Kevin Drum - May 2012

Friday Cat Blogging — 18 May 2012

| Fri May 18, 2012 3:58 PM EDT

So I know you guys are probably missing Inkblot and Domino, but fortunately I have a few cat pictures for you. At the moment I live in a house with four fat orange cats I affectionately refer to as a "herd of Garfields" for reasons that will become immediately obvious below.

Here's Burns and Pumpkin falling asleep in a sunbeam:

 Burns-Pumpkin

And here's Pumpkin again, dressed up in his Sunday best (slightly Instagrammed):

 

I hope you guys can be okay with these until Kevin gets back. See you next week.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

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Obama Love Letter Truthers

| Fri May 18, 2012 3:00 PM EDT

Slate's Dave Weigel checks in on Jack Cashill, the conservative writer who intiated the conspiracy theory that Bill Ayers actually wrote Barack Obama's autobiography, and finds Cashill in disbelief over mid-20s love letters Obama wrote to a girlfriend that were uncovered by David Maraniss:

[W]riting longhand, presumably from memory, Obama has the wherewithal to put an umlaut over the “u” in Münzer. In college, I was an Honors English student and a Classics minor, not a political science major like Obama. I had not even heard of Münzer before reading this letter.

That Obama could embark upon a sophisticated, spontaneous discussion of T.S. Eliot – he claimed not to have read “The Waste Land” for a year and never bothered “to check all the footnotes” – should have alerted Maraniss.

So, Cashill's argument that Obama didn't write his book, or the letters, is that there's no way Obama is smarter than him. I wonder what makes him so certain about that?

My colleague Tim Murphy has more.

Reefer Madness in the Trayvon Case

| Fri May 18, 2012 1:01 PM EDT

Though the web headlines have been altered since, several news organizations (including Mother Jones) led their stories on Thursday's evidence dump in the Trayvon Martin shooting case with the revelation that Martin had small amounts of THC in his system.

This in itself is not all that surprising—Martin was suspended from school for possession of marijuana shortly before he was killed. The decision to lead with that information, however, suggests that it's somehow material to the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman, and I'm puzzled as to why anyone would think that's the case. Here's National Review's Andrew McCarthy, who in response to a report from ABC seems to regard the news as fully exonerating Zimmerman:

The report neglects to mention that in the 911 tape, George Zimmerman reported to the police dispatcher that Martin seemed suspicious to him because it seemed Martin was "on drugs or something."

The report doesn't say Martin was high at the time, or how that would have justified the use of lethal force by Zimmerman, but McCarthy seems to believe the case is closed. McCarthy's reaction is indicative of the conversation surrounding the Martin killing, which has at times seemed less about the facts of the case and more about whether Martin was the type of scary black person Zimmerman would have been justified in fearing. There's a discomfiting parallel here with rape cases, where too often the facts are subsumed in a debate about whether the victim had it coming. 

That Martin's exposure to marjiuana should be central to this argument, however, seems particularly absurd. The last three presidents of the United States have all but admitted to smoking marijuana, with George W. Bush demurring on the basis that admitting he had done so might set a bad example for children. This is not a drug that turns people into the Incredible Hulk. 

Conservatives might respond that Zimmerman's personality is equally on trial, given that many liberals believe he racially profiled Martin prior to their confrontation. Zimmerman, however, is still alive to defend himself, both in a Florida court and in the court of public opinion. Martin is not.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation. 

House GOP Kills Proposal to Block Indefinite Detention of US Citizens

| Fri May 18, 2012 10:12 AM EDT
An anti-NDAA protest in Portland, Oregon, in January 2012.

At least it's on the record: Most House Republicans support the indefinite detention without trial of American citizens. 

During Thursday's floor debate over the latest national defense authorization act, the House GOP brought out their long knives for Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who, in their view, had collaborated on a nefarious plot to undermine national security. Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) accused the lawmakers of wanting to "coddle terrorists," while Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) warned that under an amendment they'd introduced, "as soon as a member of Al Qaeda sets foot on US soil, they hear you have the right to remain silent." National Review's Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who has never heard of a same-sex marriage supporting, pro-financial regulation liberal who wasn't secretly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote that their proposal was the result of "libertarian extremists" teaming up with liberals with an "obsession" with giving "more rights" to "mass murderers."

