Mojo - July 2005

Overturning Roe

| Wed Jul. 20, 2005 2:36 PM EDT

By the way, a few weeks ago I cited Slate's argument that the GOP would never dare overturn Roe vs. Wade—it would become, after all, an electoral catastrophe. In light of the fact that John G. Roberts is about to ascend the Supreme Court bench, and push the Republican Party one step closer to that goal, should Stevens or Ginsburg retire in the next three years, it's worth saying: that idea is probably very much mistaken.

Overturning Roe would, in fact, be fantastic for the Republican party. First, it's true that the overwhelming majority of the United States supports Roe v. Wade. But if it was repealed, many of those women could still get abortions. (California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, for instance, would still keep abortion legal.) Women in many, many other states would be denied that choice, of course, but federalism could fragment the pro-choice electoral coalition. Meanwhile, the Christian right would stay mobilized and clamor for a national abortion ban in Congress. If it passed, I have no doubt that a Supreme Court that overturned Roe could find a way to uphold a national ban on abortion, even if it is logically inconsistent. Now the national ban probably wouldn't pass, because it would be difficult to ram through the Senate, but that recalcitrance would be enough to keep the conservative base foaming at the mouth for years to come. So yes, it is wishful thinking to believe that Republicans might be too afraid to touch Roe.

And it's worth noting that the only way to stop this, really, is to do what the Republicans have been doing and win elections.

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Nevermind, Justice Roberts

| Wed Jul. 20, 2005 2:21 PM EDT

Ah, figures. I go home and Bush changes up the Supreme Court nomination. It's John Roberts, white male extraordinaire. Well, I don't think it's possible to improve on Ezra Klein's round-up of links on Roberts, so I'll just send everyone his way. Meanwhile, this is what Jeffrey Rosen in the New Republic wrote about him awhile back:

Top of his class at Harvard Law School and a former law clerk for Rehnquist, Roberts is one of the most impressive appellate lawyers around today. Liberal groups object to the fact that, in 1990, as a deputy solicitor general, Roberts signed a brief in a case involving abortion-financing that called, in a footnote, for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. But it would be absurd to Bork him for this: Overturning Roe was the Bush administration's position at the time, and Roberts, as an advocate, also represented liberal positions, arguing in favor of affirmative action, against broad protections for property rights, and on behalf of prisoners' rights.

In little more than a year on the bench, he has won the respect of his liberal and conservative colleagues but has not had enough cases to develop a clear record on questions involving the Constitution in Exile. On the positive side, Roberts joined Judge Merrick Garland's opinion allowing a former employee to sue the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for disability discrimination. He pointedly declined to join the unsettling dissent of Judge David Sentelle, a partisan of the Constitution in Exile, who argued that Congress had no power to condition the receipt of federal transportation funds on the Metro's willingness to waive its immunity from lawsuits.

In another case, however, Roberts joined Sentelle in questioning whether the Endangered Species Act is constitutional under Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce. The regulation in question prevented developers from building on private lands in order to protect a rare species of toad, and Roberts noted with deadpan wit that "the hapless toad ... for reasons of its own, lives its entire life in California," and therefore could not affect interstate commerce. Nevertheless, Roberts appears willing to draw sensible lines: He said that he might be willing to sustain the constitutionality of the Endangered Species Act on other grounds. All in all, an extremely able lawyer whose committed conservatism seems to be leavened by a judicious temperament.

Hm. Rosen classifies him as a "principled conservative," someone who would be likely to respect precedent rather than upturn established judicial doctrine in pursuit of some odd originalist project. But it seems that he's still much too untested to tell. The fact that he's represented liberal positions is interesting, and that he refrained from joining a crazy dissent undermining Congress' power under the Commerce Clause, which, when the bar is this low, is heartening. Let's not pretend Roberts is anything other than horrendous, and I can think of a hundred people I'd rather have instead of Roberts on the Supreme Court, but as a colleague pointed out the other day, Congress doesn't really care what I (or any other liberals, for that matter) think.

