Mojo - April 2010

Fred Karger for President?

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 12:26 PM PDT

Fred Karger is a busy guy for someone who only recently retired from 30 years as a Republican political consultant. He's spent the last few years fighting with the Mormon Church and the National Organization for Marriage over gay marriage. He tried to "Save the Boom," a historic gay bar in Laguna Beach shut down by a billionaire. And now, it seems, he's ready to run for president.

Karger made the announcement official today in New Orleans, where he has joined with most of the other aspiring Republican presidential contenders at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. When I last saw him in DC, he was preparing for the big day by making up some lapel pins featuring both the American and the gay pride flag. "Every candidate needs a flag pin," he explained with a laugh. No word yet on how they're going over with the not-so-gay friendly crowd in NOLA. But Karger is taking his run seriously. He's already made some scouting trips to New Hampshire, where, he once joked to me, he could clinch the nomination if  only he could fall in love with a local guy and get married. (Gay marriage is legal in New Hampshire.) And Karger, a master of opposition research who helped bring down Michael Dukakis with the Willie Horton connection, has already started attacking one of his main opponents for the Republican nomination: Mitt Romney. 

Last month, Karger organized a protest at a Mormon book store in San Diego where Romney was signing copies of his book, and he also ran newspaper ads during Romney's recent visit to Iowa, urging readers to call Romney to ask him to "urge the Mormon Church to stop its nasty campaign to ban gay marriage."  Karger thinks Romney is in a good position to get the church to back off its multi-million campaigns to ban gay marraige in California and elsewhere, and hopes, perhaps a little optimistically, that Romney will rediscover his concern for gay rights. Romney had a long record of seeking gay supporers, even winning an endorsement from the Log Cabin Republicans back in 1994 when he ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. But Romney quickly recanted those views when he ran for president in 2008. Karger figures that his presidential run gives him a chance to call Romney to the carpet for the flip-flop. Meanwhile, he hopes that as the first gay Jewish Republican presidential candidate, he can do for gay rights what Shirley Chisholm did for African-Americans. Read more about Fred and his colorful life here, in a piece from our most recent print magazine.

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Chamber of Commerce Muzzled

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 10:37 AM PDT

The backlash continues against the Chamber of Commerce's right-wing smear campaigns. Late last month, leaders of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said they would not be participating in the US Chamber's $50 million campaign to unseat members of Congress who supported health reform. "We get nowhere by fighting with our guys," San Antonio Chamber president Richard Perez told the San Antonio Express-News. "They have been very good to us." And today, the LA Times reports that the California Chamber of Commerce is pulling a TV ad against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown after four members of its board complained that "this is nothing more than a typical political attack ad."

Meanwhile, the US Chamber has launched a quixotic advertising campaign urging businesses to join "America's most powerful grassroots force." As recent events make clear, it'd more accurately read, "America's most powerful corporate astroturfer."

The Supeme Court Contender Who's Not a Judge

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 10:19 AM PDT

Now that it's official and Justice John Paul Stevens is set to retire, the media is doing its usual routine of handicapping all the potential candidates to replace him. There's talk of religious diversity—Stevens was the last protestant on a court now made up entirely of Catholics and Jews—and of course racial and gender diversity. But since we're talking about all the things Obama might see as desirable qualities in his next Supreme Court nominee, how about picking someone who has never sat on a federal circuit court? If the current court shows any consistent bias, it's in its kid-glove deference to appellate court judges, something virtually every sitting justice was prior to their high court appointments. And federal circuit court judges are almost by definition some of the most conservative people on the planet simply by virtue of their career choices.

