TWiA explores the intersection of policy and politics, and most importantly, how that intersection affects real people. It's dedicated to the proposition that good government is possible, it matters, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. Its starting point is that facts are facts, science is real, data are real, and we can and must learn from history. Below you'll find facts and opinions that derive from fact, informed by a close and careful study of these issues that began in 1968 and has never stopped. Note, when we discuss generic "Democrats" and "Republicans" or "conservatives" and "liberals," etc., we're talking about elected officials, unless otherwise noted. Also, bonus bear news and other awesomeness. We appreciate comments and arguments, so please chime in, and if you like it, spread the word.
This Week in Ukraine
Wait, Ukraine isn't in America!
No, it's not. But it's an international crisis that demands some sort of US response, albeit a careful and considered one, and domestic politics are involved. Keep reading.
First, we'd like to say that the Russian occupation of Crimea is appalling. We hope Vladimir Putin recognizes his mistake immediately, and withdraws rather than doubling down. We hope the situation is resolved without loss of life. While we understand that economic/diplomatic sanctions are likely, we'd hate to see the Russian people injured because their leader is a madman who longs for the glory days of the Soviet Union.
Not so long ago, an op-ed in the New York Times read, in part, "The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression." The author of that piece? Vladimir Putin, who seems to have forgotten his own words.
Where domestic politics enters the picture is in the fact that the US will have to come up with a reasonable response to this act. Nobody--or so we'd like to think--wants to see a ground war between the US and Russia. Our options are limited, and everybody more or less agrees on them.
But can you tell that by the partisan rhetoric? Not so much. House Intelligence Committe Chairman Mike Rogers (R/MI) said this week, "Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close. They’ve been running circles around us."
Kevin Drum explains why that's crazy. Mr Drum does not explain why the House Intelligence Committee Chairman doesn't know that Czechoslavakia ceased to exist in 1993, but perhaps that's just inexplicable.
This right-wing bromance with Putin is not new. Last year, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. Neocons wanted a military intervention in Syria's civil war, though cooler heads remembered how well that went in Vietnam. President Obama contemplated a military response, but in the end he and Secretary of State John Kerry found a diplomatic solution that achieved our goal of eliminating Assad's chemical weapons stores without risking American lives. (The destruction of Syria's chemical weapons is going too slowly, but those weapons have not been used again, and there's no sign that they're likely to be. Meanwhile, destruction continues and is picking up speed.) The far right decided that Putin had played Obama, even though Obama got what he wanted and Putin had to stand against Assad, one of his staunchest allies in the region.
Still, those right-wing politicians and pundits loved Putin. The influential conservative blog Red State said, "We’ve reached a sad state of affairs when the Russian president has more credibility that the American president but that is where we are." Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan asked, "Is Putin one of us?" 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney said, "I think Putin has outperformed our president time and time again on the world stage." Just this week, a former half-term governor and losing vice presidential candidate--who won't be named in this blog until she apologizes for claiming that the national debt is as bad as slavery--said, "People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” She has, one is forced to presume, watched Putin wrestling bears from her house.
We can't pretend to know Putin's mind. But he could probably be forgiven for thinking that, with such high-profile Americans publicly elevating him above our own president, our national response to his aggression might be mixed.
It shouldn't be. We should all agree that Putin's actions are beyond the pale, and we should demand that he pull out of Ukraine immediately, and let that country solve its own internal issues (if it can--the country is a wreck, economically). Putin doesn't want Ukraine choosing to be more closely aligned with Europe than Russia? He should have made Russia a more reasonable place, not a more authoritarian one.
Our take is that Putin saw a popular uprising force his guy out of office in Kiev. Fearing a loss of influence in Ukraine--which, among other things, contains an important Russian naval base--Putin panicked and occupied Crimea, which is largely ethnic Russian and is where the port is located. Now that he's done so, he needs to find a face-saving way of extricating himself from his stupid, hasty, ill-conceived move. Smarter people than we are reporting on the situation, so to see what that's all about, try David Ignatius or David Remnick or Josh Marshall, who brings a historian's perspective to the topic.
And going forward, the neocons might want to keep in mind that we'd have more credibility when expressing outrage at invasions of other countries that don't pose a threat to us, on trumped-up grounds, if we didn't do it ourselves. Just saying.
