Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Talking Points For Defending Sotomayor

When despairing of the inane political football games that Supreme Court nominations too often become, we might take some consolation (cold comfort, I admit) in the fact that it has always been so, and in fact if anything 19th Century Court politics were even rougher than they are today. It's also likely that Sonia Sotomayor's nomination will go through; it's hard to see how the Republicans could stop it. Still, we will now have an interlude of fussing and fighting and it's useful to try to pull out the most salient talking points.

Those points are not, I don't think, the most obvious ones. The obvious points are as follows:

1) Obama continues to follow a recent trend started by Clinton and, after initially stumbling with his arrogant attempt to appoint an old crony, Harriet Miers, hewn to by Bush in his appointments of Roberts and Alito: appoint extremely accomplished jurors. This is definitely a good idea as the corpus of law only grows more complex and simply larger with each passing year. In the case of Sotomayor, we have a jurist who graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, was an editor of the Yale Law Review, worked for the legendary Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, and has now served eleven years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City.

2) Democrats and liberals like myself also have nothing to complain about: we have the first Latino/a nominee in the history of the Supreme Court - and a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, no less! That's maybe the best part. A woman diagnosed with diabetes at a young age, raised by a single mother. Not only that, but she is most famous (until now) for ending the baseball strike in 1995 coming down on the side of the players, thus avoiding what would have been the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years. Her overall record is liberal but hardly "activist" (as her attackers will begin shouting on cable today), with plenty of examples of ruling against liberal outcomes on the basis of constitutional law.

But here are three points to keep especially "on-message" as the right wing tries to tar Judge Sotomayor: a) She was a prosecutor in Manhattan for six years. b) She was recommended by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but the President who actually appointed her was George H. W. Bush, and most importantly c) as a Judge on the Couirt of Appeals in New York City, most of her rulings have not concerned "social" issues. She has been working most of this time on complex cases involving the financial and banking industries as well as communications technology, just the kinds of cases that are likely to come before the Court in the next few years. These are the things one might want to mention in public debate with the dittohead troglodytes.

Friday, May 22, 2009

New Democratic Senators Hall of Shame

Twenty-nine Democratic Senators voted in October 2002 in favor of House Joint Resolution 114, "To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq." In subsequent years as the war proved to be long, bloody and expensive, as we learned that there were no "weapons of mass destruction," and above all as the war became exceedingly unpopular with the public, there was plenty of weaseling and squirming and rationalizing about that vote. Democrats among the 29 have basically two lines: first, they were misled about the facts, and second, they respected the president's executive prerogatives.

Yesterday we saw a breathtaking buckling under by Senate Democrats who were stampeded by absurd rhetoric about "releasing terrorists on to the streets of America," exacerbated by overblown accounts of former detainees returning to the struggle and a general demonizing of all of the 200-odd men still held in Guantanamo. Stampeded, that is, by spurious and exaggerated claims that many of them undoubtedly knew to be so. Forty-eight Democrats voted for Amendment 1133 which stripped $80 million of funding to close Guantanamo from House Resolution 2346 which, by the way, authorized $91.3 billion for more war funding.

But the cravenness of this isn't even what bugs me most. It was the other half of the original 29 pro-war Democrats' rationalization that I'm thinking about today. "Hey," they said, "we supported the Republican president. We gave him what he wanted. We got in line like good soldiers." So I'm wondering: was there something about first-term President George W. Bush that inspired such institutional loyalty, such faith in the executive's good intentions, that first-term President Barack Obama lacks? And there are sixteen Democratic Senators who I would particularly like to hear answer that question: the 16 who were among the 29 Democratic senators who voted to authorize the war in 2002, and were also among the 48 Democratic senators who voted yesterday to deny President Obama funds to close Guantanamo.

Here, in alphabetical order, is the Gang of Sixteen: Democrats who gave Bush what he wanted to make the mess (basically because they were politically cowardly and willfully obtuse) and refused to give Obama what he needs to clean the mess up (basically because they are politically cowardly and willfully obtuse):

Baucus, MT
Bayh, IN
Cartwell, WA
Carper, DE
Dodd, CT
Dorgan, ND
Feinstein, CA
Johnson, SD
Kerry, MA
Kohl, WI
Landrieu, LA
Lincoln, AR
Nelson, FL
Nelson, NE
Reid, NV
Schumer, NY

Some of them are very prominent, some of them talk a pretty good game - all of them should be ashamed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Is David Corn Eddie Munster?