What exactly was the diabolical scheme Smith and Amash had proposed, which would lead to a Normandy-like invasion of Al Qaeda terrorists armed with Muslim Heat Vision and bent on taking advantage of America's adversarial court system? It was an amendment to the defense bill that says anyone arrested on American soil on suspicion of terrorism would get a fair trial in a civilian court, where their guilt would have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Last year's defense bill provoked a backlash, because Congress failed to establish clearly whether or not the president can lock up an American citizen without ever having to charge them with a crime. (The bill's detention provisions were just blocked by an Obama-appointed judge, in part because a government attorney couldn't answer the judge's question about whether a journalist reporting on a terrorist group could be indefinitely detained without trial.)

This time around, the line is absolutely clear. Smith and Amash proposed that the government actually has to prove you're guilty of a crime before depriving you of your liberty, something that the founding fathers found significant enough to write into the Constitution. Their opponents want the government to have the power to lock up American citizens without ever convicting them of anything, just because it says someone is a terrorist. Their proposal went down by a vote of 182-231, with only a handful of Republicans joining Amash in support.

As Smith pointed out during yesterday's floor debate, the Fifth Amendment says no "person" shall be deprived of liberty without due process of law. It doesn't say "citizen," and the text of the Constitution uses both words enough that it's clear the framers understood the difference. "Your beef is with James Madison," Smith told Thornberry on Thursday. So keep in mind, when Republicans like Rooney say that Smith and Amash want to "coddle terrorists," they're not necessarily talking about some heavily armed Al Qaeda fighter in Kandahar. They're potentially talking about you.

It's worth noting that only twice have suspected terrorists captured on American soil been shunted into military detention, and both times the individuals in question were transferred back into the criminal justice system because of fears the Supreme Court would declare such powers unconstitutional. Since then, federal courts and civilian authorities have easily handled terrorists, citizen or otherwise, from "Underwear Bomber" Umar Abdulmutallab to Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. To underscore: the power to hold terror suspects captured in the US in military detention is of questionable constitutionality, has almost never been used, and confers no advantages either to incapacitating terrorists or gathering intelligence that civilian authorities don't already possess.

Republicans opposed to the Smith-Amash amendment proposed a hoax fix that "reaffirms" Americans' right to habeas corpus. Only the right to habeas was never in question, so their proposal doesn't actually do anything. It is a complete non-sequitur, a bad-faith attempt to prevent Smith and Amash from closing a gaping "terrorism exception" to Americans' due process rights. That amendment passed by almost the same overwhelming margin that the Smith-Amash amendment failed, by a vote of 243-173.

If nothing else however, it's illuminating to watch "small-government" Republicans—who have spent the last three years lamenting the loss of freedom caused by a higher marginal tax rate or the regulation of derivatives—defend the most arbitrary big government power imaginable. 

The End Of White America

| Thu May 17, 2012 6:00 PM EDT

Thursday's New York Times had news sure to provoke demographic panic in some of the more unsavory corners of American society: the Census Bureau announced that non-white babies now account for the majority of births in the US. Here's the Times writeup: 

Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 49.6 percent of all births in the 12-month period that ended last July, according to Census Bureau data made public on Thursday, while minorities — including Hispanics, blacks, Asians and those of mixed race — reached 50.4 percent, representing a majority for the first time in the country’s history.

Such a turn has been long expected, but no one was certain when the moment would arrive — signaling a milestone for a nation whose government was founded by white Europeans and has wrestled mightily with issues of race, from the days of slavery, through a civil war, bitter civil rights battles and, most recently, highly charged debates over efforts to restrict immigration.

While over all, whites will remain a majority for some time, the fact that a younger generation is being born in which minorities are the majority has broad implications for the country’s economy, its political life and its identity. "This is an important tipping point," said William H. Frey, the senior demographer at the Brookings Institution, describing the shift as a "transformation from a mostly white baby boomer culture to the more globalized multiethnic country that we are becoming."

