Laughing Our Way Out of Confusion about Health Care

23 08 2009

Donny Shaw at OpenCongress makes an excellent point about how the Daily Show with Jon Stewart often features segments with more probing discussion about issues than actual programs that purport to be news outlets.

Armed with the first 500 pages of the House health care bill (H.R. 3200) Betsy McCaughey, the first person to equate end-of-life planning with government-mandated euthanasia, went on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night to defend her position.

The show sort of underscores the anomaly of the health care debate in our country right now. This is comedy show where two people are having a fairly high-level discussion about actual legislative text, and the substance is compelling enough that it makes for good entertainment. There is a real desire to know what’s in the bill. Health care, obviously, is an especially important issue. But, also, I think the people that follow what happens in Congress are figuring out that there is a lot of misinformation standing in the way of having a smart debate of the bill, and they are trying to get the facts for themselves, which is fantastic.

I suppose its fantastic that the Daily Show decided to do such a segment, but its also an alarming indicator of how the disinformation out there is so pervasive that even after two months of ‘debate’ we are still remain confused about the substance of the proposal. And the fact that a comedian, even one as clever as Stewart, could provide a better 101 on the issue than many other programs should be considered an indictment of the failure of the television news media to inform and educate the public about a critical issue that could change the country for generations to come.

You can watch the segment here.

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On Excerpts of The Battle for America 2008

1 08 2009

I have never been much of consumer of campaign books. I tend to think they more or less rehash everything that has already been dissected in contemporaneous reporting even if they do offer juicy tidbits about campaign infighting, portraits of a frustrated candidate, and a loads of humorous anecdotes. Couldn’t I get much of that on YouTube spoofs anytime I want? Aside from a peculiar variety of political junkies, I often wonder to myself who actually purchases such books.

But after reading the an excerpt of “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election” by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson in the Washington Post today, I think I’m beginning to understand the appeal of that genre of books. Of course, the 2008 presidential contest from primary to the end of the general election is an unusual serious of events featuring an unlikely stew of characters giving life to grand themes. Somehow the white guy from the South, former Senator John Edwards, became the underdog and a white woman from a northern blue state and black guy with a Muslim name became the main competitors on the Democratic side. And even in that struggle contained hues of David versus Goliath storyline that the media found easy to sell to a eager public.

Meanwhile, the Republican corp had a number of cartoon characters from the adamantly anti-immigrant then-Congressman Tom Tancredo to the jolly aw shucks evangelism of former Arkansas Mike Huckabee. A more disciplined Senator John McCain had to emerge from the ashes before taking the lead. And that only happened after his big win in New Hampshire.

The media’s appetite for sideshow personalities like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Joe the Plumber, and Bill Ayers made the long campaign easy fodder for water cooler talk for those who wanted a little gossip go with wonky debates on the minutiae of preconditions, the importance of a employer mandates in a health care plan, and the intricacies of the delegate and Superdelegate count.

Historians will have fun with that moment in American politics for generations to decades to come – maybe even longer than that.

But everything revolved around the eventual victor Barack Obama. Compared to his competitors, his campaign was heralded a marvel of near pitch perfect management with few dips in morale matching the posture of its intrepid leader. And the public, particularly his supporters, were very impressed with his cool demeanor, keen intellect and soaring rhetoric.

Balz and Johnson, however, seized on the moments in which those notions did not hold up.

Aides worried that Obama’s low morale might infect others in the campaign and spoke to him about it. They tried to buck him up, but at points in the spring and early summer of 2007, he was deeply frustrated — with his own performance and with that of much of his campaign. On July 15, he met with his senior staff at the home of Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and confidante to both Obama and his wife, Michelle. One adviser recalled it as the moment Obama began to take a more direct role in the operations of his campaign. He was blunt in his critique, and the exchanges among some of his advisers became testy. Beyond fundraising and the operation overseeing the Internet and new media, the campaign was not performing well, Obama said. The message still wasn’t where it should be. The political operation wasn’t up to speed. The campaign lacked crispness and good execution. He believed it was becoming too insular and wanted new people added to the inner circle. He told his team members they were all doing B work. If they continued on that course, they would come in a respectable second.

“Second is not good enough,” he said.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the excerpt so far, however, was then-chief campaign strategist and now White House senior adviser David Axelrod’s candid and prescient assessment of the big O’s potential weaknesses in a 2006 memo.

“It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don’t know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don’t relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched,” he said of Obama’s 2004 Senate opponent.

