An abbreviated TWiA this week, due to travel. Read, enjoy, follow the links, share, and comment. And thanks for coming over.
This Week in Mendacity
During the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney revealed himself to be the most dishonest major-party presidential candidate in our very long memory. We tried to catalog it here, but we couldn't entirely keep up with the barrage of BS emanating from him and his campaign.
We don't know if he's planning to run in 2016, but if his recent public statements are any indication, he's warming up Mitt's Mendacity Machine again. In his poorly received op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he complained that America is less popular than it once was. In an appearance Sunday on Face the Nation, he doubled down. "Our esteem around the world has fallen. I can’t think of a major country – it’s hard to think of a single country – that has greater respect and admiration for America today than it did five years ago when Barack Obama became president, and that’s a very sad, unfortunate state of affairs."
To give him the benefit of the doubt, he said he can't "think of" a country, not that they don't exist. Because the truth is, most countries, major and minor, have far greater respect and admiration for us than they did when Obama took office. By starting a war of choice in Iraq (a geopolitcally disastrous mess that left Iraq fractured and Iran more powerful than ever) and giving the green light for Americans to torture people, President George W. Bush sank our global approval ratings into the toilet. Under President Obama, they've rebounded.
Governor Romney might not understand that this is something we don't have to guess at (or he might--that never stopped candidate Romney from making up his own reality whenever it suited his purpose). Both the Gallup and Pew organizations conduct regular polling on just this question. What do those polls say? According to this piece on FiveThirtyEight.com, Gallup's reading shows this: "In 2012, the percentage of people approving of America’s leadership was up 7 percentage points in the median country since 2008. It was up 6 points in the Americas, 6 points in Asia and 18 points in Europe. It was down 3 points in Africa. More people approved than disapproved in every region."
And here's Pew's take: "From 2007 to 2013, Pew found that views of the United States improved in 22 countries. Eight nations’ favorable ratings increased by at least 20 percentage points; only four saw a decline. The median country’s views of the U.S. went up by 9 points."
During that campaign, we constantly reminded readers that Romney had no compunctions about making wildly untrue statements, as if there were no historical record, no videotape or audio tape or human witnesses that could contradict him. He could tell the most egregious lies with a perfectly straight face. He went ahead with his confabulations as if knowing that Fox "News" wouldn't correct him, and his voters wouldn't watch anything else. We'd like to think he had learned something from his loss--maybe the American people don't like being treated as if we're hopeless morons who can't tell truth from lies. But apparently he didn't. If he's running again, we're in for another long, hard season of slogging through his dishonesty.
Side Note 1: In the aforementioned Face the Nation segment, Romney talked about how he would deal with the Crimean crisis. His solution? Economic sanctions. Which President Obama has, of course, already done. Whether they can convince Putin to back off is unlikely, but they're already hurting the Russian economy (in no great shape to begin with). Putin is more interested in land grabs than the economic wellbeing of his country, but he might find that others disagree.
Side Note 2. There's been a lot of talk lately about how much better President George W. Bush handled Putin's invasion of Georgia back in 2008. It's not true. Neither administration has control over what Russia does, and outside of economic sanctions no real weapons to employ. Nobody seriously wants us to go to war with Russia, particularly over former Soviet territories that hold no actual strategic value to us.
Side Note 3: For all their talk about wanting the US to get more involved in helping Ukraine, House Republicans decided in the end that it was more important to block necessary reforms to International Monetary Fund rules (reforms that every IMF country but us have already approved) than to pass an aid package designed to pull Ukraine's loyalties toward the west. Understanding the importance of financial aid to Ukraine, Senate Democrats stripped out the IMF reforms so the measure could pass. It's good to know that for House Republicans, making an unnecessary ideological gesture is more important than doing the very thing they've been clamoring for.
Side Note 4: What's the difference between Vladimir Putin and an American Neocon? Not a lot.
This Week in SCOTUS
At the risk of venturing into the dangerous waters of religious commentary again, we have to report that this was the week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on what's come to be known as the Hobby Lobby case, which is really two cases consolidated into one, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius.
The underlying question here is whether for-profit corporations are, as Mitt Romney famously said, "People, my friend." People have First Amendment rights that prevent Congress from enacting laws impinging on their rights to free speech and religion. The Supreme Court recently--in a flawed decision, we'd argue--decided for the first time in human history that corporations do enjoy the same free speech rights as individuals. We could hear the clattering of bones all the way out at TWiA World Headquarters, as the Founding Fathers collectively rolled over.
But the topic at hand is different. On vastly different scales, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are both arguing that the religious beliefs of the owners of those corporations should be allowed to dictate health matters that should, we hold, be up to individual employees, in consultation with their doctors and their own understanding of God. To rule for those corporations, therefore, puts the religious beliefs of their owners above the religious beliefs of their employees--potentially millions of them, if the ruling is interpreted broadly. Companies don't--or shouldn't--require employees to pass a religious litmus test when hiring them. Since they don't, they shouldn't allow their personal religious beliefs (to which they are, of course, entitled) to dictate how their employees live their lives. It's the ultimate one-percentism for the owners of corporations to decide that their personal religious beliefs subordinate the beliefs and morality of their employees, and to allow that to affect their individual health care decisions.
The question largely turns on interpretations of the Religious Freedom Protection Act (RFPA), signed with great fanfare by President Bill Clinton in 1993. As Rep. Jerry Nadler (D/NY), who was one of the bill's champions in the House, explains, it was supposed to apply (and specifically does, in the way it's written), to individuals: "It was never intended as a sword as opposed to a shield. Once you went into the commercial sector, you couldn’t claim a religious liberty to discriminate against somebody. That never came up. It was completely obvious we weren’t talking about that.”