I'm generally skeptical of stuff like this, because the definition of "white" has never been static. White ethnics—Irish, Italians, Jews—were long excluded from whiteness on the grounds that they were racially inferior, but they were integrated into a more inclusive redefinition of whiteness post-World War II. The same is likely to happen in the next generation—people that we don't consider to be white today might identify as such in the future.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Would Mitt Romney Be the Most Right-Wing President Ever?

| Thu May 17, 2012 4:38 PM EDT

My former colleague Jamelle Bouie's cover story for the American Prospect suggests that if elected, Mitt Romney would be the most conservative president in recent memory:

These aren't idle expectations. If Romney wins the White House, it's a sure bet that Republicans will also win the Senate—Democrats are defending a disproportionately large number of seats this year—and maintain their majority in the House of Representatives. More important, Romney's agenda is almost entirely fiscal: cuts to taxes, cuts to entitlements, and cuts to domestic programs. All of this can be passed through budget reconciliation, which makes it immune to a filibuster. Republicans could force through their ideas without a single Democratic vote.

In terms of figuring out what you're actually voting for, it makes more sense to think about yourself as voting for a party rather than a candidate. That candidate will pursue the party's agenda within whatever objective structural constraints exist, meaning even if Barack Obama were the closet radical so many conservatives think he is, his policy agenda would still have been subject to the whims of Democratic centrists in the Senate.

If Mitt Romney wins, he'll likely be facing fewer of those constraints. The Democratic Party is a coalition of liberals and moderates. The Republican Party is currently dominated by conservatives. Obama had to tailor his policy preferences to appeal Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to beat Republican filibusters, but it's unlikely Democrats will be able to act with the same ideological discipline that Republicans have displayed over the past few years. 

Even so, Romney seems uniquely suited to fitting the "warm body" standard—that all Republicans need is a president ready to rubber-stamp whatever Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) comes up with—that Bouie refers to at the beginning of his piece. The best explanation I've seen for the two Romneys (The moderate Massachussetts governor and the conservative standard-bearer) comes from Reason's Peter Suderman, who compares Romney to a business consultant who views his task as "presenting the customer with a slicker, better packaged, but fundamentally unchanged version of itself." When the client was liberal Massachussetts, Romney was a moderate. As the leader of the post-Tea Party GOP, he will as conservative as his clients need him to be. 

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

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How Toxic Was "The Ricketts Plan" on Jeremiah Wright? This Toxic.

| Thu May 17, 2012 2:10 PM EDT

On Thursday morning, the New York Times reported that a Republican super-PAC funded by wealthy conservative Joe Ricketts was considering a plan to turn Jeremiah Wright into Obama's running mate in the 2012 election. By early afternoon, the Ending Spending Action Fund was already repudiating "The Ricketts Plan" to defeat Obama. That was fast.

Here's the super-PAC's statement:

Joe Ricketts is a registered independent, a fiscal conservative, and an outspoken critic of the Obama Administration, but he is neither the author nor the funder of the so-called “Ricketts Plan” to defeat Mr. Obama that The New York Times wrote about this morning. Not only was this plan merely a proposal – one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors – but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take. Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a President this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.

In America today, really overt bigotry is toxic. It just is. If you want to exploit bigotry effectively, you have to do so with some kind of plausible deniability, and in 2012 just getting a "extremely literate conservative African-American" to narrate your racist ad just won't cut it. It's not clear, though, that Ricketts understood this before the Romney campaign started trying to distance itself from the "The Ricketts Plan" on Thursday. The third page of "The Ricketts Plan," presumably referring to the airing of a hypothetical Wright ad during the 2008 election, states "If the nation had seen that ad, they'd never have elected Barack Obama." If the quote is accurate, and Ricketts thought a Wright ad would have changed the outcome of the 2008 election, it's hard to believe he never seriously considered running one this time around.

