Mojo - October 2005

Would the GOP Dare Overturn Roe?

| Tue Oct. 18, 2005 3:13 PM EDT

The big news on Harriet Miers today... she's an abortion opponent! Seemed fairly predictable, but okay:

President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Harriet E. Miers, pledged support in 1989 for a constitutional amendment that would ban abortions except when necessary to save the life of the woman.
We still don't know for sure, granted, whether or not Miers would actually vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if she got a chance—and it's worth noting that even if she did, the Court would still have a five-vote Roe majority (Ginsberg, Stevens, Souter, Breyer, Kenendy)—but it's as good an indication as we'll get. Really, we can only guess. What I do want to question, though, is the prevailing view among many liberals that George W. Bush would never want to see Roe overturned, on the theory that it would mean the electoral death of the Republican Party. Is this really so certain? It's true that a substantial majority of Americans supports abortion rights, but there's reason to think that the Republican leadership would still try to overturn Roe, and risk the backlash, if they got the chance.

Will Saletan formulated one version of the "Republicans fear overturning Roe" thesis in this Slate piece, noting that in 1989, when Pa Bush was president, and it looked like the Supreme Court might overturn Roe, the political backlash was colossal: Voters reportedly made it an issue; pro-life politicians lost their jobs; many pro-lifers backed away. That's the claim, anyway. Saletan suggests that the younger Bush has learned his lesson and would never touch Roe. Alternatively, some pundits have suggested that if Roe was overturned, the Christian right would finally be satisfied, pack up their protest signs and go home, and thus dampen voter turnout for the GOP. Pro-choice activists, meanwhile, would be newly fired up (and popular), and the Democrats would benefit.

Historical analysis bears this out to some extent, although these things are always fuzzy. Roe v. Wade helped the Republican Party, no doubt, by spurring religious groups, notably the Christian Coalition and Pat Robertson's 700 Club, to abandon their longstanding quietist stance and finally start getting involved in politics. It also, maybe, spelled the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party's reputation as the party of "moral values" among the electorate. As William Galston and Elaine Karmack recently pointed out, the Democrats have historically polled much higher than the Republicans on "traditional family values" questions, but that lead started declining in or around 1973. Did Roe cause that? Hard to say—surely not singlehandedly (Dems were still doing well on this question in the mid-80s), but perhaps in part.

Nevertheless, there's no going back to 1973, even if Roe was overturned. The Christian Right and other social conservatives wouldn't dismantle the vast political operation they have in place; instead they'd stay focused on passing bans at the state and national level. (The usual estimate is that 30 states would ban abortions if Roe was overturned, although this poll suggests that only about 10-15 states have pro-life majorities; so there's lots to crusade against here.) Once Roe's gone, the Ralph Reeds and Pat Robertsons of the future won't suddenly wash their hands of the GOP and decide that they no longer need to rile up the faithful for political ends—the money's too good and the power too marvelous. No, the conservative base will stay perfectly active. Meanwhile, pro-choice activists in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and other blue states might actually be de-mobilized, since abortion would in theory be safe for them and their friends, and fighting for abortion rights at the state level is much more daunting than fighting to uphold Roe. This might not happen, but it's not that outlandish either. Perhaps this is a risk someone like Grover Norquist would just as soon not take, especially since conservatives are doing just fine as it is, but there seem to be enough hardliners on the Republican side of the aisle willing to take the plunge.

Personally, I think all of this would be horrific, which is why I believe Roe shouldn't be overturned. But the point is that it's not impossible to think the conservative movement would survive the backlash—they've already made abortion a near-impossibility for a large swath of the country, and haven't suffered for it yet—and those who believe the GOP would never dare overturn Roe are making a pretty daunting leap of faith, it seems.

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No more oversight of Iraq spending

| Tue Oct. 18, 2005 10:43 AM EDT

While Congress clamors about potential misuse of post-Katrina funds, $140 billion of Iraq war spending is not being monitored. The Department of Defense Inspector General's auditors were pulled out of Iraq in 2004. The criminal investigation unit, which investigated charges of price inflating, double-billng, kickbacks, and phony shipments, was disbanded exactly a year ago.

U.S. spending in Iraq falls into two major categories--fighting the war and rebuilding the country. It is unreasonable to expect Congress to monitor and investigate recurring charges of abuse and fraud. The $9 billion unaccounted for by Halliburton has never been found, and is no longer a topic of discussion. Meanwhile, on the homefront, Congress worries about how Louisiana will spend its Katrina/Rita recovery money, but we're not hearing anything about the administration's refusal to disclose how it is spending its post Katrina/Rita money.

Katrina Reconstruction

| Mon Oct. 17, 2005 4:02 PM EDT

Follow the "Let them eat cake" lede:

Almost two months after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and a month after promising in a nationally televised speech to help rebuild the region "quickly," President Bush has settled on a cautious, piecemeal approach that even many members of his own party fear will stall reconstruction and sow economic disarray.
At the end of the piece, we find even Jack Kemp complaining about the White House's response to Katrina: "Laissez-faire, Darwinian capitalism is not going to work here." And then there's Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation: "There's been a general hands-off approach, which is disturbing." When even the vanguard is getting a bit queasy over dear leader's callousness, something's gone horribly wrong.

