Mojo - September 2011

GOP Rivals Give Perry a Pass on Crony Capitalism

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 9:09 PM EDT

On Saturday, not-yet-a-presidential-candidate Sarah Palin previewed an enticing line of attack against Texas Governor Rick Perry: "crony capitalism." Although she didn't mention the latest Republican frontrunner by name, Palin warned Iowa tea partiers that when candidates accept million-dollar donations, you should expect a few strings to be attached. On that front, the numbers seemingly speak for themselves. A full 20 percent of Rick Perry's $100 million fundraising tally as governor has come from Perry appointees, and on everything from toll roads to nuclear waste dumps to private prisons to lawsuit reform, Perry's policies have dovetailed neatly with the interests of his biggest donors.

Yet when NBC's Brian Williams gave Perry's rivals for the GOP nomination a chance to nail the governor at Wednesday night's debate, they all took a pass. The question was about Perry's controversial 2007 decision to mandate the HPV vaccine to innoculate adolescent girls against cervical cancer. Williams wanted to know if Perry made the right call. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul both seized on the idea that the executive order was a decidedly Big Government move. Mitt Romney noted that, as Perry himself has said, it was a well-intentioned mistake that Perry would handle differently if he had a do-over.

What went unsaid by his rivals, though, was the full context: Perry's decision came at the end of a massive lobbying effort by the pharmaceutical giant Merck—an effort helmed in Austin by Perry's former chief of staff and longtime friend, Mike Toomey. (Toomey currently chairs a pro-Perry Super PAC with the stated goal of raising $55 million during the primary race to finance a shadow campaign for Perry.) On the day he signed the executive order, Perry received a $5,000 donation from Merck's political action committee, which came on the heels of a $6,000 donation during his reelection campaign. Even his supporters would agree that the HPV decision was an uncharacteristic one for the conservative governor; questions about Perry's motivations are natural.

Why did his opponents take a pass? It could just be that in 2012, GOP candidates—Palin excepted—know better than to bite the big business hand that feeds many of them.

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Rick Perry Happily Grabs the Anti-Science Brass Ring

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 9:02 PM EDT

Congratulations to tonight's GOP debate hosts at MSNBC for asking Rick Perry to explain his distrust of scientists regarding human-induced climate change—and then asking a follow-up. Too bad Perry didn't really answer either query.

First, Perry was asked whether he thinks climate change is happening. He responded with the old trope that the "science isn't settled" on climate change. The models could be wrong, he said, and he asserted that we shouldn't make political decisions based on what could be flawed science. And even if a lot of scientists (actually, 97 percent of them, to be exact) agree that the science is settled, that's not enough according to Perry. "Galileo got out-voted for a spell," he said.

But then he was asked to name a scientist that he "finds compelling" on the subject of climate change. One scientist. Any scientist! But Perry declined to name a single one. Instead, he pivoted. "Let me tell you what I find compelling," Perry said. "What we've done in the state of Texas."

Immediately before that exchange, the moderators quoted John Huntsman's allegation that his fellow candidates in the GOP contest are "anti-science." Huntsman, though, declined to name names. Instead, he stuck to the broad criticism of Republicans who make "comments that don't reflect the reality of the situation." Perry did Huntsman the favor of proving his point.

Santorum Gets It All Wrong on Poverty in America

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 7:47 PM EDT
Rick Santorum.

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, was asked by NBC's Brian Williams at tonight's Republican debate how he would tackle the issue of poverty in America. One in seven Americans, Williams noted, currently live in poverty.

For his part, Santorum trumpeted his record as a US senator in reforming America's welfare programs to serve fewer people and so nudge lower-income people into the jobs market. Santorum then claimed that, as part of his reform effort, poverty reached its "lowest level ever in 2001."

Bzzt. Sorry, Rick. According to the US Census Bureau (PDF), poverty actually rose in 2001, to 32.9 million Americans from 31.6 million. Percentage-wise, that's an increase to 11.7 percent of Americans from 11.3 percent. In fact, most of the government's poverty measurements—by family, race, ethnicity, location—increased in 2001. Santorum may want voters to believe that he helped shrink poverty, but no one did.

