Saturday, June 30, 2012

CNN, Fox and the perils of jumping the gun

THE MEDIA earthquake that was the SCOTUS health-care law decision caught Washington and the nation by surprise on Thursday, and some outlets of the electronic media were no less surprised, even when they really shouldn’t have been.

The rush for the cameras in the moments during and after Chief Justice John Roberts’ reading of the decision was the digital equivalent of the reporters’ sprint to the phone banks, a gloss on the era of reporting straight out of “The Front Page.”

But CNN and Fox News, hardly outliers in the world of cable news, dropped the ball in the accuracy of their initial reports, jumping the gun on the finality of the event they reported in an embarrassing way.

Viewers of CNN (“The Most Trusted Name in News”) and Fox News (“We Report. You Decide.”) were treated on Thursday to the ritual stakeout of the Supreme Court building where Chief Justice Roberts was to read the ruling concerning the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Obama in March 2010.

Then, the first reports began to trickle in, and the race was on.

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The whispers into the earpieces of producers and reporters for both networks came to the same conclusion: The Supreme Court had ruled the crucial individual insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. CNN congressional correspondent Kate Bolduan and Fox News reporter Shannon Bream were in position outside the Court, each holding a multi-paged document that was, presumably, the printed version of the decision.

Bolduan, using slightly conditional language, at least suggested things were in flux — “I’m gonna hop back on this phone, and try to get more information for you,” she said on the air. But in that tele-instant, thanks to the producers creating the chyron graphics that run at the bottom of the screen, the conditional became the factual — “SUPREME CT. KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE” — before the facts were in.

Before Bolduan came back with the right information, CNN anchors Wolf Blitzer and John King ran with the first-blush news, analytically building on Bolduan’s erroneous report, and telling CNN viewers What It All Meant before It had even been reported.

Over at Fox News, anchor Bill Hemmer gave the moment a drumroll finality. “We have breaking news here on the Fox News Channel ... the individual mandate ... has been ruled … unconstitutional.”

Hemmer actually said what he said before Bream, standing outside the Court building, read from the decision itself. But Fox News, darling of the conservative media, may have been guilty of wishful thinking, and of accepting the prevailing belief days and weeks before the decision that the law and/or the mandate were dead.

Hemmer’s portentous report, mind you, jumped the gun on Bream’s own reporting. And curiously, it took second place to the banner at the bottom of the screen, which screamed “SUPREME COURT FINDS HEALTH CARE INDIVIDUAL MANDATE UNCONSTITUTIONAL.” Those words were visible to Fox News viewers before Hemmer said a word.

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It took about two minutes for Fox to fix its news, but it was a full seven minutes before the right information surfaced on CNN, information that came to light after more of the decision was announced. What happened next at both networks was backing and filling, throat-clearing and stammering as CNN and Fox backtracked to the truth. Both networks later issued corrections across their formats, and properly offered mea culpas on the air.

Then Fox pushed back hard, in a statement defending itself and its brief overreach. “We gave our viewers the news as it happened," Michael Clemente, Fox News' executive vice president of news, said in a statement reported by The Hollywood Reporter.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

‘A victory for people’: SCOTUS upholds Obamacare

IT IS SO ORDERED: What’s good for the sovereign state of Massachusetts is good for the United States of America.

Today, two years, three months and five days after the signing into law of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation, the Supreme Court of the United States, in a stunning 5-4 decision, upheld the law and its controversial individual mandate as constitutional.

“The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax,” reads the majority opinion. “Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.”

“Whatever the politics, today’s decision was a victory for people all over this country whose lives will become secure because of this law and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it,” the president said today in the East Room of the White House, where he signed the bill into law in 2010.

Some of the provisions already in force should pick up steam: free preventive care; restrictions on coverage cancellation; discounts for seniors’ prescription drugs; no more denial of children with pre-existing conditions. When the law goes fully online in 2014, at least 30 million uninsured Americans would have joined the 260 million Americans the Census Bureau says now have health insurance.

What the late Sen. Ted Kennedy called “the great unfinished business of our society” is greatly advanced, the ball moved further down the field toward universal health care than at any time since Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt.


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Predictably, conservatives went apeshit. “This was an activist court that you saw today,” Tea Party favorite Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann told reporters. “Any time the Supreme Court renders something constitutional that is clearly unconstitutional, that undermines the credibility of the Supreme Court. I do believe the court's credibility was undermined severely today,” she said, as reported by The Huffington Post.

Media Research Center president Brent Bozell told The Daily Caller (Tucker Carlson’s right-wing must-read) that Roberts’ “reputation is forever stained in the eyes of conservatives, and there will be no rehabilitating of it. He will be seen as a traitor to his philosophy.”

Right-wing radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh went apoplectic, as only Rushbo can. “Our freedom of choice just met its death panel: the Supreme Court of the United States,” Limbaugh said today.

“What has been upheld here is fraud, and the Internal Revenue Service has just become Barack Obama’s domestic army,” he said, “We were deceived. ‘Obamacare’ was a lie. It was a stealth tax on all Americans, and nobody knew it until today. Not officially.”

“Between the Arizona and Obamacare decisions, America is a very different concept than it was just a week ago,” Limbaugh said, according to a transcript of today’s program.

“So now we look forward to November.”

(No word on whether Limbaugh's revived plans to repair to Costa Rica.)

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Mitt Romney’s no doubt looking forward to November. The presumptive Republican nominee and the man most singularly responsible for the antecedent to Obamacare went before the cameras today to offer his reaction.

“I disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision and I agree with the dissent,” Romney said. “What the court did not do on its last day in session I will do on my first day if elected president of the United States, and that is, I will act to repeal Obamacare.”

What a difference six years makes. A video from a March 2006 press conference shows Mitt Romney was feeling … a little differently about another health-care program. His very own.

“With regards to the mandate, the individual responsibility program which I proposed, I was very pleased to see that the compromise from the two houses includes the personal responsibility principle, that is essential for bringing health care costs down for everyone, and for getting everybody the health insurance they deserve and need,” he said then. “So I was very pleased with that development.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Romney, ad buys and diminishing returns

THE POWER of mountains of cash and nonstop television advertising in a presidential campaign is not to be denied. Except when it is. That’s the takeaway message — maybe a blip, maybe a bellwether — in the results of two new opinion polls, and the correlation of those polls with a corresponding increase in donations to Republican Super PACs.

A Quinnipiac University poll out today showed President Obama besting challenger Mitt Romney in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, three of the key dozen battleground states that could be the pivot points of the 2012 election.

And a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of a dozen swing states showed the president besting the former Massachusetts governor by a 50 percent to 42 percent margin in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

According to NBC/WSJ, Romney’s favorability rating has fallen to 30 percent in those 12 swing states from 36 percent one month ago, even as his unfavorable rating rose dramatically to 41 percent from 36 percent.