Circuit court judges are insolated from the messy, fact-driven, jury trials overseen by the district courts, and even further removed from the delicate business of dealing with live humans as clients in private or nonprofit practice. More telling, though, getting on a circuit court requires a fair amount of political schmoozing usually cultivated in a white-shoe corporate law firm. That's one reason perhaps that Chief Justice John Roberts always struck me as something of a suck-up during his confirmation hearings. He was well versed in the art of ingratiating himself to people in power. Given all that, it would be nice to see someone join the court who wasn't part of that club. In an ideal world, Obama might find someone who was more of an outsider just to mix things up a bit. His choice of Sonia Sotomayor suggested a tilt in that direction. While she, too, was a sitting circuit court judge and former corporate litigator, she didn't seem to do quite as much schmoozing to get their as some of the other justices, and came with a very different personal history. But everyone on Obama's current short-list, at least the one making the media rounds today, comes from the far more familiar career path. All but one, that is.

While she, like Roberts, worked in corporate law and the White House counsel's office, Solicitor General Elena Kagan has never been a judge. In fact, the former Harvard law school dean had never even argued a case before the Supreme Court before taking over as the government's chief litigator last year. Her lack of experience in that department is one reason court-watchers thought Obama passed her over last summer in favor of Sotomayor. But now that she's had a year defending the Obama administration before the high court, it's clear that she's more than qualified to take a seat there. I watched her argue her first case last September when she defended the Federal Communications Commission in the now-infamous Citizens United case. She was brilliant and fearless, with a touch of irreverance. 

Not that you can extrapolate how someone will perform on the bench from one oral argument, nor does ten years in the ivory tower of Ivy League academia necessarily give Kagan a hugely different perspective on the world from someone with a lifetime appointment to the court of appeals (though having dealt with former Harvard prez Larry Summers on a regular basis just might!). But if Obama is choosing between someone like Kagan and another boring, male, DC circuit judge like Merrick Garland (also on the short list), I'm rooting for the non-judge Kagan. Sandra Day O'Connor she's not, but she's probably as close as we're going to get from this administration.

Obama Probably Won't Nominate Cass Sunstein to Replace Stevens

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 10:13 AM PDT

On Friday, John Paul Stevens, the oldest justice on the Supreme Court and the leader of its liberal wing, announced he would retire this summer. The news immediately fueled speculation that President Barack Obama might nominate his friend and former University of Chicago colleague Cass Sunstein to the vacant seat. Sunstein is currently serving as Obama's regulatory czar.

Eric Posner, a colleague, told Slate that Sunstein is "the most important legal scholar of his generation." That's the problem: as a uniquely prolific and creative legal scholar, Sunstein comes with a lot of baggage. In 2009, Jonathan Stein reported on a big business front group's effort to paint Sunstein as a "radical animal-rights activist." We're republishing that piece today. If Sunstein was getting this kind of flak when he was a nominee for an obscure regulatory position, imagine the controversy if he was nominated to the nation's highest court. Anyway, read Jonathan's piece.

The Egalitarian Internet

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 9:15 AM PDT

There's a bit of chatter on the intertubes about this piece by Politico/Yahoo News media reporter Michael Calderone. In it, Calderone examines the arrival of reporter-blogger wunderkinds like Ezra Klein and Andrew Ross Sorkin and Dave Weigel at old-school media establishments like the Washington Post and the New York Times. The thesis of the piece seems to be contained in this quote from Andrew Sullivan, the philosopher-king of the blogosphere: 

"Voices matter," Sullivan continued. "Trust in the old media brands is largely over. Everything has an individual character or dies."

Fair enough. Here at Mother Jones, we have people like Kevin Drum and David Corn—people whose individual brands aren't necessarily tied up in their association with the magazine or our website. And Kevin and David are big traffic drivers. So there's definitely a certain truth to Sullivan's theory. But I actually thought the most interesting part of Calderone's piece was the end, where he quotes Bill Wolff, the executive producer for "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC. This is the key bit:

Wolff said he believes that [Ezra] Klein has "done a better, more thorough reporting job on the health reform stuff" than anyone else, and he would continue to have him on the show whether he worked at the Washington Post or simply blogged at EzraKlein.com. Weigel, he said, came to the producers’ attention because of his byline on tea party stories that were making the rounds online, not because of any instant name recognition of the publication he worked for.... "Greg Sargent works for 'The Plum Line,'" Wolff said. "I don’t know many people who know what that is. But we read Greg Sargent every single day."