Romney On Immigration: All Over The Place

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 5:51 PM EDT
A young girl at a pro-immigration reform protest in San Francisco, California, in 2006.

Massachussetts Governor Mitt Romney’s flip-flops on immigration are less dramatic than his switch from ardent pro-choicer to opposing abortion in almost all circumstances, but they might be more convoluted.

A pro-immigration reform group, America's Voice, released a report Wednesday in advance of the GOP presidential debate tracing the Republican candidates' evolution on immigration policy. Romney is all over the place.

As governor, Romney vetoed a state-level DREAM Act that would have granted in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students and pushed for a larger role for local authorities in enforcing federal immigration laws. But he also stuck up for Bush's comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005, defending the president from charges of pursuing "amnesty." In 2006, Romney said Republicans opposing Bush on immigration had "made a big mistake."

Then, of course, Romney started competing with Senator John McCain, an immigration moderate, for the 2012 GOP nomination. The ex-governor tried to thread the needle between attacking the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill as "amnesty" and currying favor with the White House, which was trying to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed. Romney called McCain's proposals "reasonable" in 2006, but by 2007 he was on "Meet The Press" trying to explain that although he supported granting a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants. How that was somehow different from the "special pathway" McCain's bill would have created is unclear.

Now Romney, who is suddenly facing an uphill battle against Texas Governor Rick Perry for the GOP nomination, has started running to Perry's right on immigration. Speaking to Hispanic Republicans in Florida, Romney highlighted his veto of a state-level DREAM Act, drawing a contrast with Perry, who signed one in Texas. Romney also reiterated his support for an employer verification system and a "high tech fence" to "secure the border." Perry recently restated his opposition to a border fence, saying that "if you build a 30-foot wall from El Paso to Brownsville, the 35-foot ladder business gets real good."

That's not to say that Romney doesn't have his eye on the general election, and possibly even that 40 percent Latino vote threshold former Bush pollster Matthew Dowd said Republican candidates have to reach to win the White House—and judging by Obama's drop in approval among Latinos, there might actually be an opening to exploit. During the last Republican debate, Romney proposed "stapling a green card" to the degrees of highly skilled immigrants. Perry, on the other hand, recently endorsed a path to citizenship exclusively for undocumented immigrants who serve in the military. Both GOP frontrunners are trying to grope for a sensible center-right on immigration in a party that no longer has room for one.

National Review Blogger Discovers Gay Lawyers At DOJ

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 3:51 PM EDT

National Review blogger Ed Whelan has found a terrible case of politicization at the Justice Department! It turns out that two Justice Department attorneys assigned to a case involving whether or not a religious school is excepted from federal anti-discrimination laws are in same-sex relationships!

What does this have to do with the merits of the case? Unclear, except that gay people, wanting all those special rights and whatnot, don't really belong in a case involving a religious organization, since gay rights infringe on the rights of religious people to discriminate against gays, even though that's not what the case is about. It's about a teacher who claims she was fired because of her narcolepsy, and whether or not the so-called "ministerial exception" to federal anti-discrimination laws applies in this context. But you let gays near religious freedom cases, and pretty soon they'll be…something terrible:

A reader passes along that Schuham’s same-sex partner is (or, at least as of the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll, was) Chris Anders, federal policy director for the ACLU’s LGBT Rights project.

Another of the attorneys on the DOJ brief is Sharon M. McGowan. As another reader calls to my attention, McGowan was also a staffer on the ACLU’s LGBT Rights project, and the New York Times announced last year her same-sex marriage to the Family Equality Council’s “federal lobbyist on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender family issues.”

Thus, insofar as personnel is policy,* it may well be that the Obama DOJ’s hostility to the ministerial exemption in the Hosanna-Tabor case is part and parcel of a broader ideological agenda that would have gay causes trump religious liberty.