The latest poll continues a trend: NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling of registered voters generally show President Obama holding on to a consistent lead in voter preference over Romney, by a lot or a little, going back to December 2011.

Let’s look at last month. In May, Karl Rove’s super-PAC Crossroads GPS rolled out a $25 million ad blitz in 10 swing states. Also in May, Romney’s favorable ratings in that month’s NBC/WSJ poll were at 34 percent.

Since May, of course, Romney’s favorables have fallen, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll that found 30 percent of voters in swing states backed the outsourcing pioneer and former Massachusetts governor.

The downward trend of Romney's favorables didn’t just start happening, either. Using the NBC/WSJ polls as a standing baseline reference: In April his favorables in general polling were at 33 percent. In March they were 28 percent of registered voters polled. In January they were 31 percent. Back in December, Romney's favorables troughed at 24 percent. Month over month, that level of support hasn’t changed much, despite more contributions to Romney SuperPACs from a boardroom-full of individual donors, including cash and commitments from Charles and David Koch and casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. As well as other people with deep pockets whose names we don't even know.

A poll of polls available at Real Clear Politics (subject to change, of course) shows that, right now, the NBC/WSJ polling data stand in nicely as a representative of the results of a broad cross-section of general election opinion polls — ABC News/Washington Post, AP/GfK, PPP, Pew, Rasmussen, Reuters/IPSOS — stretching back to the end of 2011.

The connection? If the current polls are to be believed, it’s obvious: Despite an increase in actual SuperPAC donations or pledges of more money from those dark-money orgs, Romney’s favorables — in swing states and more generally around the country — haven’t similarly increased at all.

If the polls are any indicator, GOP/Romney SuperPACs are spending more money and getting less of a return in favorable reactions to the presumed Republican nominee. In the short term, at least, SuperPAC investment in the Romney campaign, however officially obscured, has been a matter of diminishing returns.

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OH DEAR, what can the matter be? It clearly ain’t money. Maybe it’s message. Or the messenger. “[Romney’s] a known name but an unknown person,” said NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart. “They just haven’t related to him.”

It all strongly suggests that, conceding the importance of money in a presidential campaign, Romney’s coming up short in the message department, failing to punch through a consistently low favorable rating from voters now, just like he failed to do during the crowded, bruising primary season. To go from the polling, and regardless of the avalanche tranche of SuperPAC money, he’s no more well-liked now by those voters than he was then, and it’s months further along in the campaign.

With the finish line not that far off — four months, a week and change — Team Romney needs to be breaking through to a wider general-election audience; The diminishing returns suggested by the new NBC/WSJ poll and its antecedents indicate he’s got a lot to do between now and November.

And ironically, it may not matter that much what he does with monster TV ad buys. Romney’s failure to expand his appeal in the electorate is coming despite an increase in the GOP SuperPAC donations from individual and corporate gifters — and the ad buys paid for by those donations. It’s just possible that the target audience for these nonstop ads has reached a saturation point, growing Romney’s unfavorables out of sheer pique. That’s speculation, though. What’s more evident? There’s more spending going on and, according to the polls, precious little in rising voter sentiment to show for it.

In his old private-equity life, he’d have said that’s not a good return on investment.

Image credits: Romney at NALEO conference: CNN. Poll snapshot: Quinnipiac University. Adelson: Mike Clarke, AFP/Getty Images. NBC/WSJ battleground states polling snapshot: © 2012 Dow Jones & Company.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

SCOTUS to Arizona: Stay in your lane

ON MONDAY the Supreme Court dragged the Arizona Territory, kicking and screaming, back into the United States of America. With Arizona et al. v United States, a straight-up smackdown of much of the state’s restrictive, almost Orwellian anti-illegal immigration law, the Supremes, 5-3 (with Associate Justice Elena Kagan abstaining), reasserted the primacy of the federal government on matters of immigration.

The Sunshine State’s bid to create what would have amounted to its own foreign policy was rebuffed by the court’s statement on the federal government’s “broad, undoubted power over the subject of immigration and the status of aliens.”

Rep. Chuck Schumer said in a statement: “This is as strong a repudiation of the Arizona law as one could expect given that the law has not been implemented yet.”

Three of the law’s wobbliest pillars — Sections 3, 5(C), and 6 — were struck down by the court Monday as violations of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the clause that abrogates unto the federal government powers of immigration policy, border control and the power to pre-empt state law.

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Item by item, then:

Section 3, making it a misdemeanor for an immigrant not to carry resident documentation: “makes failure to comply with federal alien­registration requirements a state misdemeanor. … Permitting the State to impose its own penalties for the federal offenses here would conflict with the careful framework Congress adopted.

“The United States contends that this state enforcement mechanism intrudes on the field of alien registration...”

Section 5 (c), allowing state police to arrest without a warrant in some situations: “enacts a state criminal prohibition where no federal counterpart exists” and “stands as an obstacle to the federal regulatory system.”

Section 6, making it a crime to apply for a job without federal work authorization: “attempts to provide state officers even greater authority to arrest aliens on the basis of possible removability than Congress has given to trained federal immigration officers. ... This would allow the State to achieve its own immigration policy.”

“By authorizing state and local officers to make warrantless arrests of certain aliens suspected of being removable, [Section 6] too creates an obstacle to federal law. As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain in the United States.”

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THE SUPREMES, however, upheld Section 2 (b), the provision requiring law enforcement to conduct immigration status checks during law enforcement stops if there is reasonable suspicion that individual is in the country illegally. Constitutional until proven otherwise.

“If the law only requires state officers to conduct a status check during the course of an authorized, lawful detention or after a detainee has been released, the provision would likely survive preemption—at least absent some showing that it has other consequences that are adverse to federal law and its objectives.”

But Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, specified that state police can’t arrest people for extended periods for being sin papeles, without immigration documents; and that any cases alleging racial profiling would be allowed to move through the courts, if such cases occur in the future — a certainty as sure as the sunrise.

“This opinion does not foreclose other preemption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect,” the court ruled.

“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration … but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”

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Justice Kennedy, one of the high court’s more supple wordsmiths, distilled it well: “It is fundamental that foreign countries concerned about the status, safety, and security of their nationals in the United States must be able to confer and communicate on this subject with one national sovereign, not the 50 separate States.”

In a statement, President Obama may have done the boildown even better: “A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system — it’s part of the problem.”

Which made you wonder what Jan Brewer was smoking. The vitriolic Republican Arizona governor went before the cameras and, in a breathtaking act of reality denial, characterized the high court’s ruling as "a victory for the people of Arizona and for America."

