Mojo - December 2010

Health Reform's Plan B?

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 10:44 AM EST

Could a federal judge's ruling against health reform's individual mandate actually help the law survive? Hudson's decision dealt the biggest legal blow to the federal health law to date, and he could be joined on Thursday by another conservative district judge who's slated to rule on the mandate in Florida. But Hudson's ruling also dashed the hopes of the law's biggest opponents, who were hoping to stop the entire law in its tracks before it reached the Supreme Court.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who brought the suit against the law, had tried to convince the court to enjoin the entire law to prevent it from being implemented. Hudson declined to do so—a decision that health reform advocates went so far as to declare a victory. "The victory is more significant than the loss—the legislation will continue to be implemented around the country," says Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a health reform advocacy group.

The federal government has already begun the massive undertaking of putting the early stages of the law into effect, cajoling state regulators, insurers, and other major players to move along. Hudson's decision to let the entire law—including the individual mandate, with its 2014 start date—remain in effect will help ensure that "the process will move forward," Pollack adds. Republicans could use the protracted legal battle to drag their heels on complying with the law and enforcing its regulations on the state level. But most of the time they won't have a choice, and the more provisions that go into effect, the harder health reform will be to repeal—even under a completely GOP-controlled Washington.

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Poll: Obama Not a Christian, But Neither is...Glenn Beck!?

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 9:00 AM EST

Last week I told you about the drama in the Texas speaker's race, where conservative Christian activists have been accused of anti-Semitism for suggesting that incumbent (and Jewish) speaker Joe Straus is not sufficiently Christian. The catch is that this kind of attack is hardly unique to Straus. Here's a new poll from the Christian firm Lifeway Research, which illustrates that pretty well.

Lifeway surveyed 1,000 protestant pastors—liberal and conservative, evangelical and mainline—about the religious views of a handful of well-known politicians and celebrities. The good news is most of the pastors (a supermajority, even!) think Sarah Palin is a Christian. On the other hand, 33 percent of them don't. Obama checks in at 41 percent. And Glenn Beck? Just 27 percent, largely on account of his Mormon faith. That's better than Oprah (19 percent), but not what you might expect from the man who's built a movement (and a bank account) preaching the Christian influence of the Founders.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I'd add that "Protestant pastors" is a fairly specific cohort; actually, it sounds dangerously close to a Mark Penn Microtrends demographic ("station-wagon seminarians," perhaps?). And Lifeway doesn't really get into the details, except to note that liberals are more likely to say everyone's a Christian, and conservatives are more likely to say no one is. But you can see the larger point: Being a "Christian," and being identified as such by others is not mutually inclusive. Politics only magnifies that.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 14, 2010

Tue Dec. 14, 2010 6:30 AM EST

U.S Army Capt. Joshua MacLean and Abdul Rahim Mazai, malik of the town of Bajawri, shake hands outside a village mosque in Afghanistan's Parwan province, Dec. 6, 2010. MacLean is an information officer assigned to the 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment. Courtesy photo via U.S. Army.

Georgia Prisoners’ Strike: “We locked ourselves down.”

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 7:16 PM EST

In a protest that appears to be spreading through Georgia's prison system, inmates are striking for better conditions. One interesting facet of this rare prison strike, which reaches across multiple facilities and across racial and factional lines, is the participants' use of self-imposed lockdown to serve their own goals.

Lockdown, in which prisoners are confined to their cells for up to 24 hours a day, is routinely imposed on inmates for punishment or as a "security" measure. In this case, however, prisoners are refusing to leave their cells until their demands are taken seriously. The Georgia Corrections Department's only response so far, ironically, has been to place the affected prisons on lockdown. As the New York Times reported:

"We're not coming out until something is done. We're not going to work until something is done," said one inmate at Rogers State Prison in Reidsville. He refused to give his name because he was speaking on a banned cellphone...

The Corrections Department placed several of the facilities where inmates planned to strike under indefinite lockdown on Thursday, according to local reports.

"We're hearing in the news they're putting it down as we're starting a riot, so they locked all the prison down," said a 20-year-old inmate at Hays State Prison in Trion, who also refused to give his name. But, he said, "We locked ourselves down."

The best roundup we've found of information and context on the strike appears today on Prison Law Blog, including a full list of the prisoners' demands, excerpted below.

· A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.

· EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: For the great majority of prisoners, the DOC denies all opportunities for education beyond the GED, despite the benefit to both prisoners and society.

· DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the DOC denies adequate medical care to prisoners, charges excessive fees for the most minimal care and is responsible for extraordinary pain and suffering.

· AN END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: In further violation of the 8th Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.

· DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Georgia prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, with little heat in winter and oppressive heat in summer.

· NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Vegetables and fruit are in short supply in DOC facilities while starches and fatty foods are plentiful.

· VOCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise.

· ACCESS TO FAMILIES: The DOC has disconnected thousands of prisoners from their families by imposing excessive telephone charges and innumerable barriers to visitation.