Part of Whelan's problem is that since both Schuham and McGowan have backgrounds in civil rights law, they have no business um, working on civil rights cases. This is kind of a meme on the right these days, it's part of an effort by veterans of the notoriously politicized Bush Justice Department to accuse the Obama administration of being just as bad.

But Whelan's bigger problem, judging by his value-added, is that only straight people should be allowed near the law, lest it get all gayified. In April Whelan complained that the judge in the California Prop 8 case, Vaughn Walker, should have recused himself because he was in a same-sex relationship and so he stood to benefit directly from overturning the law. Of course by the logic of anti-gay rights advocates like Whelan, a straight judge trying to preserve his "traditional marriage" would also benefit directly, and should also recuse themselves. But since the latter wouldn't have "trumped" the right of conservatives like Whelan to define and limit the civil rights of same-sex couples that wouldn't have been so terrible.

This is getting complicated. All you need to know is there are gay people in Obama’s Justice Department. They’re doing stuff. And that's really bad.

UPDATE: Previous version of the post didn't have a link to Whelan's original post.

Republicans Softening on Immigration?

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 12:46 PM EDT
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

For Republicans, immigration reform usually means "securing the border" now and doing everything else later. So it's news that two House Republicans are floating legislation that could begin to shift the conversation.

Immigration hardliner Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is planning to introduce a bill that modifies an existing guest-worker program, potentially bringing 500,000 foreign workers into the US legally; Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) has a similar bill in the works. Smith's measure modifies the current H-2A visa program used by many agricultural employers to bring workers into the US, creating a new classification called an H-2C (how, exactly, is unclear). Currently, farmers have to apply months in advance for these temporary visas. In a volatile industry like farming, where labor demands can be difficult to estimate, that's no small feat.

So why the change of heart from Smith? Here's the Wall Street Journal's Miriam Jordan:

Stepped-up lobbying by farm groups on the issue amounts to a frank admission about their dependence on a foreign-born work force—whether legal or not. Their argument is that most American workers have shunned farm jobs because many are of a seasonal, migratory nature as well as being physically arduous.

But concern is also rising for a wider swath of corporate America about the need for a more business-friendly rationalization of immigration policy. Other sectors like fast food, hotels and construction, which also employ low-skilled workers, have been subjected to federal enforcement actions that have resulted in the loss of employees who are in the country illegally. 

Will Smith and Lungren's proposals fix a broken system? Not likely. As the Journal points out, over 750,000 people are employed as field workers illegally each year. That's versus the 45,000 farm workers that come to the US on H-2A visas. Even legalizing half a million temporary workers wouldn't be enough to meet the current demand for farm labor.

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Bachmann's Pastor Bashed Mormonism in 2007

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 12:23 PM EDT

Utah's Deseret News, which is owned by the LDS Church, has a story out analyzing Rep. Michele Bachmann's views on Mormons, given that she's competing against two of them (Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. The short answer here is that the Minnesota congresswoman has never actually said much about Mormonism—but the same can't be said for her pastor:

[T]he pastor at Eagle Brooks Church in Lino Lakes, Minn., where Bachmann recently became a member, delivered a July 2007 sermon titled, "Raise Your Religious IQ — Investigating Mormonism." (The presentation is available for download via iTunes.)

Although Merritt praised the LDS Church's emphasis on family and missionary service, he suggested the Mormon faith is "untrue" and "diluted."

"I very respectfully push back and I say (to Mormons) you have taken something extra and added it to (God's word) to make all of it untrue," Merritt said. "Think of it this way: what does your car need to run properly? It needs pure, refined petroleum — it needs gasoline. And what happens when you dilute the gasoline with something like water? The car doesn't run. I think that's a good analogy for what our Mormon friends have done with God's word. … The whole thing is diluted, and honestly it just doesn't work."

We went down this path once before, with the to-do over Bachmann's old Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which taught that the Catholic Church was the Antichrist. Never mind that Catholics (a core constituency in Bachmann's St. Cloud district) didn't actually seem to care, and that Catholics and Lutherans have been on pretty good terms since the 30 Years War ended in 1648. It should not come as much of a surprise that Bachmann's pastor believes that another, substantially different faith, is wrong in important ways. If he thought the LDS Church was spot-on, he would have converted by now; that's kind of the point.