Other conservatives weren’t so disposed, having conniption fits at various way stations of the mediasphere. Talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh jumped in the game. “All Arizona did was write a law that mirrors the federal law that Obama was not enforcing," he said. “And the court told them today they can’t do that. It’s disheartening.”

Andrew Napolitano on Fox News said flat-out that the SCOTUS ruling ripped out “the heart and soul” of the Arizona law.

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SOME DEMOCRATS, including Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva and Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, are dismayed that the ruling didn’t go further. “[I]f your name is something like Gutierrez or Chung or Obama, watch out," said Rep. Gutierrez, to "The express goal of the authors of Arizona's SB 1070 is to make life miserable for immigrants so that they will leave, and a key tool in that effort was upheld by the court."

But in a real sense, Section 2 (b) of SB 1070 conveys no clear-cut victory to Gov. Brewer, no matter what she says, and may be less of the impactful tool Gutierrez suggests. One reason why has less or nothing to do with any leeway or latitude the remaining intact part of the law has in imposing racial or ethnic profiling, or anything close enough to it to be actionable.

One reason it’s no victory for Brewer is that some of the most vehement opponents of SB 1070 have been the police chiefs and police officers that Brewer needs to enforce the law in the first place.

The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police opposed SB 1070 in 2010, saying that “[t]he provisions of the bill remain problematic and will negatively affect the ability of law enforcement agencies across the state to fulfill their many responsibilities in a timely manner.” Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor, and Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik were two of the earliest opponents of the law as far back as 2010.

Montana’s revenge?

WHILE WE WAIT on the Supreme Court’s sure-to-be-momentous decision of the fate of the health-care law, the Supremes on Monday handed down another decision, one that sends the state of Montana a belated but harsh message: The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

The court, in a 5-4 decision, rejected AB 1070, Montana’s challenge to the court’s Citizens United decision, and struck down the Corrupt Practices Act, a 1912 state law that set strict limits on campaign donations, in the wake of political scandals precipitated by deep-pocketed copper-mining barons, a malign legacy of the Gilded Age. The SCOTUS ruling overturns one by the Montana Supreme Court, which had upheld the law in December.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the conservative majority of himself, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, wrote that "independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," and therefore “[n]o sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.”

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Montana, ironically, was hit by the same judicial reasoning that had the Supremes strike down elements of Arizona’s repressive anti-immigration law — rejecting that state’s rationale that it had the right to set its own policies on immigration. In both cases, the court ruled (on the same day) that the power of the federal government trumps the power of locality.

“I think it’s very unfortunate,” said Montana Sen. Jon Lester, today on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, I don’t think, used good judgment or common sense … now, what we’re gonna see in Montana is corporations and their big money are gonna be controlling elections a lot more than people and their ideas, and people and ideas are what elections should be about. That’s a Montana value.”

“It really is a kick in the teeth to our democracy, and I think Montanans understand that.”

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But this SCOTUS decision, and the court’s ruling in the earlier landmark Citizens United case, could be the lemons that Montana Democrats, and the Democratic Party generally, need to make lemonade in the fall. In the short term, it’s possible that these work to the advantage of the Obama re-election effort. Montana may not be an automatic W in the Republican column in 2012.

If a plurality of Montanans feel like Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Montana could swing Democratic in the fall, with the state’s voters sticking a willful thumb in the eye of the moneyed interests they’ve long opposed — and the Republican Party that parlays with those moneyed interests.

It’s possible that, thanks in part to the Supremes’ decision — what some are already calling Citizens United II — Montanans’ sense of independence and civic pride, and an aversion to having a perfectly good century-old law overturned by a rightward-leaning Supreme Court, may yield benefits for downticket Democrats and President Obama’s electoral fortunes in the state.

Far-fetched? Not necessarily. It’s a political truism: People vote their interests. In this case, those interests don’t necessarily break along the fault lines of party. A recent YouTube video in support of I-166, a state initiative on the November ballot and seeking a constitutional amendment to overturn the SCOTUS ruling, features Gov. Schweitzer, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger … a Republican.

Schweitzer handily won re-election in 2008, besting his Republican opponent by two to one. He exits this year due to term limits, but Dems have Steve Bullock, the state’s attorney general, ready to contend for the governor’s chair. Democrats hold four of the top five state offices, as well as both the U.S. Senate seats — Tester has one; the other’s occupied by Max Baucus). But Tester faces a challenge from Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, in what’s expected to be a close race.

“It’s hard to see a scenario under which the Republicans take the Senate without taking Montana, which also means the Democrats have to defend it,” said David C. W. Parker, an assistant professor of political science at Montana State University, told The New York Times last August.

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SOME HAVE already decided that Montana is safe for the GOP, and, in the big campaign, for Romney. That seems to presume the state will vote in lockstep with its past as a reflex. But the state’s demographics reflect change. Even though Montana went for George Bush in 2000 and 2004 and John McCain in 2008, the margins of those Republican victories got successively narrower, from a relative landslide in 2000 and 2004 to the skin of the teeth in 2008.

In his June 21 FiveThirtyEight blog in The Times, Micah Cohen (while, ironically, explaining why he thinks Montana is a lock for Republicans) lays out a case for Democrats to do well:

Most of the plains counties in eastern Montana, traditionally the most conservative part of the state, have been losing population for years. During the last several decades, mining and agriculture — top industries in the region — both soured for long stretches of time, causing a slow exodus. In Garfield County, one in five people left during the 1990s.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Egypt: The great experiment really begins

AS EXPECTED, Mohammed Morsi, a former prisoner of the Mubarak regime, won election Sunday as Egypt’s new president, the first democratic choice in modern times. Since then, analysts and observers have laid the grim suspicion that Morsi’s victory may mean a morphing of secular Egypt into a fundamentalist backwater, Iran West, an Islamist state with the potential to alienate Western nations and inflame relations with Israel.

But there are as many good reasons to believe that Morsi might recognize how the economy of his country will call for precisely the kind of interaction with those Western nations that his party, the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, has opposed in the not so distant past.

Morsi’s fundamentalist leanings on behalf of the Brotherhood may well have already been tempered by the practicality of election demographics. Morsi won the election with better than 52 percent of eligible voters — 13 million people, living in the most populous nation and (with unemployment at 12 percent) one of the poorest economies, in the Middle East.

On Sunday, in his first speech as president and no doubt as an anodyne gesture aimed at the West, Morsi pledged to “preserve international accords and obligations.”

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There’s almost certainly more such moderation to come. Among the reasons why is a purely financial one: The Republic of Egypt can’t rely on vast sums of export wealth from untapped oil deposits, like Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Only 32 percent of its export economy is petroleum-related, according to MIT Media Lab and the Center for International Development at Harvard University.