I always figured Marilyn would be the successful one! Seriously though, David Corn, the Washington Bureau Chief of Mother Jones Magazine and a writer for the excellent CQPolitics, as well as the co-author with Michael Isikoff of the just-out-in-paperback Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, has been doing great TV work lately and you can count me as a fan.

But I still say he looks like Eddie Munster.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Moment of Truth for Republicans on Abortion

For the record, my own position on abortion is "safe, legal, and available to all," that last clause referring to my opposition to cutting federal funds to hospitals where abortions are performed even when medical professionals recommend the procedure. But a winning phrase from the Clinton years is "safe, legal, and rare." And Democrats have an effective strategy for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies: real (as in explicit) sex education, and access to birth control including condoms (the only method that also prevents the spread of STDs) and the "morning after" pill. The public is smart: a concerted sex education effort and access to birth control will certainly reduce the frequency of abortion and any common-sense person can see that.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have a self-contradictory position: they want to outlaw abortion, but they also oppose sex education and making condoms and other forms of birth control available to young people. For some reason (and Lord knows I'm not the one to ask) Republicans are against sex. And since they are against sex they are against knowledge (education) about sex and even against safe sex (sex with condoms and other forms of birth control). But they are also against abortion. That's the contradiction, at least from a public health-policy perspective.

The Democrats can absolutely wipe the floor with the Republicans on this one, but we need to understand that the audience is the broad, centrist public and the message needs to go out on point and relentless: explicit sex education and access to birth control is the most efficient strategy for reducing the number of abortions. The empirical facts are a slam dunk on that one. So you say you're anti-abortion? Then we can assume you're in favor of sex education and birth control. Or we can assume you're a hypocrite...CHOOSE.

A Conversation About the Indian Elections and Kashmir

I was thinking about a post on Sunday's landslide victory by the Congress Party in India yesterday when I had this exchange with a good friend, an Indian academic working in the US. She graciously agreed to my posting our conversation, good for me since she knows more than I do!

Indian Friend: Maybe not so exciting as the Obama win but, I hope you agree, ALMOST!
(opened champagne last night)

AB: Yes I've been sketching a possible blog post about the Indian elections this morning. I was disappointed that the NYT coverage did not bother to explain just how reactionary/violent the Bharatiya Janata Party really is, or even remind its readers that the BJP has actually been in power in the recent past. Instead the NYT chose to emphasize the comparatively less important set-back for the Communist-led coalition, spinning this as a public referendum on the need for "economic reform." They're going to make a Noam Chomsky out of me yet. But you know things are bad when the big old, bad old Congress Party are the good guys by miles! Which at this point they are. Anyway, everybody repeat three times: "US-Pakistan alliance bad, US-India alliance good." If you can't remember after three times, chant it again.

IF: Hey Andy,
I think the NYT emphasized the Communist setback because that was indeed a real surprise, whereas the BJP one could certainly be explained, even if it was bigger than expected. What was also not emphasized in the article is that the Congress victory is significant not only as a mandate vis-a-vis the BJP but also vis-a-vis the Kashmir separatists - and I hope that gives Obama (and Clinton) a message not to meddle in that region!

But you know things are bad when the big old, bad old Congress Party are the good guys by miles!

Disagree. Except for the short bad period of Indira Gandhi's obsession with personal power, the Congress has been pretty much on track re secular democracy. And it sure helps to have a Prime Minister who's a PhD in economics!