There are plenty of issues where Bachmann's religious views conflict with (or inform) her approach to public policy: education, abortion, marriage, and national security, just to name a few. This isn't one of them.

Unmasking Dark Money Is Good for Democracy—and for the Bottom Line

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:35 AM EDT

It's one of the most overlooked pieces of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's now-famous opinion in last year's Citizens United decision: While Kennedy and the court's majority backed unlimited political spending by corporations, they also stressed the importance of disclosure; that, in part thanks to the Internet, companies should disclose how much they spent and who they supported or attacked. Shareholders could then use those disclosures to determine the value of particular ads and gauge whether corporate political spending was in their best interests.

That that disclosure hasn't happened. Nearly half of the money spent by outside political groups in the 2010 elections was "dark money," meaning that the fundraisers themselves remained anonymous.

But if that corporate spending helped clinch elections around the country, it also took something of a toll on the corporations themselves, according to a new report by Public Citizen and Harvard Law School. Looking at the political activity and market value of big, publicly-traded companies on the S&P 500, researchers found that companies that were more involved in politics had weaker price/book ratios than less politically active companies. The study suggests that stock prices for politically active companies are lower than they would be if the same companies were less politically active.

John Coates, a Harvard law and economics professor, found that, in every election cycle between 1998 and 2004, corporations who had more active political action committees (PACs) and more aggressive lobbying efforts had lower price/book ratios. Coates discovered an even stronger connection in the 2010 elections: in that cycle, politically active firms were 24 percent more undervalued than their peers. Even taking into account a number of variables—recent profits, sales growth, size, leverage—Coates spotted a correlation between political activity and lower company value.

The report's authors also looked at the effect of disclosure: How does the market value of big, politically active companies with policies for disclosing political spending compare to active companies without them? Looking at 80 S&P 500 corporations, the Public Citizen and Harvard team found that companies pledging to disclose their political spending had, on average, 7.5 percent higher price/book ratios than those keeping their spending in the dark. The takeaway here: Disclosing corporate spending doesn't hurt shareholders, and in fact might boost a company's market capitalization.

There are, of course, plenty of caveats. For starters, the authors stress that they're not claiming a cause-and-effect here—that either less political spending or more disclosure directly causes higher company value. They're just pointing out what they believe is an important connection. They also list off previous academic studies suggesting that corporate lobbying (and, to an extent, PAC giving) reaps benefits in the form of tax breaks, more favorable trade policy, and more.

That in mind, this new research could allay fears that shining some sunlight on corporate spending will damage business. "Many people would agree that disclosing political activities is the right thing for publicly-traded companies to do," Harvard's Coates said in a statement on Wednesday. "Our study provides new evidence that it is also the thing that smart companies do."

This post was edited for clarity after publication.

Fox News' Paranoid Alternate Universe

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 10:27 AM EDT

Two-thirds of viewers who say Fox News is the news source they trust most believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups, according to a study released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute. The number, 68 percent, is an exact reversal of the percentage of black people in the same poll who say that discrimination against whites is not as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. The study was based on polling conducted by PRRI.*

The Brookings/PRRI study uses "reverse discrimination"—an unfortunate term that suggests a difference in kind, not in degree—to describe anti-white discrimination. Nevertheless, the revelations about the views of consumers who most trust Fox News are disturbing:

Among Americans who say they most trust Fox News, 26 percent say reverse discrimination is a critical issue, nearly twice as many as say discrimination against minority groups is a critical issue (14 percent). At the other end of the spectrum, only 8 percent of Americans who most trust public television say reverse discrimination is a critical issue, compared to 27 percent who say discrimination against minorities is a critical issue.

