Saturday, July 31, 2010

Whoa, Arizona:
Judge rejects Untied States

When the Justices of the United States Supreme Court take down the Gone Fishin’ sign that hangs in the court window until the first Monday in October, Action Item #1 or #2 may already be bearing down on them: a role in the settlement of what is shaping up to be the heaviest, most potentially transformative domestic issue to face the high court since Roe v. Wade.

The immigration debate moved into a new phase on Wednesday, hours before imposition of SB 1070, the severe anti-immigration measure previously signed into law by the governor of the Arizona Territory. On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Susan R. Bolton imposed a preliminary injunction against part of the law that required immigrants to carry residency papers, and which tasked police officers with responsibility for determining the residency status of criminal suspects or those suspected (in the broadest, most imprecise application of the word) of being undocumented aliens.

Other parts of the law, basically tweaks of the Arizona immigration laws already on the books, went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.

In Bolton’s reasoned rebuke of the rationale behind some of the controversial Arizona measure, there was some understanding of the challenge faced by Arizona. Bolton said that “the court by no means disregards Arizona’s interests in controlling illegal immigration and addressing the current problems of crime including the trafficking of humans, drugs, guns and money.”

But, “even though Arizona’s interest may be consistent with those of the federal government, it is not in the public interest for Arizona to enforce pre-emptive laws. ...”

"Requiring Arizona law enforcement officials and agencies to determine the immigration status of every person who is arrested burdens lawfully-present aliens because their liberty will be restricted while their status is checked," Bolton, a Clinton appointee, said in her decision.



And Bolton ruled that, despite Arizona’s frustration with the current state of immigration control, states weren’t free to arbitrarily set laws that could pre-emptively catch up citizens as well as undocumenteds. Part of the Arizona law, she ruled, “increas[es] the intrusion of police presence into the lives of legally present aliens and even United States citizens who will necessarily be swept up by this requirement.”

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Supporters of SB 1070 announced intention to stay the course, despite a lack of support from (among others) some of the very law enforcement personnel expected to enforce the law (police officers in Tucson and Phoenix have filed suit against the law). “It's a temporary bump in the road, we will move forward, and I'm sure that after consultation with our counsel we will appeal," territorial Gov. Jan Brewer told the Associated Press. "The bottom line is, we've known all along that it is the responsibility of the feds and they haven't done their job, so we were going to help them do that."

And state Rep. Rick Murphy, a Republican, sent the Supremes an early welcome-back message. “We pretty much expected we would have to go and win at the Supreme Court level,” he said late Wednesday on MSNBC.

Arizona Immigration Law Preliminary Injuction

Bolton’s ruling that that the power to regulate immigration rests solely with the federal government was a full-on undiluted win for the Obama administration, in a week when they needed a victory.

The Justice Department, in a statement, hailed the unifying principle of the judge’s ruling, saying that if Arizona were left unchecked and states set immigration laws on their own, “a patchwork of state and local policies [could] ultimately be unproductive.”

Arizona appealed on Thursday, of course, asking the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to fast-track the matter and hold hearings in September. The appellate court, wisely deciding not to let this become an issue any time before the November vote, set hearings for after the elections. NBC News’ Pete Williams said we should expect dueling lawyers, since the Justice Department is likely to appeal the rest of the Arizona law that went into effect on Thursday.

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Bolton’s ruling was several things at once. Besides being something that would naturally antagonize the birthers and nativists animating the immigration debate, the ruling demonstrated to anyone paying attention how the whole notion of “states’ rights” could be tragically misapplied, if not for the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, section 2).

According to the group Americans for Legal Immigration, 19 other states are weighing similar immigration control measures, watching to see how it plays out in Arizona. The language of Bolton’s ruling is an implicit warning against the worst of this groundswell scenario. Envision: 50 different states enacting 50 different approaches to immigration control within their borders and nowhere else; 50 different thresholds of innocence and culpability; 50 different legislatures fashioning immigration reform that’s tailor-made to their unique circumstances and no one else’s; 50 chapters of the Minutemen organization on armed patrol. Fifty concessions to the idea of secession.

We can thank Judge Bolton for reasserting that which should be obvious to everyone but the most stubbornly ideological among us — that which the supremacy clause is intended to reinforce: The existential question of what identifies us and binds us as Americans, both by letter and by spirit, is central to our identity as a nation, and most properly addressed by the government that represents and symbolizes this nation — the unum in e pluribus unum, a single entity, not an assortment of malcontent ... territories enforcing measures animated as much by passion as by intellect, as much by ideology as by the law.

We live in the United States of America, not the Untied States of America. Whenever Arizona’s way of handling the immigration issue hits the big docket some time this year, you have to believe the Supreme Court of the United States of America will validate that — 9-0.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sherrod v. Breitbart

The Root editor Joel Dreyfuss reported today that Shirley Sherrod intends to file a lawsuit against conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart for posting to his Web site a deeply abridged video that portrayed her in a racist light. The former and possibly future U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, speaking at a crowded venue at the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in San Diego, said she would "definitely" take legal action against Breitbart.

Dreyfuss reported that Sherrod regretted Breitbart’s absence at the convention because she had some questions to ask him (a real safe bet). She said she believed Breitbart "had to know" that the video he released last week wildly distorted her personal racial perspective.

With this pending action Sherrod implicitly calls for more responsibility for sourcing in the videocentric age we live in, especially as it relates to the ruthless politics we practice today.

This kind of thing has happened before. Back in May, Fox News was taken to task by Michael Moore in Media Matters for editing out applause during President Obama’s address before West Point cadets, leaving a cavernous silence for several seconds. The actual feed of that part of the speech, available at the White House Web site, showed that Obama paused because of the applause of the cadets. Applause you didn’t get watching it on Fox.



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It’s this selective interpretation of time and space we’re heir to in the video age. Dismayingly, for some, it’s no big deal. Edward Royce makes this point, commenting at TheRoot: “All Breitbart did was post a video clip of Shirley Sherrod speaking her story in her own words. If posting a short unaltered video clip of someone saying their own words is defamation then every TV & web news corporation is in serious trouble. Suing Breitbart will achieve nothing and probably will get thrown out of court.”

But anyone interested in journalism law who remembers the phrase “false light” knows that Sherrod may well have a case against Breitbart, possibly even a good one. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

False light invasion of privacy occurs when information is published about a person that is false or places the person in a false light, is highly offensive to a reasonable person, and is published with knowledge or in reckless disregard of whether the information was false or would place the person in a false light.

False light includes ... distortion (the arrangement of materials or photographs to give a false impression) ...


Some courts have decided that false light lawsuits aren’t really necessary, since defamation covers much the same legal terrain but with more clearly defined legal language. “However, a false light claim has the potential to succeed against the media where a defamation claim would fail,” Wendy Tannenbaum of RCFP reported in 2002. “It is possible, for instance, that the ‘gist’ of a story could be considered false, even where the actual statements in the piece are true.”

Sherrod's prospects for winning such a lawsuit, of course, also hinge on the threshold of what constitutes a "public figure" — the tripwire of libel-related litigation. In this case, is the term "public figure" subject to an absolute interpretation, or a relative one? And in these days of Web access and instant visibility, what really distinguishes one "public figure" from an otherwise unknown person with a digital camera and a YouTube account?

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But in the end, there’s a very good chance that Shirley Sherrod is filing a lawsuit not so much to make money as to make a point. This may be her way of calling bullshit on the rampant use of doctored video clips proffered to the world on the blogosphere and elsewhere as intact, unaltered visual documents of a statement or an event.