Life Tenure for Judges?

| Mon Oct. 17, 2005 3:51 PM EDT

Ronald Brownstein has a piece in the Los Angeles Times today noting that "[some] prominent legal thinkers from left and right" want to end life tenure for Supreme Court justices. Each time I hear this suggestion, it sounds an awful lot like a solution in dire search of an actual problem, but since it keeps popping up, let's take a look:

Fewer vacancies mean more conflict over those that occur because neither side can be certain when it will receive another chance to change the court.

Longer tenure also raises the stakes in each confirmation by multiplying the effect of each nominee. The common assumption during the recent confirmation debate over new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was that he would serve at least 30 years.I'm not so sure it's a great idea, although admittedly it's all a bunch of guesswork trying to predict what would happen. The way I see it, giving Supreme Court justices, say, fixed 18 year terms (which would mean that each president is guaranteed two nominees per four-year term) would lead to a lot more instability in law, as a two-term president could completely remake the Court. Moreover, since the justices would be serving for a shorter period of time, the Senate would have less incentive to oppose overly-radical nominees, meaning that we'd potentially see greater ideological polarization, and hence greater swings left and right. (There would also be the sense that the president "earned" his two picks by winning his/her election, and thus should get greater deference... basically, I see a lot less "advise and consent" under this system.) Preferences aside, continual instability of this sort doesn't really benefit anyone.

Is it "fairer" to give each president two guaranteed picks to the Court? Maybe, but then you start getting into problems like the fact that people vote for president for lots of reasons, often with the Supreme Court far from mind. Now perhaps if every president was guaranteed two picks, each presidential election would become "about" those two potential nominees to a much greater extent. Good or bad? I don't know. It might lead to a greater degree of cronyism, and could lead to those two judicial nominees showing undue deference to the president who appointed them (since their fortunes were more directly tied to the president's). Now I'm not absolutely convinced that the Supreme Court should be "insulated" from the democratic process, as it currently is, but some of this makes me nervous.

Perhaps even more seriously, I'm not thrilled with the idea of having a bunch of justices who have to worry about what they'll do after they step down from the Court. The revolving door between Congress and K Street—where legislators retire and pick up some plum lobbying job—has produced more corruption and impropriety than is really healthy among the legislature, and I there's no reason to believe that a high court operating in a similar manner would avoid producing its share of Billy Tauzins.

Ultimately, if we wanted to end life tenure for Supreme Court Justices, it would have to be done through constitutional amendment. If the experiment goes badly, it's very unlikely that we can have a do-over. Which brings us to the key question: Why are we itching for a change, anyhow? Granted, there might well be a few problems with the current system—perhaps life tenure can lead to senile Justices on the Court—but that hardly merits a radical overhaul.

Those Diebold Machines Were Sort of Suspicious...

| Mon Oct. 17, 2005 3:17 PM EDT

This doesn't seem like good news:

Iraqi election officials said today that they were investigating what they described as "unusually high" vote totals in 12 Shiite and Kurdish provinces, where as many 99 percent of the voters were reported to have cast ballots in favor of Iraq's new constitution, raising the possibility that the results of Saturday's referendum could be called into question.
Unsaid in the piece, but still one of the bigger problems in Iraq, is the fact that many Sunnis believe that they comprise much, much more than 15-20 percent of the population. As a result, any electoral loss will likely be viewed with suspicion, conspiracy theories will abound, and even in a clean election it will be very hard to convince Sunnis that the Americans didn't rig the vote against them. News like this (or this) certainly doesn't help.

War and Poverty

| Mon Oct. 17, 2005 2:50 PM EDT

Here's a bleak statistic: Over the past twenty years, the median per capita growth of the poorest countries was zero. That's from Branko Milanovic's paper, "Why Did the Poorest Countries Fail to Catch Up?" His explanation—war. Conflict may be on the wane everywhere else in the world, but poor countries are much more likely to get involved in wars and civil strife. This alone accounts for an income loss of about 40 percent. If so, then all the debates about free trade and good governance and foreign aid, while important at the margins, miss the larger trend here. Conflict-prevention in the Third World would do more for global poverty than any other single measure.

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DDT Confusion

| Mon Oct. 17, 2005 2:14 PM EDT

Tim Lambert continues to puncture a favorite meme among the right—the idea that environmentalists have somehow condemned millions of Third World people to death by malaria as a result of their lobbying against DDT since the 1970s. As it happens, this "conventional wisdom" contains a lot of errors. DDT has not been banned outright—not from being used for disease prevention, at any rate—and in many cases, it's not used because it just doesn't provide the best protection against malaria. (In Sri Lanka, for instance, they've stopped using DDT against mosquitoes because the bugs have all become resistant, not because environmentalists want Sri Lankan children to contract malaria.)

