Political MoJo

Left-handed compliments

| Wed Apr. 6, 2005 2:16 PM EDT

Kudos to the Washington Post for finally calling attention to the bit of democratic backsliding down in Mexico, with an editorial denouncing the faux-impeachment of leftist candidate Lopez Obrador. Well, sort of. This sentence is exactly right: "[T]he way to stop this popular politician is not to force him off the ballot through a legal trick." Right on. But then, sadly, the Post has to get all obtuse on us, railing against Obrador's left-leanings:

Mexico's political establishment and its business community are deeply worried about Mr. Lopez Obrador, who promises to apply the leftist populism now gaining strength in Latin America in a country that has aggressively -- and mostly successfully -- pursued free-market capitalism for the past 15 years. Mr. Lopez Obrador has said he would "restructure" Mexico's foreign debt and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada, even though NAFTA has produced an explosion of Mexican exports and, according to an exhaustive World Bank study, made Mexicans richer.

Mr. Lopez Obrador might drive foreign investment from Mexico and destabilize the economy with massive government spending; at worst, he might imitate Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has wrecked his country's private sector and made most of its people poorer.

Those who wish to see Mexico continue to modernize and grow prosperous can hope that Mr. Lopez Obrador does not become its next president.

Spare me! Look, I think neo-liberalism's great and all. Free trade, hooray! Markets, whoo! Really. But it takes a special sort of willful blindness to pretend that Mexico's great experiment with free marketeering hasn't caused the country a great deal of misery. After Mexico's 1994 currency crises and subsequent bailouts, please remember, the country barely grew in the following couple of years, saw real wages stagnate and inequality increase, experienced a near-explosion in poverty rates, lost millions of workers who fled to the United States, and watched as much of its banking and industrial sector were bought up by American businessmen. Oh, and lest we forget, that was the second debt crisis in roughly a decade. Understandably, Mexicans tend not to be thrilled with the state of affairs.

Meanwhile, there's no good reason to think that Obrador would wreck the country. You can argue for or against "massive government spending," as well as when and how to do it, but there's certainly nothing intrinsic about more spending that causes it to "destabilize the economy". The most dangerous thing, at this point, is for political and opinion leaders in the United States to start railing blindly against left-leaning politicians in the South. That sort of thing does, understandably, tend to produce leaders who start openly defying the U.S. and going to war against the private sector. Not that my opinion matters. I see in today's New York Times that this sort of thing is already starting to happen in Nicaragua, as U.S. officials are denouncing the long-shot Sandinista candidate a full year and a half before the elections. Why? For the heck of it! Nicely done.

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Mexico's fragile democracy

Tue Apr. 5, 2005 7:47 PM EDT

For all the Bush administration's high-minded talk of democracy, there's been a conspicuous silence over the backsliding going on down in Mexico. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist mayor of Mexico City and popular frontrunner in the upcoming presidential race, is facing possible impeachment. Mexico's House of Deputies will rule this Thursday on whether or not to strip Obrador of immunity from prosecution. The crime? Obrador has been accused of taking too long to obey "a judicial order to halt construction of an access road to a hospital." It's a small legal technicality that, according to some polls, 80 percent of Mexicans are in favor of dismissing.

The popular perception is that the two main political parties in Mexico—President Vicente Fox's center-right National Action Party (PAN) and former centrist ruling party Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—are teaming up to get rid of Obrador whose party, the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), is considered a threat in the coming election. And what better way to get rid of the opposition than to take away his legitimacy to run?

But Mexicans throughout the country have rallied around Obrador. Thousands have gathered in Mexico City to protest Congress' decision to send the impeachment matter to the Chamber of Deputies. This Thursday, even more protesters are expected to turn out for the Chamber's decision. In fact, activists for the Obrador's PRD have planned demonstrations in every state capital in the country. Ironically, by trying to disenfranchise Obrador, the two ruling parties have succeeded in doing exactly the opposite: support for Obrador has skyrocketed. As one economist writes:

If [the Fox government] fails to bar Lopez Obrador from running by employing a frivolous technicality over a trivial offense, it will have generated more publicity for the mayor than he could have dreamed possible—not to mention a sympathy vote. If it succeeds, the likely result will be more political instability, uncertainty, and disillusionment among voters than would occur in any of the scenarios advanced by the mayor's detractors. It will infuriate voters if legal maneuvering disqualifies the man they want to support.