UPDATE: Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy emails my colleague Nick Baumann with a response to Ricketts' statement:

We have done a post on his statement, and will report further on this.... That said, they're not actually denying anything in our piece. We reported that it was a proposal awaiting final approval. And yes, we certainly stand by our reporting.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

RIP Chuck Brown

| Thu May 17, 2012 12:21 PM EDT
Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-go.

Judging by my college experience, for folks outside of the DC area, Go-go music probably conjures images of mod dancers in high boots. Within DC, though, it refers to the city's predominant musical genre, pioneered by the incomparable Chuck Brown, known as the Godfather of Go-go, who died Wednesday. The Root's Natalie Hopkinson, who recently wrote a history of Go-go music, has a great retrospective on the social and cultural trends that birthed Go-go:

In the years that followed the uprising, Chuck would tell the kids more than just that. At a time when urban planners and policymakers ceded authority over inner-city Washington to the hustlers and the pimps, Chuck Brown showed kids how to play music. He showed them how to hype the audience through West African-style call and response, how to slow down ecstatic crowds to groove to the same sultry, slow-boiling conga beat. He showed them how to knit the audience into a community and to train them to come back, night after night, generation after generation.

Chuck taught D.C. natives to take those charred ruins of the civil rights movement in riot-blackened places like U Street and use them to make art. Not the kind of art that crosses over onto pop-music charts or that gets co-opted by multinational entertainment companies or even gets an NEA grant, but, nonetheless, the kind that generations of black Washingtonians have used for fellowship.

Despite the migration of DC residents south, either permanently or to historically black colleges and universities, Go-go never quite managed to make it beyond the DC metro area. Some artists tried—you can hear it's influence in a few nationally released tracks, like Jill Scott's "It's Love," Ludacris' "Pimpin' All Over the World," and of course Wale's "Pretty Girls," but it remains a DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia) thing. There's really nothing on Earth like a go-go, and absent the immediacy of being there, hearing the music, and dancing to it maybe the genre's appeal just can't really be understood. I'll spare MoJo readers an account of my first time at a Go-go, but aside from his profound role in shaping the culture of the city, every semi-awkward dude in DC owes Brown a debt of gratitude for his contributions to a genre of music that tends to be less uh, labor-intensive for men.

Anyway, here's Chuck Brown's Bustin' Loose:

One of the great things about Go-go is bands doing covers of pop songs. This Rare Essence version of Ashlee Simpson's Pieces of Me is one of my favorites, just because it's weird.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

Judge Blocks Enforcement of National Defense Authorization Act

| Thu May 17, 2012 9:59 AM EDT

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

On Wednesday, Obama-appointed(!) Judge Katherine B. Forrest blocked the section of last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that purported to "reaffirm" the 2001 authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda. A group of activists and journalists had argued that the vague wording of the law could subject them to indefinite military detention because their work brings them into contact with people whom the US considers to be terrorists, and in doing so violated their First Amendment rights. 

Forrest agreed with the plaintiffs that the relevant section of the law was "not merely an 'affirmation'" of the 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF). "Basic principles of legislative interpretation," she wrote, "require Congressional enactments to be given independent meaning"—judges can't simply assume a law does nothing. None of this brings the war on terror to a halt, mind you, because Forrest says there are "a variety of other statutes which can be utilized to detain those engaged in various levels of support of terrorists," so her injunction "does not divest the Government of its many other tools."

Forrest's logic is pretty sound: After all, there would have been no point to "reaffirming" the AUMF if doing so didn't expand the government's powers. Hawks in Congress wanted a "reaffirmation" to ensure groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which didn't exist on 9/11, were covered under the 2001 law. The NDAA states in the "reaffirmation" section that people eligible for detention are those who have "substantially" supported Al Qaeda or any of its associated groups. The plaintiffs argued that section represented an expansion of existing governmental authority that could result in their detention.