Whether she prevails in court or not, assuming it gets that far, Sherrod’s intention to sue is a call for more accountability, by news organizations (and those that masquerade as such) for use of doctored, unsourced and unsourcable material.

And in the runup to an election in which race has dominated the media agenda like never before, it’s a message from a veteran of the civil rights era that’s refreshing in its 21st century embrace of the law and media as the best weapons against racialist distortion in the media: Sometimes, the best way to deal with a bully is to bully a bully.
Image credits: Sherrod: USDA (public domain). Breitbart: Fox News Channel.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

WikiWar: The language of mission creep

It’s written in the clipped, official, denaturing tongue of a modern military machine, acronymal expressions of life-changing events. WIAs are those wounded in action, KIA are those killed in action. But sometimes it needs no translation. These are the words, the literal words, of modern war, a war that for the United States is unraveling, a war whose language has its coded aspects but which finally can’t conceal the collapse of the rationale that made that language and that war necessary.

In what may be the most damning disclosure of a war gone awry since the Pentagon Papers, the Swedish-based organization Wikileaks on Sunday released more than 75,000 secret U.S. military reports and communications encompassing six years of the war in Afghanistan. The documents are panoramic in their breadth and assertions, the most provocative of which may be speculating on the possible antagonistic role of Pakistan in the Afghan conflict; as well as the expansive corruption that’s come to define the Afghan national government.

But for understanding the guts of the conflict, it’s the “severity” browse tab that puts everything in perspective. That’s where you find the fighting, and dying, that are central to this and any war.

The Afghan War Diary is the most significant archive about the reality of war to have ever been released during the course of a war,” Wikileaks said in a summary statement at the Wikileaks Web site. “The deaths of tens of thousands is normally only a statistic but the archive reveals the locations and the key events behind each most of these deaths. We hope its release will lead to a comprehensive understanding of the war in Afghanistan and provide the raw ingredients necessary to change its course.”

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The United States government is not pleased. The Pentagon has been reviewing the docs with an eye to any damaging disclosures. The White House, in damage control on Monday, reacted predictably. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, calling the release “a breach of federal law,” said “whenever you have the potential for names, for operations and programs to be out there in the public domain, besides being against the law, it has the potential to be very harmful to those that are in our military ...”

Some in Congress have made the similarly reflexively patriotic calculation that release of these documents prima facie jeopardizes the war effort in Afghanistan, and possibly national security in general.

Wikileaks, no doubt anticipating concerns over really sensitive and compromising information, held some items back for further review:

“We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits,” Wikileaks said in the summary.

But there may not be much to worry about. An admittedly casual hourlong review of the diary reveals what for this reader are a series of incident statements, after-action reports that represent a recall of what just happened, largely populated with anonymous players: a skirmish with INS (insurgents), a SAF (small-arms fire) exchange resulting in 3 EKIA (enemy killed in action).

It’s a surprise how a wartime dispatch can manage to be alarming and clinical at once

ISAF # 11-1440 SC21 DECLARES TIC S-10-12 INS A-ENGAGING PATROL WITH MORTAR/RPG/PKM L-41R NQ 9909 8888 T-0842Z A-ENGAGING//RQST CAS 0911Z-SC 21 REPORTS: CONTINUE TO ENGAGE WITH ORGANIC WEAPONS // 2 x EKIA 0938- SC 21 REPORTS: ADDITIONAL 3 x EKIA 1040Z- SC 21 REPORTS: RECEIVING EFFECTIVE RPG AND SAF // THE RATE OF ENEMY FIRE HAS INCREASED ATT //

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What may be so damning for the Obama White House in all this has less to do with the content and everything to do with the context. For the first time in a really comprehensive way, we’re getting the view of the war we’ve only seen sporadically, not the perspective of generals but that of the forward observer, the squads on patrol. This is a chronology of boots on the ground of hell. This is where the theory of “mission creep” (what happens when operational successes breed a climate of ambition and risk that often leads to greater operational failures) is painfully distilled.

Reading these terse, fragmented epistles of 21st-century combat, we’re witness to the sudden chaos of the Afghan war; its capacity for sudden and deadly velocity; its wholly unpredictable nature; its prosecution in some of the most unforgiving terrain on this planet. Pentagon leak assessments notwithstanding, the biggest revelations of the Afghan war diary lie in the smallest details. The diary’s significance isn’t in telling us what we don’t know, it’s in the way it tells us what we already know.

President Obama, speaking today in the White House, understands at least some of this: “While I’m concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations, the fact is, these documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate on Afghanistan,” the president said from the Rose Garden.

But that’s only half right. The Wikileaks power dump on Sunday didn’t reveal any “issues,” and it probably wasn’t intended to. The release of these docs refires an urgency in the war debate, reframes that debate in ways that are immune to statements and spin. What even the casual reader grasps, page by page, year by year, is a sense of drift, a foundational thread of reaction. That’s a huge problem for an administration bound, for now, to staying the course.

That course includes a tacit acceptance of the wildly improbable but apparently true. Recently, journalist Christina Lamb reported in The London Times about elements of the Afghan national army, whose members routinely have sex with each other, wear makeup and are often under the influence of illicit narcotics while in training or on the battlefield.

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Spending for the Afghan war is about $3.6 billion a month, and with the House’s vote today to approve another supplemental appropriation of $37 billion more for the wars there and in Iraq, the total amount of money for both conflicts passes $1 trillion.

Thus, the Obama White House is faced with having a reaction of its own, and with making a decision whose gravity or timing aren’t altered in the least by the Wikileaks release.

For some, the Wikileaks material makes a White House reaction self-evident. If only they'd listen. "The fundamental problem is that we cannot accomplish the mission," said Peter Galbraith, former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, on MSNBC's "Hardball" today. "I think it is a waste of resources to put people in a mission that can't be achieved. And frankly, it's immoral to send young men and women on a mission that cannot succeed."

The Afghan war effort is clearly WIA and has been for many months. It’s a catastrophe pulling our human and financial resources into an increasingly destructive vortex that’s harder to escape as time goes on. Wikileaks just provided the operational tick-tock of the evolution of a war effort that’s failing — something that’s not so much classified information as it is common knowledge.

Image credits:  U.S. sniper team, Afghanistan 2006: Cpl. Bertha Flores, U.S. Army. War Diary excerpts via Wikileaks.org. Coalition fatalities chart: LokilT, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license; data from icasualties.org.

Monday, July 26, 2010

BP: The new top kill

It was inevitable. Given what was and is at stake for a badly tarnished corporate identity and a severely polluted coastline, the pending dismissal of Tony Hayward from his post as the chief executive officer of BP plc has been for weeks not a case of if but a matter of when he got his life back.

The shoe dropped over the weekend, when numerous media reports stated that Hayward, the CEO whose short-sighted assessments of the damage wrought by his company combined with hamfisted attempts at sympathy, will be gone by Tuesday. That’s when the British energy giant is expected to release its financial results for the first full six months of 2010.

The Telegraph (UK) reported Sunday that Hayward “is finalising the details of his imminent exit from BP this weekend as the oil giant prepares to make an announcement on the chief executive's future possibly within the next 48 hours.”

Among the things to iron out: Hayward’s severance package, estimated in some reports at about $17 million.