The American media has paid scant attention to the growing political upheaval in Mexico. In fact, the few articles that are available online have been written up by financial publications. Investors are biting their nails over both the potential for political instability (some analysts have compared the situation to recent uprisings in Lebanon, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan) and Obrador's leftist stances.

Culture of life (death penalty edition)

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 6:27 PM EDT

From Amnesty International, a handy fact sheet on the death penalty.

Here's a snippet:

[A]t least 3,400 people were executed in China during [2004], although the true figures were believed to be much higher. In March 2004 a delegate at the National People's Congress said that "nearly 10,000" people are executed per year in China.

Iran executed at least 159 people, and Viet Nam at least 64. There were 59 executions in the USA, down from 65 in 2003. ...

[In the US] more than 3,400 prisoners were under sentence of death as of 1 January 2005.

The gangster-ization of the GOP

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 3:32 PM EDT

First we had Tom DeLay on the activist judges in the Schiavo case:

"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

Now we have Sen. John Cornyn noting that certain segments of the conservative base are, um, energized:

"I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country. And I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in, engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have."

What next, a severed horse head in Harry Reid's bed?

Another conservative split ...

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 3:05 PM EDT

... between the politically smart ones ...:

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said several national surveys found that 60 to 80 percent of Americans opposed Congress's March 20 intervention in the Schiavo case. Federal courts promptly rejected the lawmakers' directive to review a series of Florida court decisions allowing Schiavo's feeding tube to be removed. One appellate judge chastised Congress and Bush for their actions.

Fabrizio said voters "are probably wondering why we can't get deficit reduction or tax reform or Social Security reform as quickly as we got the Schiavo bill" from the Republican-controlled Congress. Because conservative Christian activists were seen as pushing the legislation, he said, "that's a symbol of what your [party's] priorities are, and you'd better show them another symbol."

Also during the recess, former GOP senator John C. Danforth of Missouri, an ordained Episcopal minister, wrote a New York Times op-ed article criticizing his party's emphasis on opposing stem cell research, same-sex marriage and Schiavo's husband. "Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians," he wrote. ...

... and the other kind:

To some, the darkest cloud above Congress is the Senate's looming clash over judicial nominees. Democrats have used the filibuster -- which can be stopped only by 60 votes in the 100-member chamber -- to thwart several of Bush's most conservative appellate court appointees. Republican leaders have threatened to change Senate rules to bar such filibusters, which would require 51 votes. Democrats say they would respond by bringing the Senate to a standstill, hence the scenario's moniker, "the nuclear option."

Yesterday, dozens of conservative groups released a letter urging Frist to end the filibusters "at the earliest possible moment." Some of the signers predicted Frist has the votes he needs, but others said the vote count is uncertain and may remain so for weeks.

If anything, the Schiavo case has heightened tensions over the judicial stalemate. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the woman's death "should awaken Americans to the problems of the courts." More conservative judges are needed, he said, even though others noted that several of the judges involved in the Schiavo case are Republican appointees.

Here's hoping the dumb guys win out.

Stop hiding behind the African Union

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 2:51 PM EDT

Ah, so there are still diplomats who believe that the African Union cab "handle" the genocide in Darfur, are there?

An internal African Union (AU) report has called on the 53-member bloc to double the size of its military force in Sudan's troubled western region of Darfur over the next four months, diplomatic sources said Tuesday.

Some quick background: The AU force in Darfur is currently about 2,200 soldiers in Sudan, a woefully inadequate number. Furthermore the troops have only a mandate to monitor the basically-unobserved "ceasefire" between the Darfur rebels and the Khartoum government, and no mandate to protect civilians. Even doubling the size of the force—which seems unlikely, given the AU's current recalcitrance on the matter—won't stop the genocide, which has claimed some 300,000 lives by now, and certainly won't be enough to disarm the janjawid horseback militias running through the country, butchering civilians.