It has no well-established foundation of outreach for foreign investments in technology and trade, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Happily, the Suez Canal, a major source of shipping-related income, has been a strong revenue generator recently. Business along the vital man-made waterway has reached record levels; Adm. Ahmed Ali al-Fadel of the Suez Canal Authority, announced that canal revenues hit a record high of $5.2 billion in 2011, and are expected to keep climbing in 2012, al-Shorfa reported in May.

But Egypt’s is also a tourism economy, one powered until fairly recently by millions of tourists who’ve journeyed there to witness that nation’s storied antiquities.

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UPI reported in April of this year that the number of tourists visiting Egypt in the first three months of 2012 dropped by about 25 percent from the same period a year before. A report by the state-run news agency MENA found that 2.3 million tourists visited Egypt in the first three months of 2012, down from 3.1 million in 2011.

In raw dollars, tourism revenue fell from $12.5 billion in 2010 to $9 billion in 2011. And the tourism figures represent an ongoing downward cascade: The number of visitors in 2011 dropped to 10.2 million, down 32 percent from 2010, UPI reported.

In February 2011, Egypt's then-vice president Omar Suleiman said on state television that the unrest precipitated by the Arab Spring uprisings had cost his country $1 billion in tourism over the first nine days.

So it stands to reason that if the new president hopes to put his nation on a solid economic footing, it will to a great degree be done by building on the economic infrastructure that already exists. Among other things, that means tourism. And since tourism by definition means encountering and interacting with visitors from around the world, there’s an incompatibility with the isolationist inclinations of fundamentalist doctrine.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Obama ascendant II:
The president’s immigration-game change

ON FRIDAY, an administration known for making grand, defining jiu-jitsu moves, the kind that define a presidency and advance democratic principles, made another one. In one swift, stunning announcement, President Obama reframed the contours of the immigration debate, taking action in the face of deliberate Republican atrophy, and leaving his presidential challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Republicans generally, stuck in a moment they can’t get out of.

Speaking in the Rose Garden, Obama announced that, effective immediately, ‪the United States will stop deporting young undocumented immigrants, barring the federal government from starting deportation procedures for illegal immigrants under the age of 30.

The president’s policy covers those who came to the United States before age 16; have lived in the country for at least five years; have no criminal record; and are in school, high school graduates, or military veterans. All in all, an estimated 800,000 young people living in American shadows. Until now.

It was a decision with great emotional resonance; for those Americans, it wasn't so much a policy statement as the opening of an existential door. The Obama announcement moves the needle on governmental reaction to the illegal immigrant experience, reflects the Obama White House’s engagement with the issue as something more than policy. It injects blood and marrow into a narrative that’s been too long populated by officials and clinical objectives and images of shadowy criminal types foisted on the American people as surrogates for the everyday people just trying to live.

People like Frida Ulloa. The 23-year-old senior at Florida International University in Miami, an undocumented person from Peru, knew something was big was happening by the flurry of text messages she received on Friday.

"So I turned on the news, and I heard the news and I was like, 'Oh my God,'" Ulloa told NPR. "I was so shocked, I was crying.”

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The immediate impact on Republican lawmakers was no less obvious — even before it happened. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and darling of the Tea Party strain of the Republican Party, had been planning to present Congress with his own version of immigration reform, many of its points distilled in what was once called the DREAM Act (the same legislation Obama borrowed from on Friday). Apparently sensing or knowing what was coming from the White House, Rubio withdrew his plan on Monday. Then he criticized what the president had done.

"He's basically taking a very significant issue that needs to be solved in a long-term way that's measured, reasonable and balanced and deciding by edict, by fiat basically, to solve it in the short term, which happens to coincide with the November election," Rubio told NPR.

In the short term, Rubio was clearly wasting his time. The Los Angeles Times reported on Monday that Latino voters in key battleground states backed the president’s decision, according to a new poll.

“The Latino Decisions survey found that Obama’s move had wiped out an earlier ‘enthusiasm deficit’ among Hispanic voters over the administration’s deportation policies,” reported Paul West of The Times. “By contrast, the poll found that Latino voters were sharply opposed to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s call for illegal immigrants to ‘self-deport.’”

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Forty-nine percent of the Latino voters in five states with significant portions of Latino voters — Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Arizona — “said Obama’s move made them more enthusiastic about the president, compared with 14% who were less enthusiastic,” The Times reported.

Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist, told The Times that Friday’s announcement “appears to have clearly erased Obama’s enthusiasm deficit among Latinos.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mubarak’s shadow and the Egyptian vote

IN THE FACE of continuing unrest in Egypt, street protests approaching the intensity of that of the Arab Spring, and the choice of two equally polarizing candidates set to assume the nation’s presidency, the specter of Mohammed Hosni Mubarak will not go gentle into his long-awaited good night.

After Mubarak was convicted on June 2 for responsibility for ordering the killing of 800 Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrators in early 2011, Egypt's top prosecutor appealed the verdicts, acquitting the former president and his two sons on corruption charges, an official told The Associated Press.

“Under Egyptian law, the prosecutor must appeal the entire verdict, which also included convictions and life sentences for Mubarak and his former security chief for failing to stop the killing of protesters in the uprising that ousted him last year,” The AP reported.

The trial was long awaited. “Mubarak's trial was ... a critical reminder of the shared grievances that led the vast majority of Egyptians to lend at least tacit support to the revolution.” Aaron Ross reported earlier this month in The Huffington Post.

“The response of the array of political and activist forces -- from Ultras to Islamists -- now protesting in the thousands in Cairo and other major cities appears to mark the largest mobilization of broad-based opposition politics since last fall. If anyone had begun to question just how hated Hosni Mubarak is, the answer is in the streets now.”

It’s a given that the street has been the avenue of the dynamic of Egypt’s social unrest. But was the answer also in the polling places and ballot boxes? After months of unrest and violence, would Egyptians follow through on their distaste for Mubarak’s autocratic rule? That’s what hung in the balance for Saturday and Sunday’s national elections, pitting Mohammed Morsi, darling of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party, against Ahmed Shafiq, a distrusted holdover from the Mubarak regime who vowed to restore law and order to the Egyptian streets.

The apparent winner: Morsi ... and the Egyptian military, the same Egyptian military that has functioned for decades as the right arm of ... Hosni Mubarak.

“With parliament dissolved [on June 14] and martial law effectively in force, the generals issued an interim constitution making themselves Egypt's lawmakers, taking control over the budget and granting themselves the power to determine who writes the permanent constitution that will define the country's future,” reported Sarah Al Deeb and Neal Keath of the AP on Sunday.