Don't Forget Failed States...

| Tue Jul. 19, 2005 5:07 PM EDT

Seems that our counterterrorism operations in Somalia are causing a bit of a problem. This from the abstract of a new International Crisis Group report:

Since 2003, Somalia has witnessed the rise of a new, ruthless, independent jihadi network with links to al-Qaeda. Based in lawless Mogadishu and led by a young militia leader trained in Afghanistan, the group announced its existence by murdering four foreign aid workers in the relatively secure territory of Somaliland between October 2003 and April 2004. Western governments, led by the U.S., responded to the threat of terrorism in and from Somalia by building up Somali counter-terrorist networks headed by faction leaders and former military or police officers, and by cooperating with the security services in Somaliland and neighbouring Puntland. The strategy has netted at least one key al-Qaeda figure, and as many as a dozen members of the new jihadi group are either dead or behind bars.

Despite these successes, counter-terrorism efforts are producing growing unease within the broader public. Few Somalis believe there are terrorists in their country, and many regard the American-led war on terrorism as an assault on Islam. Unidentified surveillance flights, the abduction of innocent people for weeks at a time on suspicion of terrorist links, and cooperation with unpopular faction leaders all add to public cynicism and resentment. Without public support, even the most sophisticated counter-terrorism effort is doomed to failure.

As Stygius reminds us, the battle against al-Qaeda, such as it is, won't succeed so long as the Bush administration worries more about "rogue" states than it does "failed" states. Obviously it can do both, but the focus over the past four years has very clearly been on the behavior of state actors like Iraq, Syria and Iran. In Somalia, meanwhile, some counterterrorism operations are being conducted, but nothing connected to a larger project that transforms the country from a place where terrorists and other militants might gather into a stable and functioning government. Without that, it's hard to see any sort of long-term success here, as ICG notes. Thinking beyond al-Qaeda, you get people like Thomas Barnett who argues that the United States can either deal properly with these failed states now, or wait until they burst into some major conflict down the road. Handling a country—and that term's used loosely—like Somalia quite obviously isn't all strawberries and cream; all the same, as Susan Rice pointed out two years ago, the administration doesn't even seem to have a strategy for dealing with failed states.

Welcome to Syria

| Tue Jul. 19, 2005 4:37 PM EDT

The Jamestown Foundation stumbled across something interesting here: a Syrian website puts out a call for mujahideen to come to Iraq through Syria. It starts off by noting, "the situation of the mujahideen in Iraq is entirely stable, and that they are not suffering at all from any shortfall in mujahideen," and says they don't need any more inexperienced fighters. Apparently they've got all the rubes they need for suicide bombings. But it also warns fighters to be wary of the Bashar regime in Syria.

Obviously who knows how reliable this is, but it's one small piece of evidence that: a) the foreign fighters in Iraq feel confident about their strength (though they could well be bluffing), and b) the Syrian regime doesn't appear to be aiding and abetting the foreign component of the insurgency. (I believe there's still some question as to whether Syria is harboring some of the ex-Baathist leaders running the native Iraq bit.)

Justice Clement?

| Tue Jul. 19, 2005 2:32 PM EDT

Rumors have it that Judge Edith Clement-Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans will be Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court after he announces tonight. Bush v. Choice is not pleased with her record on abortion, although she has stated that the Supreme Court "has clearly held that the right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution includes the right to have an abortion." (Then again, Roe v. Wade isn't at stake with this pick, and there's no telling how she'll vote on various restrictions.) And it seems that conservatives are getting the secret hand signal letting them know that Clement is okay.

Beyond abortion, though, her record is a bit of a mystery. Jeffrey Rosen has pointed out that she seems likely to support the conservative "federalist revolution"—which, taken to the extreme, could limit the ability of Congress to do things like lay down environmental protections or issue workplace regulations—and is probably more of an activist, one who would cut through established precedent, than a "principled conservative." I think Jack Balkin is probably right that Bush may be making a shrewd move by picking someone who, nominally, supports abortion rights but is, in fact, ready to roll back a slew of lesser-known protections. Then again, she might not even be the pick, so I guess there's no sense in going overboard just yet.