The idea that the AU can "resolve" the problem is a fiction that very desperately needs to end. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Condoleeza Rice hid shamefully behind this facade: "The [African Union] ceiling is 3,400 and the AU has said they'd like to go to five or six thousand. I think we ought to try to fully realize that." But even "five or six thousand" troops is not enough, not so long as the AU isn't tasked with protecting civilians, and not so long as Khartoum maintains its air assistance for the janjawid militias. Jan Egeland, the UN Humanitarian Affairs Secretary, estimates that at least 10,000 troops are needed to protect the 3-4 million refugees displaced by all the violence. That won't come from the African Union.

Indeed, watching the Nigerian leadership steer the AU over the last few months, it's become clear that the African bloc is much-too reluctant to stop the violence in Darfur; the AU still maintains the dangerous delusion that the National Islamic Front in Khartoum is a "responsible government". It's not, and it's long past time for the UN or, failing that, NATO to intervene.

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He's proposing what now?

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 1:59 PM EDT

"New Nuclear Warhead Proposed to Congress," says the Washington Post this morning. Wha—? When did they decide to do that? But yes, that's exactly what Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, is proposing.

The money, it seems, would coming out of a program Congress approved last year called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which was supposed to "improve the reliability, longevity, and certifiability of existing weapons and their components." Note the word "existing". But now Brooks is proposing "replacements for existing stockpile weapons." That's a very different thing, and apparently it's now going to be necessary to keep an eye on the slippery slope from updating our current stockpiles to developing brand new nuclear weapons. Fantastic; this should fit right in with the administration's new non-proliferation strategy.

What do 56 million Americans have in common?

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 1:45 PM EDT

Landing in my inbox just now is a grim new report from Health Affairs, noting that by 2013, 56 million Americans will be uninsured. One-fourth of all workers. Most of this, by the way, will be due to strained budgets and unaffordable health care costs for low- and middle-income people.

The interesting thing in the report—well, interesting to health care wonks, depressing to everyone else—is that the researchers found a "remarkably tight relationship" between affordability and coverage. It doesn't matter whether workers are covered by their employers or pay out-of-pocket. When premiums go up, fewer Americans get coverage, period. As one would expect.

So there are two things to conclude here. One, covering the uninsured is going to cost both employers and taxpayers a lot of money—a good rule of thumb is about $200 billion per year, which is relative peanuts in the cost of total health care spending (roughly $29 trillion over the next decade), but a lot of money all the same. There's no way of getting around this, and it does no good to pretend, as the president does, that spending just a little bit of money will solve the problem. Second, universal coverage, so long as it involves the private insurance industry, simply isn't going to work without serious cost containment measures that keep premiums from rising faster than income. Unfortunately there seem to be far more calls to do this sort of thing—usually involving completely unrelated cuts for Medicare or Medicaid—than there are actual solutions. Still, before anyone proposes anything, it never hurts to understand the problem, so for a good primer on why health care costs are so high in America, I suggest another old Health Affairs report (pdf) on the matter.

Social Security solved?

Tue Apr. 5, 2005 1:39 PM EDT

Call off the Minutemen! Those illegal immigrants could be keeping Social Security and Medicare afloat.

All in favor of judicial killings...

| Mon Apr. 4, 2005 8:26 PM EDT

Oh marvelous. I see it's now in vogue for Republican Senators to support violence against judges. Here's a quote from Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) on the Senate floor earlier today:

I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country. Certainly nothing new, but we seem to have run through a spate of courthouse violence recently that's been on the news and I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in - engage in violence.

Lovely. So, if a judge gets murdered—like, say Rowland Barnes, who was shot by a convicted rapist two weeks ago—it's his own damn fault. That seems to be the opinion of one standing Senator of the United States. Now let's count up GOP threats against judges. First there was Tom DeLay saying, "The time will come for the men responsible for [ruling on the Schiavo case] to answer for their behavior." Now Cornyn. Who's next? Vice-president Dick Cheney has said he might "have problems" with retribution against judges, but apparently hasn't quite taken a firm stance on the matter. Where do the other Republicans stand? Who's pro-judge-killing and who's anti-judge-killing? Are there any other Republicans still in favor of the rule of law?