Many in the blogosphere and beyond often wondered if Obama was in fact the happy warrior beneath all that cool even if he could seduced legions of voters with great speechifying. The sheer force of the machinery of the campaign helped quell, thought not silence, many of those lingering doubts. And Obama knew it telling Balz and Haynes:

As he reviewed the campaign from his transition headquarters in mid-December, Obama offered a frank assessment of his two main competitors: Clinton and John McCain. “I was sure that my toughest race was Hillary,” he said. “Hillary was just a terrific candidate, and she really found her voice in the last part of the campaign. After Texas and Ohio she just became less cautious and was out there and was working hard and I think connecting with voters really well. She was just a terrific candidate. And [the Clinton campaign] operation was not as good as ours and not as tight as ours, but they were still plenty tough. Their rapid response, how they messaged in the media was really good. So we just always thought they were our most formidable challenge. That isn’t to say that we underestimated John McCain; it’s just that we didn’t think that their campaign operation was as good.

I cannot help but note the irony here that the campaign that was often dubbed as personality driven and almost free of doubt was in fact the very same tightly organized campaign that achieved success in no small part due to a healthy fear of losing. Its not news, but still a tidbit worth chewing. And maybe with enough of these kinds of insights it might even form a book worth reading.





Conservatives on the Brown Decision

19 05 2009

This is just ridiculous. In an ongoing series decrying U.S. Supreme Court decisions they do not like, Bench Memos, a conservative law blog run by the National Review, cited the Brown v. Board of Ed decision, which found that racial segreation violated “equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment,” as an instance of liberal judical activism.

And they did so on the 55th Anniversary of the court’s decision. 

1954—In Brown v. Board of Education, a unanimous Supreme Court abandons available originalist justifications for its ruling that state-segregated schools violate the Equal Protection Clause—justifications that would have been far weightier, and commanded far more public respect, than its own makeshift reliance on contemporaneous psychological research of dubious relevance. Contrary to conventional understanding, the Court declines to revisit its notorious 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson and instead limits itself to the question whether the separate-but-equal rule of Plessy “should be held inapplicable to public education.”

For some reason I don’t people were scrambling to use “originalist justifications” to end segregation in the 50s. 

Interestingly enough, while Brown is rightly credited with dealing a huge blow to Jim Crow segregation few appreciate how it change the Senate’s posture toward the judiciary and Supreme Court nominees in particular. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Yale law professor Stephen Carter sums up the after effects this way: 

Before that 1954 case, it was virtually unheard of for a nominee to appear in person before the Senate. Only two had been called, each because of special circumstances surrounding the nomination. But there was always a sense that demanding testimony was somehow unseemly. The bar frowned on the practice, and the senators avoided it. Abraham Lincoln, questioned about his nomination of Salmon P. Chase as chief justice, responded, “We cannot ask a man what he will do, and if we should, and he should answer us, we should despise him for it.”

Brown changed everything. Infuriated by the Supreme Court’s temerity in striking down public school segregation, the Southern Democrats who in those days still largely ran the Senate began to require that all potential justices give testimony before the Judiciary Committee. When the nominees appeared, the Dixiecrat Senators grilled them on Brown. The first was John Marshall Harlan in 1955, who declined invitations to discuss either specific cases or judicial philosophy as “a matter of propriety.” One by one, later nominees followed his example.

Some of them suffered for it. Justice William Brennan was roughed up at his hearing by Senator Joseph McCarthy, not even a member of the committee, who was permitted to make a special appearance to torment Brennan about his views on Communism. In the 1960s, Thurgood Marshall was grilled on minutiae about the history of the Constitution, part of an effort by opponents to demonstrate that the man who had by that time won 29 out of 32 cases before the Supreme Court was intellectually not up to the job.

 





A Skeptical Court Hears Voting Rights Act Case

30 04 2009

Yesterday, a skeptical U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires certain states and localities with a history of voting discrimination submit changes in voting procedures, or gain “pre-clearance,” by the federal government for approval.

The case involves a municipal utility district in Texas that wants to sidestep needing to comply with the provision because it claims the kind of discrimination that it once deterred no longer exists. Board member elections in the utility district require pre-clearance since the entire state of Texas falls under the jurisdiction of Section 5.

The case is called Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder.

