is the better part of valor. In his speech before Latino business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Romney decided to avoid the whole immigration issue altogether, HuffPo's Elise Foley reports:

Romney's 20-minute speech mentioned higher education, District of Columbia schools and teachers' unions. Even though the address at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was specifically for members of the Latino Coalition, he barely discussed Hispanic-specific education issues -- other than a quick mention of former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to raise reading scores of Hispanic students -- and entirely skipped undocumented students, whom a majority of Latino voters believe should get U.S. help in gaining legal status.

So what happened? Romney, after trashing his primary opponents from the right on immigration, and endorsing an immigration policy of "attrition through enforcement," attempted an awkward pivot to the center once the primary was over. Romney promised to "study" a plan offered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children. That didn't go over well with the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party, most notably Romney adviser Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who helped write many of the nation's harshest state immigration laws. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported, Kobach called the Rubio plan "amnesty," even though it wouldn't actually grant citizenship to anyone.

"I’d absolutely reject any proposal that would give a path to legal status for illegal aliens en masse," Kobach said. "That is what amnesty is. I do not expect [Romney] to propose or embrace amnesty."

Romney spent an awkward few days trying to distance himself from Kobach, demoting him from adviser to "supporter." Kobach nonchalantly told Think Progress that yes, he was still advising Romney on immigration, regardless of what the campaign itself was saying.

Although I'm sure immigration will come up again, the whole saga illustrates that the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party has Romney over a barrel. Romney can't move to the center because he simply cannot defy them, they won't let him.

Although Rubio, who spoke after Romney, mentioned his "DREAMless" Act in his speech Wednesday, an actual legislative proposal has been elusive. Romney's retreat on this issue really opens up an opportunity for the Obama administration, which is reportedly skittish about Rubio's plan. There's really no reason for Obama not to endorse it if and when it comes out. Not only will it make it impossible for Romney to take the opportunity Rubio is offering him, but there's little chance the legislation will pass because the GOP's anti-immigrant base wants to deport every single undocumented immigrant in America, making the Rubio plan a non-starter. Politically, the worst case scenario for the administration is that the proposal passes, and a group of undocumented immigrants who are American in all but name and are here through no fault of their own avoid being kicked out of the country. So it's not just politically smart—it's the right thing to do.

Better yet for the administration, the people who voted for Obama expecting comprehensive immigration reform rather than more than a million deportations would have an actual reason to vote for Obama other than fear of a Republican president. Obama has a large lead over Romney among Latinos, but the ratio of the Latino vote that Obama gets is less important than the number of Latinos who would have voted Obama but stay home out of disappointment with the administration.

Colin Powell Evolves on Same-Sex Marriage

| Wed May 23, 2012 6:15 PM EDT
Colin Powell.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell tells CNN he's in favor of same-sex marriage, "either at the state or federal level":

"I respect the fact that many denominations have different points of view with respect to gay marriage and they can hold that in the sanctity in the place of their religion and not bless them or solemnize them," he said.

He said he has "a lot of friends who are individually gay but are in partnerships with loved ones, and they are as stable a family as my family is and they raise children. And so I don't see any reason not to say that they should be able to get married under the laws of their state or the laws of the country."

Powell's remarks hint at the importance of the closet in forestalling acceptance of gays and lesbians—as they became more visible as people, either on screen or in Americans' personal lives, the rationale for restricting their individual rights becomes more and more inscrutable (few people have written on this as eloquently as Andrew Sullivan). That's why preventing the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell was so important to the anti-gay rights cause: It's hard enough to maintain opposition to marriage equality when you know someone who is gay, but it's even harder when it means people possibly losing their lives in combat and leaving behind families the law arbitrarily fails to recognize as legitimate.

In 1993, during the first fight over DADT, Powell argued that discriminating against gays and lesbians in uniform was entirely unlike discrimination on the basis of race. Powell called skin color a "benign, nonbehavioral characteristic," that wasn't comparable to sexual orientation. When President Harry Truman desegregated the military, of course, many Americans felt being black was neither 'benign" nor "nonbehavioral"—they felt being black came along with a set of immutable character deficiencies that would harm the military. Years later, many Americans felt the same way about gays and lesbians.

Powell famously changed his mind about DADT and desegregation during the debate over repeal. In just ten years, Powell went from arguing that servicemembers should stay in the closet to supporting the rights of same-sex couples to marry. That evolution is in some ways even more dramatic than President Obama's, given that many conservatives and liberals regarded the president's opposition to marriage equality as insincere. Powell's evolution also looks much more like the one the country itself is going through—an evolution that seems more inevitable every day.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Many "Pro-Life" Americans Don't Want to Outlaw Abortion

| Wed May 23, 2012 11:50 AM EDT
A pro-choice protester in Seattle.

The big exciting news for Republicans in the latest Gallup poll on abortion is that more Americans identify as "pro-life" and fewer identify as "pro-choice" than ever. Although that's probably not meaningless, Americans' views on whether abortion should be legal haven't actually changed at all.

Here's the carefully written lede from Life News: "A new Gallup survey out today finds the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as supporting legalized abortion has dropped to a record low." It's true that the pro-life movement sees itself as opposing all forms of legalized abortion and 50 percent of Americans now identify as pro-life. But when you look at what the poll results actually say, it's clear Americans' feelings about abortion being legal are much more complicated:

Since 2001, at least half of Americans have consistently chosen the middle position, saying abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, and the 52% saying this today is similar to the 50% in May 2011. The 25% currently wanting abortion to be legal in all cases and the 20% in favor of making it illegal in all cases are also similar to last year's findings.

So a large majority—77 percent—of Americans support abortion being legal in all or "certain circumstances," and just 20 percent of Americans are actually "pro-life" in the sense that opponents of legalized abortion understand the term. Another way of saying this is that most Americans are actually pro-choice even if they sometimes identify as pro-life. In fact, there are more Americans who think abortion should be legal in all circumstances (25 percent) than think it should be illegal in all circumstances (20 percent).

That's good news for someone, but not for people who want to outlaw abortion.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.