One Egyptian said it best: “"We got rid of one devil and got 19," said Mohammed Kanouna, referring to Mubarak and the members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Mubarak patrons who’d already consolidated their grip on government power in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster in February, and whose power grab this weekend sets the stage for a clash of wills between Morsi, apparently the populist victor, and the Egyptian military that’s been synonymous with Mubarak for generations.

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The result: Post-election malaise. "Things have not changed at all. It is as if the revolution never happened," Ayat Maher, a 28-year-old mother of three, told The AP in Cairo. It’s a sign of her own disillusionment — maybe the same mirrored by her countrymen and women — that she said she voted for Morsi, but held out slim hopes for him. Or for the change her vote was intended to begin.

"The same people are running the country,” she said. “The same oppression and the same sense of enslavement. They still hold the keys to everything."

Dr. Larbi Sadiki, a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, isn’t optimistic, either. For him, writing an op-ed for Al Jazeera, the election was tragically inconclusive, “an epic culmination to a week drenched in political dramas and twists that do not bode well for Egypt's bifurcated polity, now threatened with uncertainty, sclerosis and the potential for violence.”

The true depths of their frustration may not be known until Thursday, when the final results are announced. But credit the Egyptians for taking a stand. In their first shot at a functioning democracy, the fact of having a choice wasn’t lost on the 24 million people who turned out. Ironically, regardless of whoever they sided with, their place at the polls, the fact of their showing up was an intrinsic endorsement of the idea of democracy — call it casting a vote for the idea of casting a vote.

We’ll see how flagrantly the Egyptian military chiefs will try to cast that vote aside in this, the start of the Arab summer.

Image credits: Mubarak and Egyptian voter: Al Jazeera.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Let N-word = No value

THE DEPTH of racism in American life is a malign gift that keeps on giving, a mystery that seems to affect our every social interaction, figure in every equation of our lives and our fortunes as Americans. In a new study, a Harvard researcher suggests that we go to Google to discover just how deeply racism is entrenched in the national discourse.

But the foundational data in his findings presents a Brownie snapshot when a digital video is called for, a sharp image of one moment in time that offers us, at best, an outdated perception that does little or nothing to tell us conclusively where we are today. There’s good reason to think there are some things a search engine can’t help you find.

In the research paper released on June 9, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in economics, finds that, by using the N-word as a proxy for racial attitudes, the Insights tool of the Google search engine can be used to offer a meaningful projection of the impact of race on the 2012 presidential election.

◊ ◊ ◊

The findings, he said are "based on the hypothesis that individuals with higher racial animus will be more likely to type the racial epithet into Google."

“Racially charged search, in contrast, is a robust negative predictor of Obama’s vote share,” he writes in the paper.

Stephens-Davidowitz distilled his findings in a June 9 piece in The New York Times. It’s the Times piece that’s the basis of this response.

Stephens-Davidowitz found that racial animus cost Obama between 3 and 5 percent of the vote in 2008. He won the election anyway, with 53 percent of the popular, and with a seven-point bulge over Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Stephens-Davidowitz uses the clinical language of research throughout the study, and somewhat less so in the Times report, but he avoids addressing the more disquieting question his research makes inevitable: As bad as the impact of racial animus may have been in 2008, how much worse is it likely to be now, with three-plus years of Barack Obama as a known presidential quantity, with three-plus years of a sputtering economy, and with two years of a passive-aggressive racist political meme created and cultivated by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party?

We barely submerged racial animus as a catalyst for political action four years ago. Will our better, less reactionary, more analytical angels step up to the plate again, this November?

◊ ◊ ◊

Correlation, of course, isn’t necessarily causation. It’s not a good idea to follow Stephens-Davidowitz’s findings out the window. There’s reason to have a healthy skepticism about its conclusions. The first problem is the most obvious: Not every search for the N-word and its variants is a hunt for kindred intolerant spirits; it’s a certainty that some or many of those searches (we’ll never know how many) were conducted by researchers, scholars, standup comics looking for material, organizations that monitor hate speech, or the simply and indifferently curious.

Until Google Insights is able to filter these searches on the basis of someone’s political or philosophical identity, what we’re left with is a compelling, even provocative societal assessment driven by numbers that, ironically, don’t quantify anything dispositive.

Another problem is that Stephens-Davidowitz apparently has no control for the age of people who input the N-word in their Google searches. That’s crucial when you’re trying to determine the mindset of American voters in an election. Since there’s no age limit on who can use Google to search for anything under the sun, we can’t know who among the universe of N-word searchers was even old enough to vote in the first place. That’s a hole in the study’s methodology that Stephens-Davidowitz can’t patch.

◊ ◊ ◊

The researcher betrays a fascination with Google Insights’ information-gathering potential that’s almost breathless. Defending his use of the Google Insights tool, for example, he writes that “Google, aggregating information from billions of searches, has an uncanny ability to reveal meaningful social patterns. ‘God’ is Googled more often in the Bible Belt, ‘Lakers' in Los Angeles.”

For anyone who’s visited or lived in either of those regions, that’s not even an insight, Google’s or anyone else’s. It’s hardly “uncanny,” it’s pretty much common knowledge, and what you’d expect given the quotidian concerns and diversions of life in those regions of the country.

Christian religion has for generations been a social and cultural foundation of life in the Bible Belt states; and in Los Angeles, the second-biggest media market in the United States, the relatively high winning performance of the Los Angeles Lakers (five NBA championships since 2000) made discussion of the team’s fortunes an everyday thing for years before Google even went public.

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT STEPHENS-Davidowitz most deeply undercuts the value of his own findings when he writes that “I used data from 2004 to 2007 because I wanted a measure not directly influenced by feelings toward Mr. Obama.”

Stephens-Davidowitz anchors his findings on a prediction of how well Obama would have done if racial animus had not factored into voters’ decisions in 2008. He says his conclusions are “based on how many votes John Kerry received in 2004 plus the average gain achieved by other 2008 Democratic Congressional candidates.”

But that prediction of an ideal Obama election performance (votes without racial influence) in 2008 is based on data culled from the years between 2004 and 2007 — plus Stephens-Davidowitz’s best educated guess.

How does he make any real linkage between what Americans are thinking vis-à-vis race and Obama’s chances for re-election today and what they thought years before the senator from Illinois came on the national scene?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The couple that schemes together

OF ALL the things George Michael Zimmerman had going for him up until recently, the most valuable was his credibility. The Florida man arrested for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in February lost much of that on June 1, when the judge in the case sent Zimmerman back to jail, revoking his bond on the grounds that Zimmerman lied about his financial circumstances at his bond hearing in April.

The latest news in the Zimmerman case came on Tuesday, with the arrest of Zimmerman's wife, Shellie, on perjury charges after prosecutors claimed she lied about their financial status in order to get a lower bond for hubby George.