· JUST PAROLE DECISIONS: The Parole Board capriciously and regularly denies parole to the majority of prisoners despite evidence of eligibility.

The Radicalism of Judge Hudson's Health Care Law Decision

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 6:30 PM EST

On Monday, Henry Hudson, a federal district court judge previously best-known for sending NFL quarterback Michael Vick to prison, became an instant conservative superstar by striking down the individual mandate, the part of the Democrats' new health care reform law that will require Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine.

Hudson wasn't the first federal judge to rule on the Affordable Care Act—two others already upheld it, and another is due to release his decision Thursday—but the George W. Bush appointee was the first to deem part of the law unconstitutional. The battle is almost certain to reach the Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 5-4 majority. If Bush v. Gore is any indication, health care reform could be in serious trouble. (My colleague Suzy Khimm has more on the individual mandate ruling here. Kevin Drum, meanwhile, says President Obama should accede to Republican demands and ask the Supreme Court to review the case right away, skipping the lengthy appeals process.)

There's more to this story, though. Unfortunately, most of the commentary on Hudson's decision [PDF] focuses on its immediate impact on the health care law. But the issues at stake in Cuccinelli v. Sebelius (Ken Cuccinelli is the conservative attorney general of Virginia; Katherine Sebelius is President Barack Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services, or HHS) are actually far broader. Hudson's ruling doesn't just show how the Supreme Court could gut the health law—it shows how the court could neuter the entire federal government. 

From Filibernie to Twitterbuster: The Digital Sit-in of the Tax Deal

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 2:39 PM EST

A few days after Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) became the world's biggest Twitter trend with his 8.5-hour filibuster of the Obama/GOP tax deal, the #filibernie has morphed into a loosely-defined "digital sit-in"  promoted under the new hash tag #Twitterbuster. A few sample tweets:

@imwithbernie: okay twittetarians...it's now or never. show the #filibernie support. #twitterbuster = digital sit-in, RT #twitterbuster

@normavela: If you support Bernie Sanders's opposition to tax cuts for the wealthiest, tweet & retweet #filibernie #twitterbuster

@SoundPolitic: I called my Senators to stand with Bernie Sanders. Took about 15 minutes. I KNOW you've got the time too! #filibernie #twitterbuster

@Heidiko44: Robin Hood was right #filibernie #twitterbuster

Beyond the obvious outrage over giving tax breaks to the rich during a budget crisis, the twitterverse's fascination with Sanders' speech might have something to do with mashing up two vastly different types of media. There's something delightfully jarring about promoting the definition of long-form oration, the filibuster, on a  platform constrained to 140 characters. One of Friday's most popular tweets attempted to sum up the entire address: "@SenatorSanders spoke for 8.5 hours in defense of 98% of Americans."

For highlights from the monster speech that started it all, check out my summary here.

UPDATE: On Monday night, Sanders appeared on Countdown With Keith Olbermann and was attacked by Stephen Colbert, who proposed that instead of taxing the rich, we support the poor by purchasing and eating their children. Below the jump Rachel Maddow recaps his speech and makes the case that the Beltway media exhibited a bias in its spotty coverage of the event.

Update #2: On Tuesday, Twitter user @imwithbernie launched an eponymous website, imwithbernie.com, that allows users to easily highlight and tweet any part of the transcript of Sanders 72,000-word oratory.

Last updated on 12/14/10 at 1:35 Pacific

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Federal Judge Rules Against Health Reform

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 2:36 PM EST

A federal judge has ruled against the Democrats' health care law, agreeing with Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's contention that the law's requirement that Americans purchase health insurance (the so-called "individual mandate") is unconstitutional.

It's the first court ruling against Obama's sweeping health reform law. In his ruling, Henry Hudson, a George W. Bush-appointed district judge, said the individual mandate went beyond the federal government's authority to regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution. Compelling people to enter a commercial market, Hudson wrote, was tantamount to "invit[ing] unbridled exercise of federal police powers." He continued: "At its core, this dispute is not simply about regulating the business of insurance—or crafting a scheme of universal health insurance coverage—it's about an individual's right to choose to participate." But the judge also denied Virginia's request to prevent the entire law from being implemented. Instead, he limited the scope of his ruling to the mandate.

Though the ruling is a significant setback for health reform, it's only the latest legal development: two other federal courts have ruled in favor of the law, and another ruling is expected this Thursday. All these rulings are precursors to a highly anticipated Supreme Court battle. That fight could determine not only the fate of health reform, but also the political futures of the law's major supporters and detractors.

For the moment, at least, it's an unequivocal victory for Ken Cuccinelli, the conservative crusader and grassroots hero who called the challenge to health-care reform "a major priority for the Tea Party in Virginia."

Can Palin Reconciliate This?

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 12:46 PM EST

In July, Sarah Palin told The Daily Caller, a conservative site, that

the media became a key reason she decided not finish out her term as governor.