Now there are cases in which certain groups try to discourage DDT use in certain countries—and those cases can be debated on the merits; sometimes the decisions are more rational than people like Nick Kristof make them out to be—but pretending there's some global ban on DDT that was foisted on the world after thousands of activists read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is flatly untrue. Go here for more.

When Medicaid Fails

| Mon Oct. 17, 2005 12:47 PM EDT

Those interested in the failings of the U.S. health care system would do well to read Richard Pérez-Peña's long piece on Medicaid in the New York Times today. It touches on a theme mentioned often around here; that the system is so complex that many eligible families don't even know that they're eligible, or can't sign up easily. Obviously, states experiencing budget crunches have every incentive to throw up hurdles to prevent people from enrolling, and the burden falls disproportionately on the poor. The proposed cuts to Medicaid by Republicans in Congress will make a bad situation even worse. Ultimately, this is a problem that can only be fully corrected by a truly universal health care system that doesn't try to exclude those just over the income threshold. (That would also remedy another problem mentioned: doctors often shy away from Medicaid patients, because they don't get paid as much for treating them.)

Pérez-Peña also notes that many poor Americans, even those insured by Medicaid, don't necessarily have good access to care, either because low-income communities are underserved or they lack information, suggesting that improvements along these lines could go a long ways. This point often gets overlooked. Good health involves more than just having insurance, especially in poorer areas, and health-care policy can and should focus on the broader aspects here: prenatal and postnatal care in low-income communities, neighborhood public health clinics, better child health screening in schools, health care education and mentoring. Providing insurance to those who need it is really just the start.

No End in Sight

| Mon Oct. 17, 2005 12:09 PM EDT

Why did the constitutional referendum in Iraq over the weekend go off so relatively peacefully? Gilbert Achchar argues that Sunni voters made a collective effort to go vote down the draft constitution rather than blow stuff up, indicating that they're potentially willing to forsake violence if they think they can achieve their goals politically. Unfortunately, the latter possibility looks remote—especially because Sunnis may believe that they comprise a much greater proportion of Iraq than they actually do, and expect to be treated accordingly.

This December, Iraqis will elect a new National Assembly that will then decide on a number of important amendments that resolve a bunch of still-unresolved constitutional issues, as per the Sunni-Shiite agreement reached just before the referendum. In essence, this is like haggling over the Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, about fifty provisions in the Constitution leave critical details of implementation "up to the legislature," so this next election will be where almost all of the action is. But the Sunnis obviously won't win more than 15-20 percent of the assembly seats in December, so their influence over the new amendments and laws and just about everything worth anything will basically be negligible from here on out. (The Shiites are having a good chuckle about all of this; see KnightRidder: "Shiite leaders said the Sunni Muslims wouldn't win enough seats in the next Assembly to make major changes to the document next year." In other words: "Thanks for playing, chumps.")

From a Sunni perspective, the rational move is probably to continue supporting the insurgency, in the hopes of putting pressure on the Shia and Kurds to make actual concessions come amendment time next year. Or, at least, convince the U.S. to put pressure on the Shia and Kurds. For the Sunnis, violence still accomplishes much more than voting does, and that won't change anytime soon. Indeed, Anthony Cordesman has suggested that the Association of Muslim Scholars is trying to form a "political wing" of the insurgency for just this purpose, something akin to Sinn Fein and the IRA, but insofar as the insurgency has increasingly been hijacked by al-Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who doesn't much care for politics, that doesn't seem to be working out too well. Nevertheless, it's no surprise that the Bush administration has suddenly taken a bleak tone on the future of the insurgency; the infuriating part is that the White House only now seems to be recognizing dynamics that have been apparent for some time.

Plame-gate Unfolds

Fri Oct. 14, 2005 4:13 PM EDT

It seems that we may soon see charges in Plame-gate. The American Leftist notes that Judith Miller has testified a second time and Paul the Spud points out that Karl Rove was called in for questioning before the grand jury for the fourth time. Indeed, it seems that Rove spent over four hours at the federal courthouse today.

What does all this mean? The American Leftist actually speculates that the New York Times may soon be going head to head with the White House as suspicions run high that Rove and Libby will try to blame the entire leak on Miller and the Times. AL writes:

Of course, the prospect of Libby and Rove defending themselves by asserting that they got Plame's name from Miller (who else could it have been?) would shake the NYT to its foundations, regardless of the truth of it.
...
So, for Miller and the NYT, the nightmare is just beginning. She will soon find herself under indictment, or considered an unindicted co-conspirator, or, perhaps, merely a perjurer, forced to settle for the best possible deal, agreeing to assist Fitzgerald as required, used to compel pleas, and if necessary, testify in court as a hostile witness, where her initial refusal to testify, her perjury and her last minute release of highly pertinent documents, her notes of the 6/23/03 meeting, will all be put to good use to convict Libby, and possibly others associated with him.

The Huffington Post takes speculations even further suggesting that the whole sordid affair may bring down those running operations at the NYT behind the scene.

Whatever happens, we can be certain that the show has only just begun.