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When the deal goes down, it will bring to an end one of the more calamitous public relations cockups in the history of modern business. Hayward effectively absented himself from his position weeks ago, weeks after the BP oil spill that asphyxiated the Gulf of Mexico and endangered the unique habitat and the life it supported. In mid-May, while oil was still rushing into the water, he told an interviewer that he thought the environmental impact from the spill was “likely to be very modest.”

The real soundbite zinger came on May 31, when Hayward said nobody wanted this over more than him and “I want my life back.” Even his R&R was problematic; in mid-June, at the crisis’ height, Hayward went on vacation, taking in a yacht race while the Gulf of Mexico was in the environmental ER.

“Hayward hit all the negatives,” said Mike Paul, image consultant and president of PR firm MGP & Associates, to CBS News. “He did everything wrong from a crisis management perspective.”

He’ll never make that mistake again. News outlets reported early Sunday, with little or no hedging, that Hayward’s replacement would be Bob Dudley, BP’s managing director and a man previously shortlisted for the job Hayward’s about to vacate.

Dudley, a relative newcomer to BP’s highest levels (he joined the board less than two years ago), may be just the fresher blood the company needs in dealing with this crisis. Even-tempered but accessible at the microphone, Dudley has imparted an inner calm to his contacts with media that Hayward never had (partly, of course, because Dudley's inherited this mess, as opposed to being at the helm when it happened). He's still a Company Man, but maybe we can deal with him.

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Shock observed in June, when Dudley first took Hayward’s place before the microphones as the face of BP:
Dudley starts with at least two advantages right from the start: First, he’s an American citizen, something that matters given the whiffs of anti-British sentiment starting to rise in the wake of the spill. For all BP’s avowed concerns, it just looks good for a company as big as BP to have someone out front on this crisis with the skin-in-the-game of citizenship.

And then there’s the regional factor: Dudley hails from Hattiesburg, Miss., where he lived as a child, The AP reported on Sunday. That connection may be from long ago, but considering Hayward’s dismal lackluster performances with a British accent, giving BP the voice of a son of the South might calm the waters. At least a little.
We’ll see about that last part. Life is still too raw for the working people of the Gulf region to think about doing any Cajun-flavored Kum Ba Yah with BP right now. For them, Hayward’s formal removal is a step in the right direction.

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Hayward will certainly rebound somewhere in the world of business; the talent that got him to the top of a major energy superconglomerate is rare enough. Maybe he’ll take some of that $17 million and put his money where his mouth (and his company’s money) have been: into a private fund earmarked for residents of the Gulf states whose bays and estuaries he helped damage, whose livelihoods he helped endanger.

Wherever he turns up, the next Tony Hayward will be a lot more attuned to the need for sensitivity in public relations; he’ll know that smug assurances are no replacement for a command of the facts. He’ll know that appearances matter, that yachts in leisure and shrimp boats in distress don’t mix.

And when he goes sailing again in the unpolluted waters off the coast of England, X-thousand nautical miles from the Gulf of Mexico, maybe it’ll hit him that the tens of thousands of shrimp, birds, turtles, pelicans, oystermen, shrimp boat captains, charter boat captains, deckhands, marina workers, office workers, restaurant owners, dishwashers, waitresses, store owners, stock clerks, families and the 11 oil-rig operators who died on April 20th want their lives back too.

Image credits: Tony Hayward, Bob Dudley: Via The Huffington Post. BP logo: BP plc.

Update, July 28: Hayward may have to wait awhile before his next sailing adventure. Reports have surfaced that the embattled BP chief executive officer, who steps down on Oct. 1, will remain with the company, having been named one of three non-executive directors of TNK-BP, the BP joint venture with Russian investors. His shift to duty in Siberia will be a comfortable one; Hayward will reportedly earn about $1.6 million a year at his new post. (Image: Dominic Lipinski/BPPA)

Friday, July 23, 2010

The man in the empty chair

Jonathan Martin of The Politico reported on Thursday that Norm Coleman, former Minnesota senator and odd man out in that state’s interminable recount battle with Al Franken, is seriously weighing a bid for the chairman’s post of the Republican National Committee.

Coleman, said to have fundraising expertise (after the Franken saga, he damn well should have) and known to be a center-right Republican figure who's been building his bona fides, wouldn’t actively pursue the post until after the November elections.

"Coleman is planning to attend the RNC’s summer meeting next month in Kansas City, in part to be on hand for a tribute to longtime New Jersey Committeeman David Norcross, who is stepping down from his party post," Martin reports. "But senior Republicans say the former senator’s appearance at the committee’s gathering will also allow him to meet the party members who will pick the next chairman and signal to them that he’s interested in the job."

It’s way too soon to know how serious Coleman is. The field could fill up by year’s end with other possibles: maybe Marc Racicot would seek another bid at the helm of the RNC, and you can’t overlook the prospects for Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state and the vice RNC chairman who lost his bid for the top job — to the current chairman, the deeply embattled, perversely self-wounding Michael Steele.

But what’s clear right now is just how badly this compromises an already compromised chairman. It’s been not exactly insider knowledge that the Republican Party wants Steele gone. Sooner the better.

In the time since he took over, the RNC has been performing a five-spiral crash in slow motion, with Steele at the periphery, or the center of, a serious decline in fundraising, numerous intemperate and sometimes outright bizarre statements of philosophy, and the embarrassment of party associations with a bondage nightclub in Los Angeles.

Analysts and thought leaders have been debating for months when or whether Steele would be formally removed from his post. All of a sudden, it really doesn’t matter. With Coleman’s name bandied about, and more sure to follow, the end result is that months before the election, Steele has already been defanged as the leader of the RNC, his potency neutralized by the very speculations of his replacement. In practical political terms, Michael Steele is the RNC chairman on his business cards, and nowhere else.

Image credit: Michael Steele: Daily Caller.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shirley Sherrod’s teachable moment

You’re to be forgiven if you think that Glenn Beck or Andrew Breitbart is the 44th president of the United States, not Barack Obama. That’s the inescapable takeaway from the Obama administration’s latest sad foray into race matters, an exercise in bungling that has the tail of the right-wing media wagging the dog of White House policy.

The matter of Shirley Sherrod is one of those teachable moments about race, the media and jumping to conclusions. But this time, it’s not the administration doing the teaching. This episode proves the Obama White House has a lot to learn. Mostly about itself.

Sherrod, Georgia director of rural development for the Department of Agriculture, was fired Monday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, dismissed on the strength of a video posted to the BigGovernment blog of Andrew Breitbart, conservative activist and content source for Fox News.

The Breitbart video showed Sherrod making comments on March 27 at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet in Douglas, Ga., comments that appeared to indicate racial bias on Sherrod’s part when dealing with a white Georgia couple trying to save their farm in 1986.

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But as happens in a ravenous 24/7 news cycle, the story we got at the outset wasn’t the full story. Or even the real story. The video that looked so damning at first blush wasn’t used in its entirety on the Breitbart site. The rush to judgment by the USDA and the mainstream media was based on selective editing, a few minutes of excerpts that didn’t reveal the full context of Sherrod’s comments.



The full 43-minute video revealed that Sherrod’s speech at the banquet was really a laying bare of her own heart, revelation of her own reach across the racial divide, and an explanation of her own personal journey to racial reconciliation. Breitbart couldn’t be bothered.

The Breitbart video (the full version of which Breitbart himself said he hadn’t even seen before posting about three minutes of its contents) made the rounds of the blogosphere, and from there into wider circulation on mainstream news Web sites and cable outlets. Vilsack, apparently trying to head off a controversy over race, called for Sherrod’s resignation.