Judge Forrest's decision, however, has to be read in the context of what happened in court: When Forrest asked the government lawyer charged with defending the statute whether the journalists, who said their work has brought them into contact with groups like Hamas or the Taliban, could be indefinitely detained, the government's lawyer wouldn't say:

JUDGE: Assume you were just an American citizen and you're reading the statute and you wanted to make sure you do not run afoul of it because you are a diligent U.S. citizen wanting to stay on the right side of [the law], and you read the phrase 'directly supported'. What does that mean to you?

GOVERNMENT: Again it has to be taken in the context of armed conflict informed by the laws of war.

JUDGE: That’s fine. Tell me what that means?

GOVERNMENT: I cannot offer a specific example. I don't have a specific example.

When asked again whether one of the journalists' activities would qualify as "substantial" support for a terrorist group, the government attorney said, "I don't know what she has been up to."

Asked direct questions about what might subject someone who wasn't actively engaging in hostilities to indefinite military detention, the official representative of the government responded with creepy Orwellianisms.

Congress had ample warning that the vagueness of "substantially supported" might make the NDAA vulnerable in court. Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson told the House Armed Services Committee in March that the language related to "substantial support" of terrorist groups "would give us litigation risk, without a doubt."

And what do you know? It did.

Jeremiah Wright Is Not a Silver Bullet

| Thu May 17, 2012 9:54 AM EDT
Jeremiah Wright at the Press Club in 2008.

There's a group of Republicans who are convinced that if Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) had simply run Jeremiah Wright ads twenty-four hours a day during the 2008 election, Barack Obama would not be in the White House. This time around, the New York Times reports, (in what sounds suspiciously like a fundraising bid) a Republican Super-PAC called the Ending Spending Fund, bankrolled in part by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, is planning to drive the Wright stake into Obama's vampire heart and leave him out for the sun:

The $10 million plan, one of several being studied by Mr. Ricketts, includes preparations for how to respond to the charges of race-baiting it envisions if it highlights Mr. Obama's former ties to Mr. Wright, who espouses what is known as "black liberation theology."

The group suggested hiring as a spokesman an "extremely literate conservative African-American" who can argue that Mr. Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln."

Conservative attempts to deflect charges of race baiting by using minority spokespeople are really obvious, but it's still funny to see this kind of cynicism expressed so frankly. (You can read more on the Ricketts plan from my colleague Tim Murphy.)

The 2012 election was always going to be ugly, with Republicans looking to maximize their share of a shrinking white electorate and the Democrats increasingly dependent on their coalition of young urban whites and minorities. But the idea that, if not for McCain's honorable restraint, Americans would have voted against Obama is mostly a figment of the conservative imagination. A Pew study in 2008 found that a majority of Americans (including 50 percent of Republicans!) felt the media overcovered the Jeremiah Wright story. If that didn't destroy Obama in 2008, when he was still something of a unknown quantity, it won't work after four years of getting to know him. Everyone who could be convinced that Wright is the key to Obama's soul has already been convinced. 

The storyboards for the Wright ad, though, implicitly accept this. Instead of merely highlighting Wright, the ad actually adopts the Rush Limbaugh black revenge fantasy theory of the Obama presidency, namely that America's ongoing economic stagnation is not the result of an incorrect or inadequate response to the recession, but that it was deliberately engineered by Obama as payback against white people. Under this theory, Obama has deliberately nurtered the economic malaise—one that threatens his chances at a second term, led to higher levels of unemployment among non-whites than whites, and resulted in the evaporation of minority wealth gains—just to get back at whitey. Like the idea of Obama being an amalgamation of President Jimmy Carter and the Black Panther Party's Huey Newton, this deranged explanation collapses under the crushing weight of its own contradictions.  

Although the Internet will be forever grateful for the introduction of the term "black metrosexual Abraham Lincoln," the term really says everything about the twisted lens through which this group of Republican strategists understands race and masculinity. Put simply, the group is going to try to convince voters that Obama is the type of black man they cross the street to avoid. That didn't work in 2008, it's hard to see how anyone who wasn't already working from the same distorted understanding of race is going to buy it now. For all of America's lingering problems with race, racism just isn't the silver bullet. 

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin Drum is on vacation.