AB: Don't get me wrong, I've always supported Congress. Has there ever been a choice? As to Kashmir, I'm slightly confused by your comment: granted that both the Islamic militants and, notoriously, the Indian Army have committed many excesses at the expense of the native Kashmiris, it has not been my sense that the Kashmiris themselves are Muslim separatists generally. Do you disagree? If not, expect Congress to resist Islamicist incursions of all kinds, which they will see (more or less correctly on my view) as proxy antagonism from Pakistan. Would you support a fundamentalist Islamic Kashmir aligned with Pakistan? Do you think that Congress would acquiesce to that? I'm not concerned about "terrorist havens" or any of that nonsense, rather about Kashmir itself. Is it your view that the jihadis coming in from Pakistan and Afghanistan a more progressive force than the Indians?

IF: Don't get me wrong, I've always supported Congress. Has there ever been a choice?

Yes. Congress's best point has been its secularism. Its bad points have been its attempts to control the judiciary and of course its continuation of dynasty politics. The BJP started, btw, as a party to counter Indira Gandhi's attempts to turn India into a police state in the late 70s, which sprang from her desperate attempts to hang onto power. That's when she declared her infamous Emergency. I was desperate to vote but was underage by 1 month (voting age was then 21). Indira Gandhi's younger son Sanjay was even worse than her. So yes, the BJP was at that time a good choice. After Indira Gandhi's assassination the Congress has not been dominated by any one individual and that, I think, has been what saved it.

As to Kashmir, I'm slightly confused by your comment: granted that both the Islamic militants and, notoriously, the Indian Army have committed many excesses at the expense of the native Kashmiris, it has not been my sense that the Kashmiris themselves are Muslim separatists generally. Do you disagree?

Yes, of course there have been excesses. But until recently it appeared that India was trying to hold on to Kashmir at all costs, because the militants kept demanding a boycott of the elections. However the state elections (last Decmber, when I was there) and last month's national election has shown an overwhelming majority are against separatism. This, I think, should eradicate the militants' goal to romanticize themselves as resistance martyrs. And therefore I think a clear indication that things should start returning to normal. The excesses must be dealt with of course, but if it were a case of an army holding an entire region against its will that would be far greater "justification" for terrorist attacks as well as for Obama's interference.

If not, expect Congress to resist Islamicist incursions of all kinds, which they will see (more or less correctly on my view) as proxy antagonism from Pakistan. Would you support a fundamentalist Islamic Kashmir aligned with Pakistan?

It would be dangerous, but if that's what the people wanted there would be no grounds to oppose it.

Do you think that Congress would acquiesce to that?

No, for several reasons:
1) It's not what the majority wants
2) Even if, hypothetically, the majority had voted that way, this doesn't take into account the sizeable Hindu minority that has fled the valley in the past 19 years.
3) If this were to happen it would set a precedent for all kinds of ethnic break-away regions in India.
4) By insisting on elections, Congress (led by Omar Abdullah, an absolutely excellent candidate - young guy in his mid 30s) basically called the separatists bluff. (There were 2 separatist candidates for the state elections in December).

I'm not concerned about "terrorist havens" or any of that nonsense, rather about Kashmir itself. Is it your view that the jihadis coming in from Pakistan and Afghanistan a more progressive force than the Indians?

I'm not talking about progressive. But certainly one can't FORCE people into democracy. If the majority in Kashmir WANT jihadi rule, what gives India the right to IMPOSE itself on Kashmir? That's why I'm so happy about the Kashmir elections. I'm not saying the Kashmiris want to be part of India necessarily because of democracy. But they do want to cash in on India's economic boom that's for sure. They also know that one of their main economic assets was tourism, and the only way their tourist industry can thrive is under India. There's no way the jihadis are going to encourage "houseboats for honeymooners"! They've really been hurting economically in the past 19 years.

So that's why I'm very very happy about the Kashmir elections. If it had gone the other way, it would have justified the 1990s view that Kashmir was India's Vietnam.

This is how the Kashmiri separatist candidate's defeat was described in Dawn.

Check out CNN-IBN if you get a chance on www.livestation.com. It is NOT, despite its name, IBN (Indian Business News) a business channel. There ARE other better news channels in India but this seems to be the best one available on Livestation.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Matter of Perspective

Conservatives have been telling us for years that energy conservation was a silly idea: "You're only going to save maybe 1% of our crude oil consumption that way" they'd scoff at this or that proposal (at lots of proposals: because there are lots of ways to conserve energy!), "It's just a drop in the ocean!" And that was the argument: saving a little is no use, so forget it.