Sherrod told CNN on Monday that her resignation was put on a fast track – so fast they couldn’t even wait for her to complete a three-hour drive to her home in Georgia. Sherrod said she was requested to pull over to the side of the road and text her resignation to her agency immediately, at least partly because of the expectation that her case would be featured on that evening’s Glenn Beck program on Fox.

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Once the error was revealed, the Ag Department — and by extension the Obama administration — started backing and filling. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Vilsack would apologize to Sherrod, “and they’ll talk about their next steps,” certain to include Sherrod’s reinstatement to her old post, or another one.

And Gibbs, off his usual confident game, owned up to the mistake. “I think clearly that a lot of people in this situation, from the government’s perspective on through, acted without all the facts … Without a doubt, Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology.”

She got one from Vilsack, who was the soul of contrition on Wednesday when he admitted the error and offered the “extraordinarily gracious” Sherrod a new position at USDA. “A good woman has gone through a very difficult period,” he said.

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What’s more concerning, and what Gibbs’ statement can’t conceal, was an administration willing to leap to unsupported conclusions, an administration that’s averse — if not flat-out allergic — to any perceptions of improprieties on race matters, even when no improprieties exist.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sarah's psuedo Shakespeare

Already an old hand at making rather original and tortured disquisitions in the American idiom of the English language, political personality Sarah Palin® has lately invoked William Shakespeare in defending her malapropisms, and done it on Twitter, the reigning 140-character Hyde Park soapbox. Verily, the Bard sleeps uneasy this day.

Palin weighed in on Twitter on Sunday, with a reaction to the controversy concerning the possible location of Cordoba House, an Islamic community center, to near Ground Zero, the lower Manhattan site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Ground Zero Mosque supporters,” she tweeted, “doesn't it stab you in the heart as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, please refudiate.”

You don’t have to be the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary to see that “refudiate” isn’t a word. Palin clearly meant either “repudiate” or “refute.” Her spontaneous portmanteau was a forgivable mashup; since F and P aren’t exactly neighbors on a standard QWERTY keyboard, it was also clearly an intentional one.

When the blogosphere weighed in to make comments, Palin defended herself on historical grounds.

Palin later tweeted: “ ‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee'd up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!”

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At one level, of course, Palin’s absolutely right; the English language, and especially the American idiom of that language, is rich with coinages and inventions that contradict or alter the meaning of long-existent words — inventions that through widespread vernacular usage become part of the language itself (Spike Lee’s “wannabes” from his film “School Daze” is a classic example).

“Taken comically, Palin’s use of ‘refudiate’ is a good instance of the kind of coining Shakespeare did,” observed Matthew Biberman at AOL News. “Even though the word doesn't exist, we get the point. There are similar instances in serious contexts in Shakespeare.”

It’d be easier to buy such a defense in Palin’s case if the former nominal Alaska governor hadn’t already developed a history of mangling the language stretching back to her stint as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign.

It would also be easier to accept if Palin herself hadn’t engaged in backing and filling after her initial tweets — deleting her own linguistic invention in another tweet an hour or so later: “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.”

Palin’s future role in the political life of the United States remains to be seen; her name’s still bandied about in some circles as that of a possible presidential contender. The deciders of that role may be the American people, whose memories of Bush administration “strategeries” are still fresh.

If Palin puts her hat in the ring two years from now, we’ll see how this Shakespearey thing works out for her then — when she confronts the oratorical gifts of President Obama. There’s no time for refudiation quite like a presidential campaign.

Image credits: Palin: C-SPAN.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Obama’s war of diminishing returns

We’re about three months away from the midterm election in America and about the same length of time until the onset of the fierce Afghan winter. The relationship between the two is closer than you might think. This November will be the American people’s first opportunity to weigh in on the effectiveness of the Obama agenda in a variety of spheres of American life.

One of those spheres of experience, the Afghan war, could well be his undoing, both this November (with the domestic economy in a coma) and in November 2012 (when his own prospects for re-election will hinge on how well he’s walked it like he talked it on ending a financially ruinous foreign war).

In this week’s Newsweek magazine, Richard Haass, a former Bush administration official and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, weighed in on Obama’s options in Afghanistan. There’s much food for thought in Haass’ article; some of it agrees with me, some of it’s, well, indigestible. But the basic thrust of Haass’ well-reasoned, well-written argument makes sense: The status quo for American forces in Afghanistan is no longer a viable option. President Obama downplays or ignores that fact at his peril.

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Haass notes:
The war being waged by the United States in Afghanistan today is fundamentally different and more ambitious than anything carried out by the Bush administration. Afghanistan is very much Barack Obama’s war of choice, a point that the president underscored recently by picking Gen. David Petraeus to lead an intensified counterinsurgency effort there. After nearly nine years of war, however, continued or increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan isn’t likely to yield lasting improvements that would be commensurate in any way with the investment of American blood and treasure. ...
Haass’ historical assessment of the Obama administration’s role in this is instructive:
By the time Obama became president in 2009, the situation inside Afghanistan was fast deteriorating. The Taliban were regaining a foothold. There was concern in Washington that if left unchecked they could soon threaten the existence of the elected government in Kabul headed by Hamid Karzai. Trends were judged to be so bad that the president ordered 17,000 more American combat troops to Afghanistan even before the first review he’d ordered up was finished.

Since then Obama has had several opportunities to reassess U.S. goals and interests in Afghanistan, and in each instance he has chosen to escalate. Upon completion of that first review in March 2009, he declared that the U.S. mission would henceforth be ‘to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.’

But in reality the U.S. objective went beyond taking on Al Qaeda; the president announced in those same remarks that the additional U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan would ‘take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east, and give us a greater capacity to partner with Afghan security forces and to go after insurgents along the border.’ In short, the return of the Taliban was equated with the return of Al Qaeda, and the United States became a full protagonist in Afghanistan’s civil war, supporting a weak and corrupt central government against the Taliban. Another 4,000 U.S. troops were sent, to train Afghan soldiers.
These and later troop enhancements point to the Obama White House developing an Afghan policy at cross purposes with itself.


On the one hand, Obama rhetorically speaks of “taking the fight to the Taliban” and al-Qaeda with more U.S. forces; on the other hand, he talks about a July 2011 deadline for the start of a U.S. withdrawal of those same forces he’s pouring into the country right now. It’s a contradictory policy that can only contribute to what’s long been a war of diminishing returns.

◊ ◊ ◊

Haass writes about Obama’s various options:
The economic costs to the United States of sticking to the current policy are on the order of $100 billion a year, a hefty price to pay when the pressure to cut federal spending is becoming acute. The military price is also great, not just in lives and matériel but also in distraction at a time when the United States could well face crises with Iran and North Korea. ...

At the other end of the policy spectrum would be a decision to walk away from Afghanistan — to complete as quickly as possible a full U.S. military withdrawal. Doing so would almost certainly result in the collapse of the Karzai government and a Taliban takeover of much of the country. Afghanistan could become another Lebanon, where the civil war blends into a regional war involving multiple neighboring states. Such an outcome triggered by U.S. military withdrawal would be seen as a major strategic setback to the United States in its global struggle with terrorists. ...
Haass entertains other possible avenues:
One is reconciliation, a fancy word for negotiating a ceasefire with those Taliban leaders willing to stop fighting in exchange for the chance to join Afghanistan’s government. It is impossible, though, to be confident that many Taliban leaders would be prepared to reconcile; they might decide that time is on their side if they only wait and fight.
Haass’ idea for negotiating a ceasefire with Taliban leaders amenable to a quid pro quo for influence in the Afghan government anticipates against the probable thinking of Taliban leaders, who’ve no doubt already made the calculation to wait the United States out.