The financial crisis wiped out 20 years of minority wealth gains, and minority incarceration and unemployment rates are far higher than those of whites, but white Americans have nevertheless become more receptive to the idea that whites face as much discrimination as minorities. While the numbers for those who trust Fox News are much higher, a majority of whites in the study, 51 percent, also say they believe discrimination against whites is as big of a problem as discrimination against minorities. That's despite relatively low levels of interaction between whites and minorities. According to the study, "More than 8-in-10 Americans report having a conversation with an African-American person at least once a day (43 percent) or occasionally (40 percent)." Most of these exchanges, apparently, involve black people callously turning down whites applying for jobs or home loans. Nevertheless, while opinions of Muslims and immigrants vary by age and political perspective, demographic groups surveyed expressed positive impressions of African Americans across the board. (Otherwise, they might be racist or something.)

When it comes to Muslims, the study shows that the funders of the more than $40 million Shariah panic industry are getting their money's worth. Although two-thirds of Americans say that Muslims are not trying to establish Shariah law in the US, "[o]ver the last 8 months agreement with this question has increased by 7 points, from 23 percent in February 2011 to 30 percent today." The number of Republicans who buy that Muslims are trying to establish Shariah law in the US is up 14 points since August 2011, from 31 percent to 45 percent. 

Fox News is a crucial outlet for fomenting Shariah panic. According to the study, "There is a strong correlation between trusting Fox News and negative views of Islam and Muslims," as "[n]early 6-in-10 Republicans who most trust Fox News believe that American Muslims are trying to establish Shari'a law in the U.S.," and 72 percent of "Fox News Republicans" agree that Islam is "at odds with American values." If you're a Republican, you're more likely to think that white people are as discriminated against as minorities and that American Muslims represent a fifth column trying to subvert the Constitution. But if you're a Republican who watches Fox News, then you're far more likely to believe those things, thanks to a steady media diet of racial resentment and Muslim-baiting paranoia.

*Updated to reflect the fact that the poll was done by PRRI, and that the study was a joint venture.

As Drought Worsened, Rick Perry Slashed Fire-Fighting Spending

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 10:09 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed off on massive cuts to fire-fighting services in 2011.

Wildfires are burning across central Texas right now, the product of an historic drought and high winds from Tropical Storm Lee. An estimated 3.6 million acres have been scorched since November, with the flames approaching the city limits of Austin; damage is expected to exceed $5 billion. In the macro-sense, this is climate change-caused problem, with Texas' climate set to become dryer and dryer over the ensuing decades, making extended droughts the new norm. But it's also a crisis of emergency management. Although Texas Governor Rick Perry has called his state "a model for the nation in disaster preparedness and response," he has taken steps over the last year that would dramatically change that.

Specifically, as Raw Story notes, Perry's most recent budget slashed spending for volunteer fire departments—who handle much of the fire-fighting duties in rural areas—by 75 percent, from $30 million to $7 million. The cuts meant that cash-strapped municipalities would then be forced to either pick up the slack funding-wise, or deal with reduced services and put off upgrading outdated equipment. As Reuters noted in May, volunteer fire-fighters "are first responders to roughly 90 percent of wildfires in Texas."

The Washington Post today frames Texas' fires as an opportunity for Perry—who is currently leading the GOP presidential field—to demonstrate his leadership skills during a crisis. Optics are fine, hands-on management is well and good, but the policy matters here: Texas' climate is going to become increasingly vulnerable to drought and fire, while its governor insists that climate change doesn't exist, and cuts funding for the agency tasked with responding to it. Perry and Texas Republicans contend that tough choices were necessary to close the state's budget gap—but the decision to close that gap by cuts rather than revenue increases was itself a choice, and the priorities on what and how much to cut were choices as well.

Update: Over at The Economist, Erica Greider has some more thoughts:

Obviously Mr Perry didn't cause the fires. But over the past year, the hallmarks of his response to the drought have been calls for prayer and for federal emergency assistance. The first measure doesn't hurt, I suppose, but I'm not aware of any data that supports its efficacy, and prayer is not a good substitute for, say, a more prudent policy about water management, which has long been known to be a looming challenge in Texas and the southwest.