“The prosecutor sent a strong message that you have to tell the truth in court because it is the whole basis of the American legal system,” said Benjamin Crump, the Trayvon Martin family attorney, in a statement. “Credibility of every witness is always at the crux of every legal case.”

The prosecution’s eight-page motion to revoke bond is a stunning document, one that lays out evidence of extra passports, a relative mountain of cash and a pattern of jailhouse deception as brazen as it was mind-bogglingly inept.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the motion to revoke, prosecutors referred to recorded and time-stamped phone conversations between Zimmerman and his wife of five years, Shellie Nicole Zimmerman.

The prosecution said George Zimmerman was “directing the show” from behind bars. A random look at some of the court’s bond revocation reveals specific examples of the Zimmermans enigmatically discussing their finances, not so much speaking in code as talking about money in a numerical system other than base 10.

According to the prosecution transcript of jail recordings between George and Shellie Zimmerman. In one call on April 15, Zimmerman told his wife, “You are going to take out $10, and keep it with you in cash. Less then 10.”

His wife responded, “Like $9.”

Zimmerman: Say about $10. I’m wondering, you have more than $10, right?
Shellie Zimmerman: Not with me.
George Zimmerman: You don’t have access to more than $10 in your account?
Shellie Zimmerman: I do.

On April 16, on another conversation, Zimmerman asked his wife: "In my account, do I have at least $100?"

Shellie Zimmerman: No
George Zimmerman: How close am I?
Shellie Zimmerman: $8. $8.60.
George Zimmerman: Really? So total, everything, how much are we looking at?
Shellie Zimmerman: Like $155.

◊ ◊ ◊

JUDGE KENNETH R. Lester of Seminole County Circuit Court, having read enough of the Zimmermans’ inventive decimal-place gymnastics, revoked George Zimmerman’s $150,000 bond package and ordered him to surrender to authorities within 48 hours. Zimmerman was frog-marched back into the Seminole County Jail about six weeks after his last visit. Given what he did to get back in there, Zimmerman may be there for a while.

This little fiasco cuts, like nothing else could, into Zimmerman’s credibility, which wasn’t exactly outfitted with hurricane shutters to begin with.

Now, whenever a jury is empaneled in this tragic case, whenever the prosecution makes its case before that jury, those citizens will have to contend with a suspicion Zimmerman has created for them: If he’d lie about the state of his finances in the face of the judge, what else could he telling that’s less than the truth? His wife's arrest earlier this week won't win the defense any points, either.

“Well the zim sure messed this up,” said TwoWayZone on The Daily Beast. “I think the prosecutor and judge are being prudent. Omitting a fact that you have a second passport might be more serious than not knowing how much money you have, but if I had 100K I would know.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It was probably way more than that. ABC News, quoting another news source, reported that when George Zimmerman went back to jail, he had about $193,000 in a defense fund mounted online and funded with PayPal donations from supporters. ABC News reported that about $20,000 had been used for living expenses, hotels and security. The network reported that since he was returned to custody, “Zimmerman has seen an increase in contributions upwards of $1,000 a day.”

That initiative may not do the Zimmermans any good. PayPal, a global e-commerce concern that facilitates transactions of money for private individuals, has an “Acceptable Use Policy,” analogous to the Terms of Service that are common to every viable commercial online entity.

That policy, detailed in Section 2(e) under Prohibited Activities, states that PayPal users are barred from “transactions involving … items that promote hate, violence, racial intolerance, or the financial exploitation of a crime.”

How elastic PayPal’s attorneys choose to be about interpreting what counts as “financial exploitation of a crime” is anyone’s guess; there hasn’t been much reported on the company’s position on this case one way or another.

There’s more to be unraveled for sure when George Zimmerman gets a second bond hearing in Sanford, Fla., on June 29. Shellie (who bonded out shortly after her arrest) is scheduled to appear at a hearing on her own charges on July 31. The depth of their pockets pales in significance with the depth of trouble they’re in.

Image credits: George and Shellie Zimmerman: Seminole County Sheriff's Office booking photos. Zimmerman returned to custody: ABC News. PayPal logo: © 1999-2012 PayPal.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

President Obama and the great hate

THE SUPREME Court today took the morally upright, eminently practical and (given the political bent of some recent decisions) refreshingly unexpected step of rejecting an appeal from a birthers’ group challenging the citizenship of President Obama, and his authority as the commander in chief.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had earlier ruled that the challengers — enduring political incompetent Alan Keyes; Wiley Drake, Keyes’ equally undistinguished running mate in their 2008 American Independent Party presidential campaign; and campaign chairman Markham Robinson — had no legal standing to file the lawsuit. SCOTUS agreed.

The court’s obvious stand on common sense wouldn’t be the significant statement that it is if not for the overall social and political climate that surrounds it. The fact that it’s being widely seen as a stunning rebuke to the birther movement just underscores the malaise and poison rhetoric that have come to a laser focus, like never before, on the president and the painfully reliable power of race, ethnicity and hate to animate Americans like nothing else.

◊ ◊ ◊

Terry Jones didn’t get the Supremes’ message. You remember Terry Jones, pastor of Florida’s Dove World Outreach Center. The man rockin’ the Otto von Bismarck whiskers did his damnedest to ignite an international incident in March 2011 when he burned a copy of the Quran, leading to an arousal of outrage in the Muslim world, and perhaps the deaths of up to 21 people in Afghanistan.

Late last week Jones was back in the news after hanging President Obama in effigy on a gallows above the gay pride and American flags, as an Uncle Sam figure stands by. This was a response to the president’s stand on gay marriage and what Jones in a statement called Obama’s “appeasing of radical Islam.”

No doubt chastened by the Secret Service’s announced intention to conduct an “appropriate” response, Jones and his crew at the Dove church switched the staging. As of this week, the Obama effigy has traded places with the Uncle Sam figure.

◊ ◊ ◊

JONES' NOVEL foray into racist diorama design is just the latest manifestation of a new and almost fashionable intolerance toward President Obama in particular, and minorities generally. There’s an ugly backlash underway that speaks more than anything to a conservative denial of demographic reality, and a hatred of a president so deep and absolute, it obscures common sense (like most hatred does).

This hatred’s taken many guises. There’s the high road, where hatred assumes the appearance of elected officials Just Doing Their Job: In Florida, the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, has taken point in a measuredly frantic bid to purge the state’s voter rolls, eliminating hundreds of thousands of blacks and Latinos from those rolls in the name of preserving an unsullied electorate free of fraudulent registrations — despite voter fraud being an inconsequentially small percentage of Florida voters.