At an annual cost to the United States of $100 billion and far too many human lives lost and maimed, the wait-it-out strategy is, from the Taliban perspective, a sound one. Their role in the Afghan conflict costs them a fraction of what the United States is paying. And for the Taliban and other bad actors in the region, the United States seeking a cease-fire could be the kind of emotionally galvanizing event that resonates through the Islamist extremist community, endangering American interests in other countries subject to that sphere of influence.

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Partitioning Afghanistan creates another completely different set of problems. From Haass:
One new idea put forward by Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India, is for a de facto partition of Afghanistan. Under this approach, the United States would accept Taliban control of the Pashtun-dominated south so long as the Taliban did not welcome back Al Qaeda and did not seek to undermine stability in non-Pashtun areas of the country. If the Taliban violated these rules, the United States would attack them with bombers, drones, and Special Forces.
Besides having the potential to provoke resistance from the various Afghan minorities, partitioning would tap into a deep reservoir of nationalistic fervor, and almost certainly be perceived as an American idea intended to dilute or otherwise transform Afghan sovereignty for U.S. benefit.

And the idea of the United States accepting Taliban control of the Pashtun south presupposes Taliban acceptance of the conditions of a new U.S. military threat if they violated the terms of the agreement. Under such a scenario, we’re not looking at if or whether the Taliban would violate such an agreement; it’s a matter of when. And when that happens, the United States would find itself responding with bombers, drones and Special Forces — most of the same military assets we’re using in country right now. Boots on the ground to follow later, if needed. Boy, there’s nothing like fighting a war twice.

◊ ◊ ◊

The only option that makes any sense is the one that prevents the United States from repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War: the option of getting out, extracting our forces from Afghanistan as surgically, as elegantly, as efficiently as possible.

What’s called for isn’t the courage to stay the course in Afghanistan; what’s called for is having the stones to leave — to not be held hostage by the “conditions-based” proviso that could be invoked by hawks in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill indefinitely, forever. President Obama has announced a timetable that begins drawdown in July 2011. He needs to make that happen. Period. If a timetable is to have any meaning, it has to begin sometime. If a timetable’s creator is to have any credibility, he has to be prepared to make that timetable stick.

Even if the first withdrawals are token numbers of forces (1,000 here, 2,000 there) the actual sight of American forces exiting from Afghanistan would have a strong effect on every actor in the Afghan power equation: from the arrogant intransigence of the Karzai government to the ruthless backwardness of the Taliban.

Few things would focus the Karzai government’s attention quite like the evening-news images of American forces leaving Afghanistan. That government would be forced to (among other things) accelerate its participation in the training of the Afghan army and police units. The setting of a firm July 2011 deadline puts the Afghan leadership on notice that the time for Afghans to save Afghanistan is rapidly approaching, and it won’t be postponed by conveniently sudden eruptions of violence.

◊ ◊ ◊

How such a measured withdrawal will be seen and interpreted by Islamist extremists can only be a matter of conjecture. In the short term, a U.S. withdrawal will be portrayed as a victory by those extremists, and may embolden them and others to accelerate attacks on the Karzai government.

So be it. Regardless, the United States can’t be indefinitely held hostage to prosecution of a war that was initially well-intentioned but is now practically unsustainable. There are no ideal options; there are only choices that speak to President Obama’s willingness to do what’s best for this nation and this economy. An exit from Afghanistan on a timetable of our choosing may be the most palatable of a plate full of bitter choices.

Having already exhausted about nine years, hundreds of billions of dollars and more than 1,000 lives to this conflict, it’s past time for the United States to reassess its purpose in Afghanistan. It’s time to look clearly at what we can hope to achieve there with a more limited military role, and what we will never achieve in a country of enduring tribal divisions, a panoramically corrupt central government and a long antagonism to foreign intervention — even the presumably enlightened foreign intervention of the United States.

Image credits: Obama in Afghanistan: Pete Souza/The White House. Choppers inbound, Afghanistan: public domain. U.S. war casualties: MSNBC. Obama at Dover transfer facility: Unknown.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mark Williams’ satire for dummies

Mark Williams’ future as a fledgling American satirist is in jeopardy. His recent attempt at satire — a response to calls for rhetorical restraint from the Tea Party Express of which he was a spokesman — sidesteps a basic requirement of satire, even as it laid bare the deeper existential issues facing the movement he supports.

The National Tea Party Federation — the umbrella organization that includes the influential Tea Party Express — formally excommunicated Williams on Sunday over the blog post, a fictional letter from "Colored People" to President Lincoln that Williams wrote on his blog last week.

The post, since removed from Williams’ Web site, was a reaction to the recent broadsides fired by the NAACP at the Tea Party movement denouncing the racism of some of its supporters, and calling for denunciation of that racism by Tea Party leaders.

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Writing as "Precious Ben Jealous ... NAACP Head Colored Person," Williams wrote: "Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house.

"We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!"

Williams kept it up, saying that black Americans don’t want taxes reduced: “[H]ow will we Colored People ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn?”

The National Tea Party Federation (putting more distance between itself and Williams than that between the Federation and the wavers of blatantly racist signs at its rallies) issued a press release saying it ordered the Tea Party Express to remove Williams and to say so "prominently" online.

The Express refused, tacitly announcing its gravitas in the conservative ranks. The group reportedly raised more than $2 million this year, and played a role in electing Scott Brown of Massachusetts to fill Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat last year.

◊ ◊ ◊

The federation, which claims to represent more than 1 million people in 85 Tea Party groups nationally, was not impressed, and jettisoned Williams publicly on Sunday.

"We in the last 24 hours have expelled Tea Party Express and Mark Williams from the National Tea Party Federation because of the letter that he wrote," federation spokesman David Webb said on CBS's "Face the Nation," calling the blog post “clearly offensive.”

Williams' response, effectively undercutting the role of the Federation, revealed a basic problem with the Tea Party: it’s a party without a leader, and by extension, without a vision.

"There are internal political dramas amongst the various self-anointed tea party 'leaders' and some of the minor players on the fringes see the Tea Party Express and Mark Williams as tickets to a booking on Face the Nation," he said.

There is no tea party leadership,” Williams observed in a rare moment of candor, “every tea partier is a tea party leader."

Those last eight words perfectly distill the biggest problem for this restless, mercurial offshoot of the Republican Party. When everyone’s a leader, there is no leader. Lapses in judgment and common sense like Williams’ couldn’t happen if that weren’t true.

◊ ◊ ◊

Williams, whose discourse has no doubt been honed and developed during his day job as a radio talk-show host in California, is at least an equal opportunity maligner. He previously called out President Obama as an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug." More recently, Williams has condemned the proposed location of an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Williams called the proposed community center a monument to the 9/11 hijackers meant to “worship the terrorists' monkey-god.”

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who supports the center, was labeled a “Jewish Uncle Tom who would have turned rat on Anne Frank.”

At the end of the day, Williams’ sad jibes overlook something from Satire & Parody 101: effective satire has to reflect the underlying reality of a situation, circumstance or event before the satirist goes over-the-top with it. If there’s no foundational truth behind the satire, it doesn’t work.

Considering the lack of leadership within the broad descriptors of the Tea Party, Williams’ efforts at satire might be better used elsewhere. Maybe he’ll write a little something about the movement that would lead America without having a leader itself.