Adam Liptak’s summary in the NYT of yesterday’s oral argument was spot on, especially his description of Justice Kennedy’s hostile line of questioning. And if his questioning is any indication, which in this case I think it is, Kennedy will likely write the majority or controlling opinion as he did in the Section 2 case earlier this year and erode much of Section 5, while of course noting that racial discrimination “is not ancient history.”

Perhaps, the real question here is how badly the Court will gut Section 5 and if it will introduce or demand that Congress create a more precise and less far reaching standard in determining which states and jurisdictions should be covered and why, even if in 2006 it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act only after it held 19 hearings and reviewed thousands of pages of testimony and documents.

Plus, a very curious exchange between Justice Scalia and Debo Aegbile from LDF during yesterday’s oral arguments.

Scalia actually suggested that simply because the VRA was cleared both chambers of Congress by wide margins, even if both houses and the Oval Office were controlled by Republicans at the time, we should be skeptical of its validity. In other words, we should be skeptical of the law, which has been reauthorized repeatedly by Congress, because it got too much support. Huh?

If we applied that same line of thinking to other laws enacted by Congress such as the American Disabilities Amendments Act that passed this fall and signed by a Republican president, then I suppose we should consider them invalid too. Or maybe we should consider the unanimous opinions like in Brown v. Board of Ed invalid because they also had too much support.

What happened to judicial modesty and due deference to legislative bodies that conservatives love to spout?

Here’s the exchange:

JUSTICE SCALIA: Mr. Adegbile, what was — I read it in the briefs, and I forget what it was. What was the vote on this 2006 extension — 98 to nothing in the Senate, and what was it in the House? Was –

MR. ADEGBILE: It was — it was 33 to 390, I believe.

JUSTICE SCALIA: 33 to 390. You know, the — the Israeli Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin, used to have a rule that if the death penalty was pronounced unanimously, it was invalid, because there must be something wrong there. Do you ever expect — do you ever seriously expect Congress to vote against a reextension of the Voting Rights Act? Do you really think that any incumbent would — would vote to do that?

MR. ADEGBILE: Well –

JUSTICE SCALIA: Twenty-five years from now? Fifty years from now? When?

MR. ADEGBILE: Justice Scalia, I think some members of Congress did of course vote against the Act.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Thirty-three members of the House and nobody in the Senate.

MR. ADEGBILE: Thirty-three members of the House, indeed. But I think the — the reason that they voted for it is what’s more important. Congress did not assume that section 5 was necessary. It took a very careful examination to see how it was operating, and the determination was that in the absence of section 5, because of the repetitive violations, because of 620 objections — there was evidence that approximately 60 percent of those show some evidence of intentional discrimination.

If you take away the prophylaxis, the discrimination will return in a way that we don’t need to revisit. The history has been that voting discrimination manifests itself through repetitive efforts and…..

Besides Texas, eight other states are covered by the provision, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Most of Virginia and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota are also covered.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to eliminate discriminatory voting practices by state and local governments. The law has been renewed and amended several times since it was passed, most recently with a 25-year renewal in 2006 where it cleared the Senate by a 98-0 and the House 390-33.





Member States Reach Agreement on Anti-Racism Document

22 04 2009

The anti-racism Durban Review Conference on 21 April adopted its final outcome document. It has its flaws particularly some questionable free speech paragraphs and its vulnerable to the charge that it did not need to include language regarding foreign occupation, though there is no mention of Israel by name. There are also a lot of NGO groups that are understandably frustrated at how language about the transatlantic slave trade was watered down in the final out come document.

But considering what the previous drafts looked like this final outcome document is a dramatic improvement. What’s more, the NYT has correctly framed this as a victory for the UN process and a loss for Ahmedinejad and those who wanted to use the Israeli-Palestinian question to either overshadow all other global racial discrimination issues or not participate in the conference at all.

The adoption of the resolution by the committee that coordinates the conference ended months of negotiation that removed contentious clauses referring to Israel and Palestine and trying to make defamation of religion an offense against human rights.

The conference will formally adopt the document here on Friday, but it is no longer open to debate or amendment, diplomats said.

Announcing the adoption of the resolution to warm applause from delegates, the conference president, Amos Wako, who is from Kenya said: “What we have decided shows the outcome when you remain engaged in the process. It shows that boycotts do not assist.”

“This is very good news indeed,” said Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights commissioner, who hosted the conference. “It’s the culmination of months of deliberation.”