Interestingly, that bill grew out of a SCOTUS ruling in which Justice Antonin Scalia ruled with the majority against the religious freedom of individuals. In a ruling on 1990's Employment Division v. Smith, a case involving two Native American drug counselors who had been fired from their jobs for using peyote (as dictated by their religious practices), Scalia wrote that to protect the peyote use would "open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.” To accomodate the religious beliefs of every person would mean, he added, “in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
So in 1990 Scalia argued that people had to obey the law even when it ran contrary to their religious beliefs. The backlash from that ruling led to the RFPA, which allowed for more flexibility for individual religious practices. Since Scalia has a long history of siding with corporate interests and right-wing values over the interests of human beings, it will be interesting to see what legal gyrations he has to make to now argue for the religious freedom to break the law, when it comes to corporations. Or perhaps he'll surprise us with legal consistency instead of ideological consistency. When it comes to Scalia, that would be a surprise indeed--one that we don't really expect.
Side Note 1: Many people are worried about the greater implications of this decision, beyond the question of contraception. Corporate religious exemptions from the law could extend to CEOs who don't believe in vaccinations, or blood transfusions, or any kind of medical intervention whatsoever. Are those CEOs entitled to inflict their radical beliefs on everyone who works for their company? Or can we just agree that the law is the law, that those CEOs can practice whatever religious beliefs they want, but they have to allow their employees to do the same?
Side Note 2: Speaking of religion, can we please stop having our tax dollars fund the teaching of creationism?
This Week in 2016
Most of us aren't thinking about 2016 yet. But Senator Rand Paul (R/KY) is. He's making his early moves, and the inside-the-beltway press is eating them up, effusing about his unorthodox appeal to groups that aren't traditionally Republican. His problem? That appeal is an illusion that's at odds with his real positions on issues and stances on things like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If Paul wins the Republican presidential nomination, he'll have to defend his various stands for racist people and principles, his opposition to immigration reform, same-sex marriage, and many other policies favored by most Americans while also threading the needle between his libertarian beliefs and the positions of the Christian right. At some point, one hopes, he would also be asked to explain why he has so little understanding of America, the problems it faces, and exactly what the job of senator entails.
Paul's most recent self-aggrandizing claim was his attempt this week to take credit for the president's proposed rules change regarding surveillance policy. In a Fox "News" interview, Paul said, "I don't want to take all the credit for ending this, but I think our lawsuit had something to do with bringing the president to the table."
He is, as usual, mistaken. Largely in response to the publicity shone on NSA surveillance by Edward Snowden, the president convened a panel of experts to look at the issue and make recommendations. In January, he gave a speech announcing his recommendations. This week, he called upon Congress to pass some legislation to make those recommendations law.
The lawsuit Paul references was nonsense. It wasn't even filed until February, well after the president's original announcement. It largely echoed a lawsuit that had already been filed by another party (and that did not, itself, have any legal bearing on Obama's actions this week). It was accompanied by entirely unofficial, unaccountable internet signatures, collected on Paul's campaign website rather than his senatorial one (and along with name and email address, it encouraged donations to his campaign). It was, in other words, Paul's own data-mining effort, meant to beef up campaign coffers and mailing list, not a serious legal document.
It's a long way until primary season, but Republicans should keep in mind that nominating a guy who's such an intellectual lightweight, and so bad at his job, is probably not their wisest move.
This Week in Gun Safety
Georgia's pro-gun death legislator passed America's most sweeping "gun rights" bill this week, sending it to Governor Nathan Deal (R) for signature. According to the New York Times, "The bill was opposed not only by gun-control groups, but also by the state’s police chiefs association and restaurant association, Episcopal and Catholic churches, and the federal Transportation Security Administration. A majority of Georgians also opposed it, according to several polls." So who was in favor of it? Industries that make their profits from the carnage they bring to America's neighborhoods, and the craven, heartless politicians who genuflect toward them.
This Week in Arizona
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has a long history as one of the most corrupt lawmen of modern times. His reputation also extends to unmitigated racism, primarily against the state's Latino community. Ordered by a federal judge to stop racial profiling in his department, Arpaio refused the order and kept it up, prompting the judge to issue a sharp rebuke. "Whether or not the sheriff likes it, there is a distinction in immigration law that was not understood by the population and, with all due respect to you, it is not understood by the sheriff, which is that it is not a criminal violation to be in this country without authorization.”
By this point in his career, Arpaio should understand that arresting the undocumented is not his job; it's the bailiwick of the federal government, which under President Obama has been deporting more people than ever and putting more boots on the ground than any previous president. Undocumented immigration remains at or around net zero. Arpaio should keep himself busy dealing with actual crime, and stop targeting people on the basis of race. And Maricopa County voters should remember that continually reelecting a corrupt, venal buffoon reflects poorly on them.
This Week in Corruption
Political corruption knows no party. Democrat or Repblican, everyone who sees political office as a way to line their own pockets contributes to the general dislike and distrust voters have for our political process, encouraging them to stay home from the polls and to believe that their votes and voices have no impact. Our system of representative government demands participation by the citizenry, and politicians like these bring shame to themselves and the process.
This Week in Giving
Remember the good old days, when people voluntarily gave to charity so government didn't have to step in with its social welfare programs that do nothing but create dependency? Neither do we, for the simple matter that those days never existed in the history of the United States. Conservatives would have us believe they did, but they can't explain, for instance, why voluntary giving fell off during the Great Recession, when more people than ever were in need. Those Americans, of course, didn't starve to death, because of the same social welfare programs conservatives want to do away with.