Then again, that’s not so much over-the-top satire or parody as it is the stone cold truth.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Exhuming McCarthy 2.1:
Utah and terrorism in America

The rhetorical shape of the immigration debate, the contours of this defining issue are getting coarser and more desperate the closer we get to this year’s election and the one in 2012.

We’re just past halfway through 2010, a year that’s seen a nasty escalation in anti-immigration rhetoric nationally, as well as the spiritual secession of the state of Arizona, whose anti-immigration law (not yet in effect) has aroused fears of racial profiling, as well as the prospect of tasking police officers with confirming citizenship status and arresting those suspected of being in the United States illegally— a state usurpation of a function of the federal government.

Now, some residents of Utah are ready to make that the next state to put reason, social tolerance and federal law in the crosshairs with a xenophobic, insidious anti-immigration strategy that’s disturbing in itself and ominous in its wider, national implications.

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On Wednesday’s edition of MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” the rock-solid Olbermann reported on a letter this week sent to Utah law enforcement officials, state government officials, TV and radio news outlets and The Associated Press — a letter that anonymously outs about 1,300 residents of Utah as undocumented immigrants. The recent letter follows one sent only to federal authorities in April.

In the letter, the genially-named “Concerned Citizens of America” — “a large force of tax-paying citizens … who live throughout the state of Utah” — articulates its frustration with U.S. immigration policy, and reaches back to the McCarthy era with its own shadowy enemies list, a collection of names, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, spousal identities, social security numbers and even the due dates of at least six pregnant women.

“Some of the women on the list are pregnant at this time and steps should be taken for immediate deportation,” the letter reads.

“We see a direct relationship between these illegal aliens and the escalation of crime in our communities, in the form of drug and alcohol abuse, theft and domestic violence. Our country cannot — and should not — continue to support this type of situation. They need to go — and go now.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Utah Letter

One of the more disturbing factors in the letter — whose names haven’t been released by news organizations or the federal officials who received them — is the explanation for how this cache of private data was discovered, and by extension the probable real source for that information.

Whoever wrote the letter used a grassroots, civics-class rationale to how the group came by its information. “We … spend the time and effort needed to gather information along with legal Mexican nationals who infiltrate their social networks and help us obtain the necessary information we need ...”

In the latest state rebuke of federal authority, the list and its detailed info is a violation of federal law, specifically provisions of Title II of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), enacted by Congress in 1996. The law’s Privacy Rule, in effect since 2003, strictly regulates disclosure of protected health information — the very information widely circulated in the letter itself.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ironically, through the breadth of the information included in the letter, the “Concerned Citizens” may have also done a lot to identify who they are. On Wednesday Olbermann interviewed Tony Yapias, a radio talk-show host and the former director of the Utah Office of Hispanic Affairs. Yapias thoroughly discounted the neighborhood canvass as a source of such information. For him, the information in the letter is so voluminous, so complete in its documentation of family identity — right down to due dates of expectant mothers — that it could only have come from one source.

“It comes from a database,” Yapias told Olbermann. “It’s much too sophisticated a list to be put together” on an ad hoc basis by a random group of “Concerned Citizens.”

“I believe that this came from a state agency ... a social services agency,” Yapias said.

We might know the alleged block-by-block source for the information was bogus for another reason: With the challenges collectively facing the nation’s Latino communities, legal and otherwise, it’s hard to imagine “legal Mexican nationals” informing on those people sin papeles — without residency papers. Latino solidarity runs a lot deeper than that.

◊ ◊ ◊

Yapias, who described Latino communities in Utah as feeling “terrorized” by the letter, noted the painfully obvious: that in a 24/7/365 news cycle nourished mainly by the Internet, the random release of such a letter could be disastrous.

And that’s the deeper tragedy of all this: more than a scandal, the Utah letter has the potential of becoming the blueprint for a subversive national response to the immigration problem. This malignant spin on the neighborhood-watch concept updates the McCarthyite idea of the informant to the 21st century, and seeks to arouse that deepest and worst of American paranoia: neighbor spying on neighbor. It’s a silent terrorism of part of the American population with the potential to ensnare citizens and illegals alike.

At least one family of legal Utah residents has been incorrectly identified as illegal in the letter; how many more families are likely to be victimized by a common surname or an erroneous address?

The Utah letter is proof of how, with three months and change before the November election, the immigration debate is building to a poisonous, possibly dangerous crescendo. How this shakes out will say more generally about this country than any one state or any single election. This is a gut check of American principles; this is a call to resist issue-driven frustration; this is a time to push back against the mob — even when the mob comes calling in the guise of “Concerned Citizens.”
Image credit: McCarthy: public domain.

BP: Breakthrough, Possibly

You get so used to bad news, good news is almost hard to believe. When BP made its announcement Wednesday afternoon, it was stunning in its suddenness: According to the company responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ... the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is over. For now.

The British oil conglomerate’s efforts at containment of the rupture at the Deepwater Horizon well site paid off Wednesday sometime around 3:25 p.m. ET, with installation of a new containment cap and the gradual adjustment of the closure valves surrounding the gushing wellhead. The cap now in place is a temporary one, meant to secure the hemorrhage of oil until the permanent cap can be put in place.

“All of us have been watching these horrible images for almost three months now,” said BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles on Wednesday. “But I have to stress that we have to manage our expectations.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Despite Suttles’ intelligent warning, it’s hard not to feel upbeat. We’d been led to think that the success or failure of this effort to stop the flow of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico would reveal, once and for all, whether anything would work. Ever. The apparent success at stopping the oil, at least for now, is the best environmental news this country’s had in the 87 days since the well exploded late on April 20.

Since then, the oil conglomerate’s efforts at containment of the rupture at the Deepwater Horizon well site have been a torturous tango of two steps forward, two steps back. Even in the wake of the progress the company previously said was being made in the four-stage process of capping the well, setbacks were never far off. On Sunday, to accommodate the new installation, the wellhead was open wide again, oil flowing into the Gulf again without letup — maybe as bad, for a while, as it was in the beginning.

BP’s also been looking for ways to contain its other relentless gusher: cash flow. The company, once among the top five global energy giants, has been hemorrhaging cash since shortly after the Deepwater Horizon exploded. The company’s set aside $20 billion to cover claims and costs, an amount that, mind-boggling as it is, may not cover the damage. Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of that $20 billion cache, told The Wall Street Journal on Monday that there’s no way to know for sure until the oil stopped. “Once the oil stops, I believe we’ll be able to very quickly get a handle on the comprehensiveness of the claims population,” he said.

The British company has to hope its long decline on the world’s markets comes to an end that decisively. BP share prices rebounded nicely on Wednesday in expectation of a solution, closing up more than 7 percent. In recent weeks, BP share prices have similarly defied economic gravity.

The Journal again, from Monday:

“Despite the mounting cost of the spill, BP’s share price has risen about 20 percent over then past two weeks, in part due to progress on the relief well and expectations that Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds might buy into the stock to prop up the oil major and help preserve its independence.”

The Journal noted that on Friday, BP shares closed at about $5 a share, climbing back from a 14-year low of $4.59. But that short-term bubble of a rally pales in significance with the overall trend for a stock that remains, uh, underwater:

BP closed on June 8 at $34.15 a share — at that time a new 52-week low.