It’s a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act — the Justice Department told the Florida/Scott government as much late last month.

Undaunted, Florida announced its intention to continue purging voter rolls. Today the Justice Department formally announced its intention to sue Florida for what amounts to attempts at willful voter disenfranchisement. Hatred by legalistic means? Legal battle royal to follow.

◊ ◊ ◊

And there’s the low road: the makers of Obama hate bumperstickers and posters have created a cottage industry, selling their wares online. Back in March, ThinkProgress reported on Paula Smith, whose company,, proudly offered a bumperstrip that implored: “DON’T RE-NIG in 2012” next to a crossed-out version of the Obama campaign logo.

Smith defended her use of part of the N-word, offering a lexicographic explanation so inventive it could have won her a place in the Bush-Cheney White House. Other entrepreneurs of intolerance have been doing much the same thing for years, of course, and especially in the wake of the 2010 victories by the Tea Party variant of the Republican Party.

AND OF COURSE there’s the lower than low road: The Southern Poverty Law Center’s new report on U.S. hate and extremist groups found that these  groups are metastasizing at an alarming rate. The organization's quarterly Intelligence Report, released in March, found that the number of so-called patriot groups grew from 824 to 1,274 between 2010 and 2011, up from 149 in 2008. These groups, once more or less solely animated by racial animus, have lately intensified expression on their discontent on economic issues and matters related to globalization.

But race and ethnicity are never far off their radar. Carolyn Gallaher, author of “Fault Line: Race, Class and the American Patriot Movement” told the Christian Science Monitor that with these groups, the catalyzing issue isn’t any one thing.

“[I]t's not about race or class, it's always race and class all blended together. So we can get caught up on whether or not we label them racist or not, but that's a semantic issue. The real issue is, what are they espousing, and what would it do to minorities and immigrants and the poor?”

◊ ◊ ◊

CONSERVATIVES and extremists will try to make the case that all of this is a liberal fabrication, that’s an election-year concoction meant to poison the country against the Republicans and, hey, anyway, the other side does it, too.

But there’s no moral equivalency here. Not even close. The conservatives, faced with playing the strong weak hand they’ve been dealt after a clown-car primary season, are using every weapon in the contemporary political arsenal. For them and their proxies and enablers, as they’ve done before, that means reaching into the poison well of our worst, deepest national anxieties. And that means race. And that means using race to create an Other with which to quietly, consistently terrify the American people.

Bill Maher gets this, as only he can. In a May 28 broadcast of “Real Time With Bill Maher,” in a hypothetical conversation with conservatives, Maher said plain what they were up to: “This isn’t about what Obama is. It’s about what you need him to be. Because hating him is what gets you up in the morning.”

Image credits: Birth certificate: Pubic domain. Obama effigy I: via theGrio. Obama effigy switcheroo: Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Scott: Public domain. Obama bumpersticker: Facebook via The Huffington Post. Obama '12 poster: Unknown. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From the files: RFK (June 2008)

As another chaotic, divisive presidential campaign year cranks up, a look back at how I recalled who and what we lost in another one:

When Robert Francis Kennedy died on this date in 1968, his assassination part of the brutal turbulence of that year and that era, the United States lost more than another layer of its relative innocence. The nation lost a piece of its soul, and it's something we still haven't recovered from, two generations on.

In pursuit of personal causes — from his work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California, to his marching with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Poor People's Campaign, Bobby Kennedy didn't lose his sense of right and wrong, never abandoned the magnetic north of his moral compass.

He was a man in touch not just with contemporary politics but also a man with a deep appreciation for classical expressions, words that despite their age resonated with the human experience. At the 1964 convention, still devastated by his brother’s assassination in Dallas late the year before, Robert Kennedy quoted from Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet":

... and when [he] shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

And on the evening of April 4, 1968, announcing the assassination of King to a crowd of black residents of Indianapolis, Kennedy quoted Aeschylus in a speech whose sense of moment and history remains unrivaled:

"He who learns must suffer. Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, and against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God."

That April evening, “he was taking a physical risk,” said Thurston Clarke, author of “The Last Campaign,” a new study of the 82 days of the RFK campaign. “This was a time when the man was able to demonstrate both physical courage and also the moral courage to speak extemporaneously and to give these people some comfort and hope,” Clarke told MSNBC this week.

The word “hope” is one that echoes in our political history, and shouts loud to a brand new American constituency arrayed to support a new passionate hopeful in pursuit of the American presidency.

◊ ◊ ◊

In those whirlwind 82 days, Kennedy embraced the relentless physicality of American politics, wading into crowds with an abandon that held nothing back. “He could have coasted through a campaign or waited until the field cleared and run in 1972,” writes the Chicago Sun-Times John Barron, reviewing Clarke’s book.

“Instead, RFK jumped into the fray, taking on a sitting president and an unpopular war. That might have been challenge enough for anyone else. But Kennedy spent his campaign trying to go after something deeper. He needed to change America. Quite simply and boldly, he desired the elimination of the chronic poverty he experienced firsthand in the Mississippi Delta and on Indian reservations. He wanted to eradicate the racism that led to riots, assassinations and everyday prejudice. His was a campaign, often laced with poetry, which appealed to people’s better natures.”

Robert Kennedy spoke of an America beyond the narrowness of race and class. Robert Kennedy embodied the great American possible. Whether you were a Latino farm worker or someone in any one of the smoldering inner cities, a skinny 12-year-old black boy in Denver, or a not-quite-seven-year-old biracial boy living in Indonesia, it didn't matter. RFK was your champion, whether you knew who he was and what he meant or not.

As perhaps no American politician before him or since, he recognized the potential of this nation to save itself from its deepest flaws and malignancies, its foundational ability to do the right thing, as well as its awful ability to suddenly, ruthlessly break your heart.

◊ ◊ ◊

Today, in another anniversary of his leaving us, that capacity for heartbreak is recognized again — as well as our opportunity, in the here and now of the 21st century, for furthering the social and political change he ushered forward.

In "Interesting Times," a 2004 collection of essays observing American life and culture, I recalled observing, from television and published news reports from a distance, the power of RFK on the stump in 1968, the ways we were impoverished with his sudden absence, the ways we were — and are — enriched by his life and example:

"Here was a man with eyes a little haunted (for all the obvious reasons), smile broad and uncalculating, a man in the midst of a joyous surrender, pressing the American flesh with a heartfelt passion, tie askew if he wore one at all, sleeves rolled to the elbows, the celebrated Kennedy hair tousled and devil-may-care, the campaigner imparting the incandescence of a rock star in his chart-climbing prime.

"Bobby Kennedy had the ascendant energy, the necessary mystery central to a successful political campaign. He worked the rope line like nobody's business, at least in part because he understood, he knew intuitively that there could be no rope line between him and the country he proposed to lead. Sadly, to our eternal national shame, we will never know how good he really was."