I'm not sure what's supposed to be "conservative" about this attitude. It has no relation to the commonsense frugality of my parents who grew up during the Great Depression, for example. Nor does it resemble the humble traditions of thrift and saving that hardworking immigrants have been bringing to this country for centuries. It is the cynicism of hopelessness, at best, and the cynicism of those who know that their personal interests are served at the expense of others, at worst. The fact is that when billions of barrels of crude oil are being consumed every day, 1/2 of 1 percent, say, translates into an awful lot of oil. With numbers of vast magnitudes the fact that must be realized is that even a small percentage of a very large number is, in real numbers, itself a very large number.

This old argument comes to mind watching the (I would say cynical) reaction of the media to President Obama's announcement of $75 billion dollars of savings in federal spending announced this week. By trimming here and trimming there, closing this office and canceling that order, the White House, busy enough with other things, has announced that they have saved a sum equal to approximately 1/2 of 1 percent of the federal budget. And out come the cynics: "A drop in the ocean," "A political stunt," and so forth. I beg to differ.

Every householder knows that it does indeed make sense to cut out the monthly sushi outing, or hold off on ordering that new CD from Amazon, when pressed with a big mortgage payment, a large credit card debt, college bills and so forth. $500 a year in savings: that's a month's worth of credit card payments, or a month's worth of groceries, or a new piece of furniture. That's real money! And guess what: do what the Obama administration has done three months into its term 199 more times and: no deficit at all. 200: is that so large a number? Meanwhile, lots of folks, apparently, figured for a long time "Hey I owe $12,000 on my credit cards: another 60 bucks for this gizmo doesn't change that situation." That way lies madness. That way lies the impasse at which we have arrived.

So yes, it is a matter of perspective when we're talking about trillions of dollars of deficit spending. But the moral of that has been backwards in the media this week, and I'm not talking about know-nothing Fox, I'm talking about MSNBC, even. The implication of trillions of dollars in debt is not that 1/2 of 1 percent savings is nothing. The moral is that it's a WHOLE LOT. When I save 1/200th of my annual budget, that's good. When Obama saves 1/200th of the annual federal budget, that's not just good, that's great.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Empathy on the Supreme Court

Why not put Bill Clinton on the Supreme Court? Obama and Hillary need to keep him busy, and it's the only box big enough to hold him. Plus he's a notorious empathizer.

Speaking of that, I'm marveling at this week's conservative attack on President Obama, who made the outrageous assertion that he wanted to appoint someone to the Court who might have empathy for ordinary people. Horrors! This is more of the Keystone Kops routine we're seeing from a right wing that is now led by Rush Limbaugh. How great is it to have political opponents who are spending the week declaring themselves to be against empathy? Rhetorical geniuses they are not.

Meanwhile, I'd love to have an interview with Justice Clarence Thomas about all this. He wasn't quite four-square against empathy in his dissent to Virginia vs. Black in 2004, when the court upheld a right to cross-burning under the 1st Amendment. "Those who hate cannot terrorize or intimidate to make their point," he wrote, adding the interesting metaphysical observation that burning a cross was more like burning a house than it was like making a statement; one could, after all, burn down a house to make a point. So how about it, Justice Thomas? For empathy, or against it?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

John Wilke 1954-2009

My old college buddy John Wilke passed away last Friday at the age of 54. I have known him and his wife Nancy for 31 years. John was a staunch liberal from before the day I met him until the day he passed away. He had a very "straight"-looking demeanor and was always polite and diplomatic, but he was burning with righteous indignation at corporate greed and exploitation when we were students at New College in the 1970s and that spirit carried him through Columbia Journalism School and on to a distinguished career as an investigative reporter. He was a thorn in the side of the mighty; if you were to ask Bill Gates about him you'd get an earful.

John told me he had cancer some months ago, and we had an e-mail conversation about death and dying, but he was never anything but his always positive self. He never said he was dying, he was reflective but never complained. Here are obituaries from his employer of 20 years The Wall Street Journal, his sometime employer The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post.