Even as the Journal speculated that Middle Eastern investors may help save BP’s autonomy as a freestanding major, the thrust of that Monday story concerned something that suggests the strength of that autonomy may soon be diluted: BP is in discussions with Apache Corp., an independent oil and natural gas producer, about the possible sale of $10 billion in BP assets, possibly including BP’s expansive holdings in Alaska.

That’s just part of an overall cost-containment strategy that’s included everything from curbs on capital investments to a cancellation of stock dividends.

BP had everything riding on this latest containment effort — what may have been their last, best hope for ending a crisis of vast impact and scale. For the sake of the people in the Gulf dealing with this mess on a personal level, for the sake of its investors and its own integrity, BP better get it right this time. Never before has the outcome of an environmental catastrophe been such a forecast for an oil company’s future. Rarely has the word “containment” ever meant more.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One Nation into the breach

With three and a half months before the November election, it’s all about to get interesting. The nation’s political and cultural left has for months been a favored punching bag of conservatives in the media and on Capitol Hill. But two real broadsides were just fired from the left. In what may be the first real gearing up of the progressive America for the fall campaign, the vanguard of multiethnic progressivism has shown it recognizes the value of thinking collectively, and speaking truth to power.

Now, if they can just get people to the polls.

The Washington Post reported Monday that 170 liberal and progressive groups have joined forces under the One Nation name, in a grassroots initiative meant to be a counter and response to the tea party movement. Groups include the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of La Raza, the United States Students Association, and the powerful Service Employees International Union.

A day later, the NAACP sharpened its message at its widely-watched annual conference, adopting a resolution that answered the apologists for the racist behavior that’s come to characterize the passions of the tea party’s truest believers.

“The tea party movement is a threat to the pursuit of human rights, justice and equality for all,” the resolution read in part, in language that calls the tea party crowd to account for much bad behavior over the preceding 16 months. The exclamation mark to the resolution can be expected in the fall, possibly October; that’s when the NAACP plans to underwrite an anti-tea party march ... on Washington.

◊ ◊ ◊

First blush, it might seem that the One Nation effort is reflexive, defensive, defined not by what it is but in reaction to what something else is. But this is the new realpolitik in the era of the tea party and the No machine that is the Republican Party. When your opponent brings a switchblade to the fight, you bring a machete. He puts your man in County General, you put his man in the county morgue.*

That distills the potential leverage of the number of groups allied against the tea party movement; from Latinos to African Americans to progressives of all races and persuasions, everyone’s represented. The One Nation venture has great potential because of its very demographic breadth and range of composition. In many ways, it throws marketable branding on the same kind of coalition — younger, minority, working-class — that swept President Obama to power in 2008.

In that potentially fractious assemblage, there is, you have to assume, a commitment to the Democratic party and its various legislative and social initiatives in the White House and in Congress. That’s one difference between One Nation and the tea party movement. While the tea party has no real hope of advancing its agenda as a freestanding entity — in the context of a fully realized third party — its more extreme followers (formerly Republicans and soon-to-be Republicans again) have helped publicly define the movement with a nasty streak of race-tinged intolerance that will be the tea party brand going into the fall.

That’s hardly attractive to independent voters, even independent voters disaffected by the Obama White House and the Democratic Congress. It’s utterly unattractive to millions more Americans.

The thrust of the One Nation movement is an embrace of how two-party politics is entrenched in the American life; there’s an understanding of the value of working within a party rather than outside it, and the value of including as many people as possible. Defining yourself by who’s in your party, not who’s left out.

For its part, the NAACP, lately rejuvenated under the leadership of Ben Jealous, knows its own role in the national life. In its anti-tea party resolution, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization unmistakably lays out what’s at stake, and does it with a sense of the historical moment. There’s as much possibility for the Democratic agenda in this announced coalition as there was in the more organic coalition that made the Obama White House possible.

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s key, of course, is turnout. Republican thought leaders have been loudly proclaiming the death of the Democratic majority in Congress for months now, implicitly expecting a reward for their own role in obstructing the programs of the Obama administration. Just as implicit in their doomsaying for Democrats is the expectation shared by them and others that, following history, most of the Democrats and independents who powered the 2008 vote won’t show up at the polls this year.

Some see the basis for a shotgun wedding. “There is no choice but for these groups to get together,” said Paul Starr, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University and co-editor of the American Prospect, speaking to The Post. “The historical pattern is that voter turnout falls disproportionately among minorities and young people at these midterm elections, so they are fighting a historical trend.”

That’s what makes the One Nation/NAACP throwdowns so potentially important. First, there’s no question that a broad coalition of 170 progressive groups with a multitude of agendas represent more of the United States’ population than the tea party crew. That gives One Nation a much broader reach into the American electorate from the start.

True enough, it’s possible that that same multitude could turn into a tower of Babel of clashing self-interests and fierce cliques. “[T]he liberal groups have long had a kind of sibling rivalry, jostling over competing agendas and seeking to influence some of the same lawmakers,” The Post reported. “In forming the coalition, the groups struggled to settle on a name.”

But the thinking that’s made such a broad-shouldered coalition possible in the first place suggests the One Nation movement could be, by its very demographic reach, exactly the galvanizing action the Democrats need to restore confidence, and maybe even swagger, to a disillusioned base.

That core of voters is pining for the good old days (the good old days of a year and a half ago). The formation of One Nation suggests they’re also training for a fight in the fall.


* Thank you David Mamet.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Watchful waiting in the Arizona Territory

The Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, has been consistent in its dealings with the leaders of the Arizona Territory, in the wake of its overbroad anti-immigration law. DoJ filed a lawsuit against Arizona last week, a fairly-focused action intended to oppose what the federal government sees as an attempt to superseded the fed’s authority to determine national immigration policies.

But Holder’s now on the record about the government’s intent to watch the law’s implementation (now set for July 29), looking for anything that suggests racial profiling against the state’s Latino residents. In comments made over the weekend, Holder pushed back against those who’d support usurpation of federal authority over such national decisions, and against those who see his department’s actions as purely political outreach. There’s a clear drawing of the battle lines over a dispute that may end up this fall, or eventually, before the U.S. Supreme Court.

◊ ◊ ◊

On CBS’ Sunday gasbag program “Face the Nation,” Holder almost sidestepped the question of racial profiling, articulating the main reason for the federal lawsuit was because the law’s intent to pre-empt federal authority over immigration policy was “inconsistent with the Constitution.”

“It is the responsibility of the federal government, as opposed to states doing it on a patchwork basis,” he said in a clear renunciation of the very heart of the “states’ rights” philosophy.

Holder implied that the law’s July 29 start date may come to pass, despite a variety of legal challenges, vigorous netroots opposition and the scorn of Latino and minority rights organizations in the territory and nationwide. But that wouldn’t prevent another federal suit if need be. “It doesn’t mean that if the law, for whatever reason, happened to go into effect that six months from now, a year from now, we might not look at the impact the law has had” and decide that racial profiling had taken place, he said.

◊ ◊ ◊

When territorial Gov. Jan Brewer signed the measure into law, back in April, the law attracted international attention, and a flurry of cancellations of various sporting and conference events, costing Arizona millions. Since then the issue’s been on the media’s side-backburner. But the Arizona law might flare back into full attention again soon.

The immigration issue itself plays to the more vocal, extremist elements of party politics in 2010. The Tea Party movement has rallied emotionally behind its nativist dimensions. J.D. Hayworth, challenging Sen. John McCain in the August primary, has become a Tea Party darling for his uncompromising anti-immigration stance. And for conservatives generally, immigration may be the last, unassailable hot-button cultural issue left with which to bludgeon the Democrats.