"I don't mean to discredit the companies who employ these people, but as long as the person's reporting is accurate — as long as they’re not making stuff up — then it doesn't matter where they work," Wolff said. "That's the egalitarian nature of the Internet."

I don't think this is quite right. It's not enough to be a good, accurate reporter. The internet is filled with folks who can find things out—people who are accurate and smart and thorough. What separates the Ezra Kleins and Andrew Ross Sorkins of the world* from everyone else is that they can explain what they've learned in a useful, engaging way. Their writing has a voice that cuts through the he-said/she-said drone of newspaper reporting. And despite the expertise they've acquired, they care about breaking down complicated subjects in a way that matters to non-experts. All those things are hard to do. Good for them.

*It is definitely interesting that everyone mentioned in the Calderone piece (except for Megan McArdle, who's not mentioned in the same context as Klein and Sorkin) is male. What's up with that?

Retirement Friday!

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 8:20 AM PDT

Two prominent Americans announced their retirements on Friday. Marc Ambinder reported early this morning that Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who led a group of pro-life Democrats during the health care debate, won't run for reelection. That decision will probably hand Stupak's GOP-leaning seat in northern Michigan to the Republicans. But Stupak's announcement has been overshadowed by an even more noteworthy (although widely anticipated) retirement: that of Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, the Gerald Ford appointee who became the leader of the liberal wing of the Court. The Associated Press reports that Stevens will step down when the Court finishes its term in June or early July.

Now President Barack Obama has to find someone to replace Stevens on the Court. Obama, by all accounts, is not looking for a fight. But this summer, with the midterm elections looming, he could easily get one. The three people who are widely acknowleged as the top candidates to replace Stevens are Elena Kagan, the solicitor general (basically the government's top lawyer); Diane Wood, an appellate court judge; and Merrick Garland, another appellate judge. Kagan is 49; the other two candidates are in their late 50s. It goes almost without saying that if Obama really wants to reshape the court, he'd want to appoint the youngest, most liberal person who can win confirmation. George W. Bush understood that dynamic: Samuel Alito was 55 when he was nominated; Chief Justice John Roberts was just 50.

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin recently wrote an excellent profile of Stevens and what the court might look like without him. You should read the whole thing, but this bit, from the end, seems especially relevant today:

In 2005, a year before his death, Ford wrote, in a tribute to Stevens, "For I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court."

As for Obama, Stevens said, "I have a great admiration for him, and certainly think he’s capable of picking successfully, you know, doing a good job of filling vacancies." He added, "You can say I will retire within the next three years. I’m sure of that."

He will not be seen again, under any circumstances, at a State of the Union address. "I went to a few of them when I was first on the Court, but I stopped," Stevens told me. "First, they are political occasions, where I don’t think our attendance is required. But also it comes when I am on a break in Florida. To be honest with you, I’d rather be in Florida than in Washington."

Let's hope that one day Obama feels as comfortable with his choice to replace Stevens as Ford did with his nomination of the genuine article.

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Liz Cheney's SRLC Gaffe

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 7:33 AM PDT

Liz Cheney opened the Southern Republican Leadership Conference last night with an all-out assault on the Obama administration, singling out the president's handling of foreign policy—a three pronged approach, she said, of "apologize for America, abandon our allies, and appease our enemies"—for particular rebuke. Nothing new there. What was interesting is that she took particular issue with the administration's treatment of Hamid Karzai, whose conduct recently could certainly be described as antagonistic. But what's wrong with the following statement in her prepared remarks (that is, beyond Cheney's overheated rhetoric)? Answer below the fold.