[snip]

Announcing the adoption of the resolution to warm applause from delegates, the conference president, Amos Wako, who is from Kenya said: “What we have decided shows the outcome when you remain engaged in the process. It shows that boycotts do not assist.”

I fully expect a lot of critics to focus on the language regarding foreign occupation and free expression. But in the meantime I think the administration has got to be reconsidering participating in the follow process, given how this turned out.

Plus, the outcome document is very progressive on a whole range of issues from calling for a aggressively punishing hate crimes to urging governments to embrace equal opportunity programs from establishing national human rights bodies to affirming the right to organize to calling for the humane treatment of migrant workers in addition to calling for the ratification of other U.N. social justice treaties.





Homeland Security Sees Uptick in Hate Group Recuritment

17 04 2009

A Department of Homeland Security report on the rise of right wing hate groups and extremism was leaked this week. The DHS report is called “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.”

Unsurprisingly, the report found that the spike in undocumented immigration, the current economic downtown, and the election of the first African American president have spurred their efforts in winning new recruits.

Not exactly news to many of us, but its different when you see this documented by the government.

Of course, much of the controversy surrounding the report has focused on how these groups recruit disgruntled military veterans that find it difficult to readjust to civilian life, but that’s far from the report’s central focus. And anyone who takes time to read it would soon discover that himself.

But even if some civil libertarians and conservatives raising concerns about whether or not the government should be monitoring political beliefs, I think this presents many civil and human rights advocates with an opportunity to to promote greater awareness about the rise of hate crimes and their clear, though often overlooked, relationship to hate speech. That’s not to say we should go out of our way to criminalize intolerant speech, but being vigilante about countering intolerant speech can be critical to reducing hate crimes.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act, which seems like it will be introduced this session of Congress, would provide local authorities with more resources to combat hate crimes and give federal government jurisdiction over processing hate crimes in states where the current law is inadequate.

In my opinion, I think the key findings in the report include:

  • Over the past five years, various rightwing extremists, including militias and white supremacists, have adopted the immigration issue as a call to action, and recruiting tool. Debates over appropriate immigration levels and enforcement policy generally fall within the realm of protected political speech under the First Amendment, but in some cases, anti-immigration or strident pro-enforcement fervor has been directed against specific groups and has the potential to turn violent.
  • In contrast to the early 90s, the advent of the Internet and other information age technologies s has given domestic extremists greater access to information related to bomb-making, weapons training, and tactics, as well as targeting of individuals, organizations, and facilities, potentially making extremist individuals and groups more dangerous and the consequences of their violence more severe.
  • Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States. Information from law enforcement and nongovernmental organizations indicates lone wolves and small terrorist cells have shown intent—and, in some cases, the capability—to commit violent acts.
  • Most statements by rightwing extremists have been rhetorical, expressing concerns about the election of the first African American president, but stopping short of calls for violent action.
  • Historically, domestic rightwing extremists have feared, predicted, and anticipated a cataclysmic economic collapse in the United States. Conspiracy theories involving declarations of martial law, impending civil strife or racial conflict, suspension of the U.S. Constitution, and the creation of citizen detention camps often incorporate aspects of a failed economy.

Also, see Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano’s statement on the report here.





Kenn Starr Backs Harold Koh For State Gig

15 04 2009

That makes two. Ken Starr and Ted Olson, former Solicitor General under Bush the younger, have both endorsed President Obama’s nominee for State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh. As some of you may know, Koh has come under attack from the likes of Glenn Beck and Jay Sekulow and their foot soldiers on the far right who have tried to portray Obama’s nominee as a nutty liberal looking to supplant American law with Sharia law and a threat to the “fundamental American principles of representative government.”

The baseless accusations have already been debunked by Dahilia Lithwick and others but now right wingers will now have to shout down their own. In a letter dated yesterday, Dean of Pepperdine Law School Ken Star said, “I am firmly convinced that Harold is extraordinarily well qualified to serve with great distinction in the post of Legal Advisor,” and Ted Olson who said he had “ the greatest respect for Harold Koh,” and added, “He’s a brilliant scholar and a man of great integrity.”

Part of the reason that conservatives have gone after Harold Koh, Dawn Johnsen, and other executive nominees is to set the stage for the larger battle over a Supreme Court nominee which may come as soon as this summer. Conservatives hope to target and tarnish as many people with SCOTUS nom resumes, like Koh, in an effort to eliminate them from contention but also to keep throwing red meat to their base to keep them engaged on issues that even vaguely have culture warrior significance.