With other parts of the country watching to see how the law plays out in Arizona (some of them states where immigration is a growing concern), and with a huge bloc of engaged Latino voters in the balance, the likelihood of the Arizona law exploding fresh out of the background of the national attention span grows and grows.

◊ ◊ ◊

The reason for that is because immigration in general and the Arizona law’s response to the issue in particular will both be on the table if — or when — a Justice Department challenge to the Arizona measure comes before the Supreme Court. While the law’s scheduled to kick in on July 29, that’s probably a soft date; lower-court challenges could hold that up for weeks. Maybe for just enough to gain a space on the Supremes’ docket — ready for arguments in the second or third week of October.

When that happens, the issue of immigration policy and who decides it takes center stage. The Supremes certainly won’t announce, or even make, a decision before the November election. But the partisanship the issue’s aroused with the general public will certainly be reflected (rationally, we hope) in the chambers of the high court, whose probable newest member, Elena Kagan, will face the first test of her storied judicial pragmatism.

Holder’s already set the terms of engagement in this war over authority; the lawsuit, with all the weight of the federal government behind it, is always an option, a weapon, to be considered. Like the Latino residents who are by coincidence or design the object of the law’s scrutiny, the Arizona territory’s being watched by the government. The Supreme Court may decide who’s wearing the blinders.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Rush, race and 'payback'

Conservative newlywed talk-radio gasbag and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh has built an empire on racial vitriol, stoking the fires of intolerance with the extremist right, which can't get enough of this sort of thing.

In recent days he's returned to form in a big and ugly way, with on-air commentaries that suggest not only the Limbaugh of old, but also his strategy for advancing the extremist conservative agenda in the runup to the election in November.

For Rush, it's all about character assassination -- the wilder and more improbable the accusation, the better. A classic example: On his July 2 program, Limbaugh revisited a persistent extremist theme of Obama's hatred for America, tying it to the economy. To Limbaugh, the current state of the economy is a deliberate case of racial "payback."

"Who is Obama? Why is he doing this? Why? Why is he doing it? Is he stupid? Is it an accident? ... I think we face something we've never faced before in the country, and that is, we're now governed by people who do not like the country, who do not have the same reverence for it that we do. Our greatest threat -- and that is saying something -- is internal."

Signing on philosophically to the comments of someone who proposed the "payback" idea, Limbaugh added his own embellishing perspective of the unidentified commenter: "That word 'payback' is not mine [but] it is exactly how I think Obama looks at the country: It's payback time ... There's no question that payback is what this administration is all about, presiding over the decline of the United States, and doing so happily."

◊ ◊ ◊

Limbaugh's drumbeat continued on Wednesday, with more condemnation for Obama, claiming that Obama had succeeded in every step of his journey to the presidency solely because of his race.

Obama, he said, "wouldn't have been voted president if he weren't black É There's a lot of guilt out there: [To] show we're not racists, we'll make this person wealthy and big and famous and so forth ... If Obama weren't black, he'd be a tour guide in Honolulu, or he'd be teaching Saul Alinsky constitutional law or lecturing on it in Chicago."

Why is Rush doing it? Is he stupid? Is it an accident? We can debate his mental faculties all day; what's certain is that it's no accident. This pattern of ad hominem attack and racial insinuation has defined Limbaugh through the years, especially in the heat of the 2008 campaign, when Limbaugh's comments formed a racially corrosive counter-narrative to Obama's message of positive change.

Now, Limbaugh's doing his part to turn up the temperature in the long hot summer preceding the midterm election.

Like the tax-filing deadline, hurricane season and the line at the DMV, Rush Limbaugh is an unpredictable familiar. We've dealt with him before, which doesn't make it any easier the next time we have to deal with him. Now, as before, in this campaign like the last one, we know what to expect from Limbaugh: the thoroughly expected unexpected.

Image credit: Limbuagh: Today show (NBC).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

GOP gets ready to nationalize failure

The Republican battle plan for the fall is taking shape. The word’s been out for a while: the November election will be portrayed by the GOP as a national election, a referendum on the policies of President Obama, with the Republicans doing all they can to widen interpretation of the lapses and failures of Democrats generally as an indictment of Obama’s leadership.

Democrats, on the other hand, are ready to narrow the focus — adopting the strategy in the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum “All politics is local” and concentrating on making the November election a chance to take stock of the individual races state by state.

Interpreting politics as a local phenomenon makes sense for the Democrats; it personalizes politics for the off-year vote, an election that’s already widely expected to result in a far lower voter turnout than the 2008 landslide. There’s hope among Dems that the outcome of congressional races that hang in the balance can be moved to the party's advantage by galvanizing the netroots, independent voters and at least some of the wild-card voters, the younger ones who turned out in droves in 2008.

There’s also justifiable worry that the passion those voters had for Obama in ’08 may not be transferable to less charismatic candidates running in state and congressional races this fall. That prospect — tied to two financially and spiritually expensive wars, and a domestic economy that hasn’t responded to the jumper cables of stimulus — will be keeping Democrats up nights.

◊ ◊ ◊

But flip the script sideways. Another look at events since the 2008 vote suggest that the Republicans might want to give the idea of nationalizing the off-year election another look. There’s danger for the GOP in pursuing that strategy, one with the very real possibility of nationalizing nothing so much as its own shortcomings.

Recent polls have indicated that much of the nation has already interpreted Obama’s failure to fully achieve his domestic agenda as the Republicans’ fault; they’ve come to the conclusion that GOP obstructionism is as much to blame for that failure as White House missteps. Since the November 2008 election, that Republican tendency toward obstruction for its own sake has gone from talking point to bedrock edict.

The citizens of a government that depends on compromise to function understand that, and what that gridlock has meant in a variety of ways — from Republican-led opposition to legislation meant to extend unemployment benefits to GOP accusations of White House complicity on the BP oil spill. People know the blame game for its own sake isn’t enough.

◊ ◊ ◊

Since the 2008 election, the Republican Party has been subject to internal ... issues that point to an identity problem, one that would loom in stark contrast to the Democrats if viewed through a nationalizing prism of the election. The Republicans are paying for their emotional ties to the Tea Party, the ad hoc union of extremists and badly disaffected independent voters whose hallmark is racist (and sometimes violent rhetoric) against Obama himself. For voters, even independent voters disenchanted with Obama, the question becomes what they’re voting for if they pull the red lever. Is the Republican existential disarray preferable to the Democrats’?

And the GOP has problems with leadership. With Michael Steele at the helm of the Republican National Committee, the money in party coffers has dwindled at a dizzying rate, as donors make contributions directly to a state’s candidates rather than the party itself. And thanks to embarrassing scandalettes like the Voyeur bondage night-club incident, and various bizarre statements from Steele himself in recent months, the brand of the GOP is now in full decline.

For the Republicans, these issues highlight the risk of nationalizing this election; if they do that, they can’t isolate themselves from being seen in the same spotlight. For many of the same reasons.

The Republicans don’t really want to nationalize this election by invoking the state of the economy. Doing that means nationalizing their eight years of shortcoming on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the enduring economic repercussions of those wars. Doing that means nationalizing their own opposition to extending the unemployment benefits Americans need to keep food on the table. Doing that means nationalizing their willingness to blame the unemployed for being unemployed.

That’s hardly a good strategy for turning the Democrats out of office — this year or in 2012.

Image credits: Tea Party protest sign: Via Huffington Post. Michael Steele: ABC News.
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