Image credits: RFK top: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. RFK April 1968: via youtube (screenshot from broadcast of unknown network origin. RFK gravesite: Wknight94, republished under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2 and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The years of the drone:
Obama’s remote-control war and its consequences

IT HASN’T been an especially good week for the Obama White House. It ended ugly, of course, with the deeply disappointing jobs numbers released on Friday — a Labor Department report that found just 69,000 jobs added to the national work force, and an uptick in the U.S. unemployment rate to 8.2 percent.

That was bad enough. At about the same time, though, came news that statisticians had revised downward earlier estimates of job growth for March and April, cutting those previous job-growth estimates by just under 50,000 combined.

But for the loyal Democratic base, some of the dispiriting news had to be found in a story published Tuesday in The New York Times, a report that deeply undercuts the Obama administration’s well-cultivated imagistic distinctions between itself and the Bush administration on waging war on terrorists in the 21st century.

◊ ◊ ◊

The story, by Jo Becker and Scott Shane of The Times, reports that the Obama White House has enacted a war policy pointedly at odds with the idealism of the administration’s earliest days: “Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.”

“In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of his current and former advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.

“They describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing. ...

“His first term has seen private warnings from top officials about a Whac-A-Mole approach to counterterrorism; the invention of a new category of aerial attack following complaints of careless targeting; and presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers.

“The administration’s failure to forge a clear detention policy has created the impression among some members of Congress of a take-no-prisoners policy.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s a far cry from the halcyon days of January 2009, days after the inauguration of the first African American president. Via executive orders, Obama publicly made good on campaign pledges to end waterboarding and other interrogation techniques, and to close the reviled Guantánamo Bay prison.

Outwardly, at least, the new president intended to make good on a promise to end the policies of the Bush White House vis-à-vis the prosecution of the war on terrorism.

But the future of that war was already taking shape. The first official drone strike of the Obama administration took place in Pakistan on Jan. 23, 2009, three days after his inauguration. Between seven and 12 civilians were reported killed, including at least one child.

This followed a drone strike in Pakistan on Jan. 1, almost three weeks before he took office — an action that certainly took place with his approval. Two senior al-Qaeda operatives, Usama al-Kiini and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, were killed in that attack. The next day, a drone strike in Ladha, South Waziristan killed four people.

◊ ◊ ◊

A February 2010 study from the New America Foundation, a public policy institute, found there were 53 drone strikes in 2009, on Obama’s watch. That number more than doubled, to 118, the following year.

The study, “The Year of the Drone,” found that out of 114 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and early 2010, between 834 and 1,216 individuals had been killed. About a third were believed to be civilians.

The number of drone strikes has dropped off since then; New America has since reported that only 19 such drone strikes have occurred in 2012, so far.

But there’s no escaping the fact that the drone strike is the vehicle by which the Obama White House has escalated the war on terrorism — a war whose scope has widened beyond Afghanistan to include Yemen and Somalia — and done so in a way that underscores the indiscriminate nature of counting the casualties of that war. Women and children among them.

◊ ◊ ◊

From The Times: “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. … This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths.”

The remoteness of a war conducted electronically, at great distances from the enemy, is problematic enough. But what’s especially galling about the Obama doctrine on fighting terrorists is its imprecision.

The Times story reports how the Obama administration engages in the “nominations” process, in which the Obama national-security team gathers via videoconference to studiously pore over PowerPoint slides of known terrorists, in order to decide, finally, who dies next.

That much isn’t necessarily a problem; that part of the process at least indicates a willingness on the part of the administration to attempt to strike combatants, and only combatants, through the most accurate means possible.

But ironically, in an era of high technology — and the accuracy we’re led to believe is an extension of  such technology — the U.S. war on terrorism as prosecuted employs methods that couldn’t be more inexact (and inaccurate) than they were in earlier wars, with less advanced technology at the nation’s disposal.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” one U.S. official told The Times. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

◊ ◊ ◊

TO GO FROM the Times story, the Obama administration thus tidily sidesteps the logistical inconvenience of imprisonment or the political liability of putting boots on the ground, and does so in a deadly piecemeal fashion.

“[T]he administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody,” The Times reported Tuesday.

The origins of this thinking from the Obama White House have a long precedent. The philosophy arose well before the Times story; it precedes by years the Obama administration itself. It’s a way of thinking that’s been the stuff of our popular war culture, the military's bravado efficiencies distilled in a phrase you might have seen on the fuselage of an American jet in a strafing run over Korea or Vietnam, a phrase you’ll find today on a T-shirt available at

“Kill Em All, Let God Sort ‘Em Out!”

◊ ◊ ◊

The election-year political consequences of this targeted-kill policy could be dire for a Democratic president whose approach to fighting war is scarcely different from that of his Republican predecessor.

“The fact is that Obama is out-Cheneying Cheney,” said Jeremy Scahill, a war and national security reporter for The Nation, today on “Up With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC. “These policies would have been totally unacceptable if a Republican was in the White House. I think you would have seen a much greater scandal erupt much sooner ...

“President Obama authorized his first known drone strike three days after taking office, as he was announcing this radical shift from the Bush-era doctrine of preventive and pre-emptive war … the American people deserve an explanation … this [should] have sparked outrage among liberals, and they are deafeningly silent over this issue.”

◊ ◊ ◊

NOT SO SILENT on this issue is Axel Schonfeld of Point Roberts, Wash., who commented on the Times story, and who understands the Obama policy’s duality:

“Among many troubling aspects of the policies described is the underlying tenet that a sustained "war against terrorists" can be won, and therefore, by logical extension, can be concluded. By ever-evolving definitions, anti-US sentiment within the communities of radical elements will not soon be mitigated, let alone eliminated. Al Qaeda and its adherents are patient.

“On the one hand, one admires President Obama's resolve and clear vision of the mission, as he has defined it. On the other hand, one cannot help but draw the unavoidable conclusion that the policy of pre-emptive assassination has, perhaps forever, changed what were once considered American values. 

“History will ask uncomfortable questions about this lamentable new direction.”

If a Democratic base already dismayed by the state of the domestic economy asks those “uncomfortable questions” first, the results could be a blowback the Obama White House never anticipated. On Election Day.

LIke the man said, the American people deserve an explanation.

Image credits: President Obama: The White House. New York Times T: © 2012 New York Times Company. MQ-9 Predator drone in Afghanistan: Public domain. Predator gun-camera image: Department of Defense. Obama signs Guantanamo closure order: MSNBC. Kill Em All T-shirt: U.S. drone strike chart: New America Foundation. 
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