"Debunking" the Minimum Wage

| Tue Jul. 19, 2005 2:04 PM EDT

Every now and again the distortions about raising the minimum wage pop up again. A few months ago, Power Line—everyone's favorite "Blog of the Year"—was trying to take on David Card and Alan Krueger, two respected economists, by citing data peddled by a fast-food industry-funded think tank a few years back. Uh-huh. Alas, a Blog walks everyone through this debate once more today. The sad part is, this comes up every few months, and right-wingers will probably bring it up from now until time immemorial. There are good arguments against raising the minimum wage, but few of them are clear-cut, and most evidence shows that the policy simply doesn't have a horrendous effect on employment. The Economic Policy Institute—which is hardly an unbiased source, granted—looked at state-by-state evidence, and found that raising the minimum wage has hardly been a disaster anywhere you looked.

By the by, every time the debate over the minimum wage comes up, some conservative will ask, as Powerline does, "Well if you think the hourly minimum needs to be raised to $7, why not $14, or $140?" As if this is some sort of refutation. Conversely, we could ask, if you think a $400 billion deficit is okay, why not $800 billion, or $4 trillion? If you think 15 years is an acceptable prison sentence for manslaughter, why not 50, or the death penalty? If you think 60 Senators are enough to filibuster a law, why not 70, or 100? We could play this game all day and it won't get any less dumb. For instance, an interesting 1999 survey by the Levy Institute found that over three-fourths of employers wouldn't change their employment decisions if the federal minimum was raised to $6, but found small effects if it was raised to $7.25. So there are trade-offs here, as always. That's why most liberals nowadays think a combination of a modest minimum wage hike and a boost in the Earned-Income Tax Credit is the way to go.

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What Does Welfare Do?

| Tue Jul. 19, 2005 1:31 PM EDT

As the New York Times goes after New York's Medicaid program for fraud, waste, and abuse, it's worth taking the time to read this new report by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities documenting the positive side of social welfare programs. The safety net in the United States, meager as it is, has nonetheless managed to cut the number of Americans living in poverty in half, has reduced the severity of poverty for those who are poor (raising their incomes from 29 percent of the poverty line to 57 percent), and providing health insurance to tens of millions of individuals—many of those children. The report, I guess, is a bit of cheerleading, but sometimes this cheerleading gets lost when all the headlines are screaming about waste, fraud, and abuse.

As far as Medicaid goes, there's another sort of waste, fraud, and abuse that goes on and, sadly, won't garner a two-part investigative feature: namely, the lengths towards which states will actively try to deter people from getting on the Medicaid roles. This can be done through a complex registration process, or making it harder for people to figure out whether they're eligible or not, or what have you. This sort of abuse augurs for expanding, not contracting, Medicaid. (Ideally, of course, we'd revamp the entire health care system, but in the absence of that, Medicaid ought to be expanded.) There's absolutely no reason to cut the program—as George Pataki and the Republicans in Albany have been doing for the past decade—just because unscrupulous dentists are making a killing by gaming the system. Police it better. Offer stiffer penalties for this sort of white-collar crime—after all, serious jail time is more likely to deter white-collar criminals than, say, murderers. But don't gut it; as CBPP shows here, it's working far too well and is far too important for far too many people.

Privatization Sinks Further

| Tue Jul. 19, 2005 12:25 PM EDT

Yikes, it seems that Bush's new topic economic advisor, Ben Bernanke just put a spike in the House Republican plan to privatize Social Security. That plan had abandoned all pretense that the program was in "crisis," and decided instead to just borrow billions and billions of dollars to fund "temporary" private accounts. Candy for everyone, it was, and an outright disaster too. But now, barring a House revolt against the White House—and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) did respond to Bernanke by saying, "I don't think the White House is drawing any lines in the sand, these comments notwithstanding"—that plan is dead.