Afghan President Karzai, whose support we need if we are going to succeed in Afghanistan, is being treated to an especially dangerous and juvenile display from this White House. They dress him down publicly almost daily and refuse to even say that he is an ally. There is a saying in the Arab world: "It is more dangerous to be America’s friend than to be her enemy." In the age of Obama, that is proving true.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 9, 2010

Fri Apr. 9, 2010 6:49 AM PDT

 

An Army ROTC cadet rappels down a 45-foot tower during combined field training at the Joint Maneuver Training Center on Camp Atterbury, Ind., on March 27, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Sgt. Will Hill.

Ben Nelson: Reform Rage Target

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

As the prospect of a violent backlash against health care reform has escalated, you can add one more name to the list of lawmakers who've been targeted over their views. Sen. Ben Nelson, the conservative Nebraska Democrat who voted for the main Senate health bill, has confirmed to Mother Jones that he's been threatened. "We’ve experienced it," Nelson said, walking off the Senate floor on March 25. But he added: "I don’t talk about it."

Throughout the debate, Nelson’s office has been flooded with thousands of calls and emails from people "very emotionally charged up, for or against health care reform," Nelson's communications director, Jake Thompson, said Thursday. “He chose to try to participate in the debate rather than sit on the sidelines." But Nelson's office declined to provide details about specific incidents. When asked whether the FBI was investigating any of the individuals who've lashed out against Nelson, Thompson replied, "I'm not going to say." (He noted, however, that the Senator "might comment when he gets back here next week" after the congressional recess is over.)

Shot in the Heart: Death Row Prisoner in Utah Can Choose His Execution Method

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 2:23 PM PDT

The state of Utah is going to allow death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner to choose how he dies--as long as he chooses either lethal injection or a firing squad. Gardner is one of a shrinking groups of condemned prisoners, in more than a dozen states, who are still permitted to make a final, macabre choice between lethal injection and a second method of execution--which might be the firing squad, the electric chair, the gas chamber, or the noose.

Gardner has been on death row since 1985, when he was convicted of killing an attorney during an escape attempt at the Salt Lake Metro Hall of Justice. A judge will likely sign Gardner’s death warrant next week, with an execution date set in June. Under Utah law, he is among a handful of longtime death row inmates who has the right to choose between the state's current means of executing prisoners and its previous one. 

According to Terry Lenamon’s Death Penalty blog, “In Utah, it was only recently that their state legislature nixed the option of a death penalty by firing squad--and when it acted, four men sat on Death Row for whom the new law did not apply.  These four men were ‘grandfathered’ into the prior law, and the execution methods that were options when they were sentenced are legally still available to them today. Ronnie Lee Gardner is one of these men.”

After a hearing on Monday, assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker said the state would not contest Gardner’s choice. “And to help him decide,” the Salt Lake City Tribune reports, ”the Utah Department of Corrections has agreed to release general information about the execution methods to Gardner’s lawyers.” In response to a request from Gardner, the DOC will provide his attorneys with “relevant documents [that] detail the training and expertise of the execution team. The identity of the team members and other information affecting security will not be included.”

Tom Patterson, executive director of the DOC, said the department is prepared to muster a firing squad, if need be. “If Mr. Gardner would like to be executed in that format and the court orders that, then we will carry that out,” he said. But according to a report by Fox 13 in Salt Lake City, corrections officials are concerned about a death by firing squad creating a media ”circus.” An execution by this method would be “novel” even for Utah, Patterson said. What’s more, “We are the only state that has firing squad at this point, and so yeah, it does become a bit of a novelty, nationwide and even worldwide.”

The most famous U.S. execution by firing squad in modern times also took place in Utah: In 1977, multiple murderer Gary Gilmore was killed by five men with rifles, while strapped to a chair with a hood over his head and a target pinned over his heart. (Gilmore’s choice had been between firing squad and hanging.) He was the first person to be executed in the United States for nearly ten years, after the Supreme Courts lifted an effective ban on capital punishment. Since that time, one other man, John Albert Taylor, has chosen to die by firing squad, also in Utah. According to the New York Times, Taylor chose this method for his 1996 execution “to make a statement that Utah was sanctioning murder.”