Bad media—forcing her to quit a job! Now let's turn to an interview she gave recently to Human Events magazine:

What attributes does Palin think a GOP candidate who steps up to the plate in 2012 should have? "Someone who’s willing to take some risks in terms of bringing in people who aren’t the known bureaucrats, but people with private sector experience who know how to run a business, make payroll, balance a budget, and live within your means." According to Palin, the candidate should also have "that steel spine, thick skin, not worrying about what it is that the adversaries are going say about you" and an understanding that "it is the people who hire you, who elect you, whom you are beholden to." Palin also spoke about the importance of humility: "You have to have a team around you that you will listen to, and that takes some humility, and not an arrogant, elitist attitude pretending that nobody else's advice really matters because you’re so doggarned smart you’re going to do it yourself."

The interviewer, Jedediah Bila, observed, "Who does that sound like? You be the judge?" Obviously, Bila thought Palin was describing herself. But how can Palin tell The Daily Caller that she ran out on her commitment to Alaska's citizens because of pesky journalists but then insist to Human Events that a political candidate must have a thick hide and ignore assaults from adversaries? Can Palin reconciliate these two statements?

Pelosi Gets Squeezed in the Tax Deal

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 11:55 AM EST

Obama's tax deal appears poised to pass the Senate this week, with a key procedural vote on the bill lined up for Monday afternoon. Major changes to the deal are unlikely at this point, but the liberal revolt against the bill hasn't shown many signs of subsiding. Caught in the middle is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has quietly supported her caucus' objections and vowed to make changes to the bill, but who could soon be forced to bring a deal that liberals hate to the House floor. And it looks increasingly likely that minor tweaks are all that Pelosi will be able to get out of the deal. As Politico's Mike Allen reported this weekend, Pelosi was single-handedly responsible for putting in the tax credits for clean energy and green jobs that got thrown into the Senate bill at the last minute:

At a House Caucus meeting this week, Vice President Biden and members of the Obama economic team...got an earful from Speaker Pelosi and some of her colleagues about the fact that despite a big push from the V.P., the Republicans had not agreed to put 1603—a popular tax credit for renewable energy and green jobs -- into the tax framework. Pelosi called it a "must change."

The administration urgently got the message to Senators Baucus and Reid that if there was one thing to add to the tax extenders for the House, it was 1603. Baucus and Reid -- who had also gotten a earful on 1603 from Senators Cantwell, Feinstein and Boxer—were able to get Republicans to agree to 1603 at the last minute, giving Pelosi a big victory on green jobs—and tangible proof that she had improved at least part of the tax framework that the administration had initially presented the House.

The clean energy sweeteners weren't enough to quell liberal opposition last week. But though it's a small win, the change might help preserve Pelosi's credibility with a Democratic caucus that was divided about whether she should return to her leadership post in the first place.

The Kevin Cooper Death Penalty Case

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 11:48 AM EST

Kevin Cooper will almost certainly be executed sometime early next year for the murders, in 1983, of a California couple, their 10-year-old daughter, and the daughter's 11-year-old friend. But as Nick Kristof recently explained in the New York Times, there is more than a little doubt that Cooper is guilty. Five federal judges have argued that Cooper may have been framed. The San Francisco Chronicle summarizes some of the issues at stake:

Just one eyewitness survived the horrific scene, a 9-year-old boy whose throat had been sliced. His initial account of the attack is one of many disturbing contradictions that led five federal judges to take issue with their colleagues' decision to put a stop to Cooper's appeals.

The boy recalled three attackers—all white. Cooper is black. The surviving victim later changed his story to claim that he saw a black man with a great "poof" of hair standing over his parents' bed. Cooper, who had just escaped from a nearby minimum-security prison, wore his hair in cornrows at the time.

Investigators also seem to have mishandled evidence—including a crucial blood smear on a t-shirt left near the scene. Both Judge William A. Fletcher's opinion arguing for rehearing the case (PDF) and Kristof's column warning that Cooper may be innocent are well worth reading. But to get a sense of what Cooper's advocates are up against, you should read Debra J. Saunders, the Chronicle's "Token Conservative." She says "Kevin Cooper is a murderer."

The dispute here highlights the problem with focusing on individual death row inmates: every controversial death penalty case can be argued either way. I understand that it might be easier to get caught up in the pursuit of one person's exoneration than it is to campaign for a blanket ban on a practice that has been almost entirely eliminated in other first-world democracies. Ultimately, not every person the Innocence Project or Nick Kristof campaigns for is going to be actually innnocent. The difficulty with the death penalty, though, is that nagging doubt that perhaps not every person who is actually executed is actually guilty. This is to say: the facts of any individual case can be seen (and argued) in different ways. But the overall picture is one of a practice that is, as the Times' Adam Liptak writes (paraphrasing John Paul Stevens), "shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria." That, even more than the execution of any individual, is the real problem.