Anyway, it's certainly very responsible of Bernanke not to squander his professional reputation over a crazy House plan, although he still seems to be committed to Bush's privatization idea—namely, steep benefit cuts, bigger deficits, and exposing pensions to increased risk. At the same time, that's also the plan least likely to pass: so long as White House officials pretend that the program is in crisis, and so long as they maintain that that crisis actually needs to be fixed, and so long as they refuse to raise taxes, then benefit cuts will become very necessary, which, as we've seen, are the most unpopular part of this whole fiasco. Meanwhile, it seems the Senate can't get anything moving on this either.

New Badge

| Mon Jul. 18, 2005 6:59 PM EDT

The Army recently announced the Combat Action Badge, a new award intended for any soldier who comes under fire in a combat zone. A similar badge has long been available to infantry and medical team members, but the military found it necessary to create an award for the large numbers of MP's, supply line soldiers, and base crews being injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a recognition that these soldiers are now being called upon to do the job that once was the province of infantry.

Soldiers can receive the badge multiple times, but only once for each "qualifying period." The award is available retroactively from September 16, 2001. The inaugural qualifying period will close, as the authorizing document delicately puts it, at a "date to be determined.

Turning Off Gays

| Mon Jul. 18, 2005 6:09 PM EDT

Salon's feature on Christian groups peddling "reparative" therapy for gay men and women—to cure them, you see, and help them live a normal and happy and healthy lifestyle—is truly horrifying. See, for instance:

Reparative, or "conversion," therapy, as described by its practitioners, resembles something like Freudian psychoanalysis mixed with a dose of Christian theology. The basic theory is that a young boy's futile search for love and affection from an emotionally unavailable father gets contorted into sexual desire for men. "What we are seeing, almost without exception, is the classic triadic family pattern," says Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality). "That is, a distant, detached, critical father, an overinvolved, intrusive, domineering mother, and a temperamentally sensitive, introverted artistic son." As for women, "We see an early breach between the mother and the daughter at an early age."

Very interesting. So if I were to point out that I know gay men who don't have emotionally unavailable fathers, would— Ah, ah, right. It's just being repressed. Okay. And if I know gay women who don't "see an early breach between…" oh, right. Again, repressed. How clever. Luckily, though, the correctional camps are here to help:

This summer, the ministries' controversial methods flared up in public. Gay rights protesters hounded Love in Action after the parents of a 16-year-old boy, "Zach," sent their son to Refuge, an intensive Love in Action therapy program -- apparently against his will -- after he told them he was gay. Just before going into the eight-week program, Zach wrote in his blog, "I can't help it, no, I'm not going to commit suicide, all I can think about is killing my mother and myself. It's so horrible," he wrote.

According to Love in Action's rules, posted on Zach's blog, clients must report sexual fantasies to the staff. The program specifies the exact length of haircuts and how many times men must shave each week (seven). Love in Action bars jewelry and clothing by Abercrombie and Fitch. The rules prohibit "campy gay/lesbian behavior and talk." New clients are not allowed to talk to or make eye contact with anyone for the first three days. Clients have to wear pajamas to bed and if they get too cozy they "must always have exactly one person between them." Clients cannot keep a diary, and all their belongings are searched every morning by the "Chain of Command." All secular media, including music and movies, are forbidden. Also, during counseling -- no "disgusting" faces.

Naïve as I am, I had no clue that Abercrombie and Fitch—what with all those stores plastered with posters of near-naked women—was actually making men gay. More seriously, though, this is all extremely disturbing stuff. One of the more interesting poll findings that has emerged of late is that the "Christian Right" is really quite popular in America. I have two theories about this. One, that the prominence of a few token wackos on the radio and TV—like Jerry Falwell, who claimed that 9/11 was caused by gay people—makes the James Dobson crowd, the folks running the "correctional" camps and whatnot seem moderate by comparison. Second, for the most part the far Christian Right has been able to couch its attack on gay people in terms that others can, to some extent, sympathize with—like the long decline of marriage as an institution or the corrupting influence of popular culture. But read the Salon story: there's no way to hide what's really going on here. I do wonder how popular Dobson and his ilk would be if this sort of thing was publicized more widely.