Side Note 1: We're far from the only ones who've noticed the return of Obama Derangement Syndrome--the condition affecting those on the right who hate the president so much that in the same breath they can claim, as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank puts it, "President Obama is such a weak strongman. What’s more, he is a feeble dictator and a timid tyrant."
Side Note 2: Here's what we don't get. Elliott Abrams was neck-deep in the cover-up of the 1981 massacre of more than 800-1000 civilians (almost half of them children) by the Reagan administration-backed El Salvadoran military, an organization that was busy murdering priests and nuns when it couldn't find civilians to shoot. He worked to finance Nicaraguan terrorists (who the administration was already financing by selling arms to Iran, which we already knew was a state sponsor of terrorism). Vice President Dick Cheney was involved in exposing the identity of a covert CIA agent working on WMD issues (because her husband had told the truth, in print), and remains a firm supporter of the use of torture by the United States. Their misadventures include some of the biggest foreign policy disasters of the past half-century. And yet, these guys are regularly invited onto TV and radio shows and into the pages of magazines and asked their opinions of world events, as if they were respectable citizens. Neither one of them would be admitted through the gate at TWiA World Headquarters, and we'd immediately hose off the ground where they'd been standing when they left.
This Week in Numbers
House Budget Committee Chairman and former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (R/WI) is supposed to be a numbers guy. So much so, in fact, that if you Google "Paul Ryan"+"Numbers Guy," you get more than 43,000 results. And yet, when it comes to working with numbers, he's really not very good.
In addition to numbers guy, he wants to be known as the Republican Party's poverty guy. To that end, he's just released a 200+-page report in which he criticizes existing anti-poverty programs (including those that, not incidentally, helped send him to college) with an eye toward "overhauling" them (by which he means dumping them). He claims the 50-year "War on Poverty" was a failure (a topic we've already discussed here--it wasn't), and that a new approach is needed. He even backs his assertions with statistics from independent academic research.
Trouble is, to make that research fit his conclusions (normally, it would be done the other way around), he had to tweak, twist, and distort it until it was barely recognizable to its authors. According to the Fiscal Times: "However, several economists and social scientists contacted on Monday had reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan’s report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research."
FT continues: "One of the study’s authors, Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, said she was surprised when she read the paper [Ryan's report], because it seemed to arbitrarily chop off data from two of the most successful years of the war on poverty.
"Waldfogel and her colleagues looked at an alternative measure of the poverty rate known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which factors in government benefits like food stamps and programs like the earned-income tax credit. That alternative measure is thought to present a more accurate and realistic gauge of the poverty and the real-world effects of government programs aimed at combatting it.
"The Columbia researchers found that, using their model of the SPM, the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012. Ryan only cites data from 1969 onward, ignoring a full 36 percent of the decline.
“'It’s technically correct, but it’s an odd way to cite the research,' said Waldfogel. 'In my experience, usually you use all of the available data. There’s no justification given. It’s unfortunate because it really understates the progress we’ve made in reducing poverty.'”
The New York Times agrees: "To fit that broad and unsupportable argument, Mr. Ryan then goes about distorting the facts. For all of Medicaid’s billions, the report says, its recipients are less healthy than people on private insurance or Medicare! Well, yes, that’s not exactly surprising because Medicaid cares for the nation’s poorest residents, many of whom come from troubled backgrounds and have trouble attending to their own needs. But that’s hardly a reason to turn it into a block grant and dump it on the states, as Mr. Ryan proposed in 2012. Medicaid has made millions of low-income people healthier, and its expansions have dramatically reduced infant mortality and childhood deaths."
Economist Jared Bernstein (who used to work for VP Joe Biden) says the report is "a detailed, serious look at the issue but is beset with misleading evidence and conclusions," and debunks more of its arguments. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman explains why Ryan's "poverty trap" line is the opposite of true. In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait adds, "Ryan is very good at marshaling faux scholarship churned out by ideologues in the service of talking points, and at convincing reporters that he is an actual policy wonk. Unfortunately, he seems to have convinced himself and undertaken the ambitious goal of reconciling his policies with the work of real researchers. That was a bad, bad move."
Ultimately, Ryan has tailored his report to support the conclusions he arrived at long ago and has offered in a series of draconian Republican budget plans (which, fortunately, have never become law). Ryan's prescription is always the same, and always matches his party's standard economic message: Why help those who need it? It's their own fault they're poor. Instead, let's help the already wealthy, because that will--through some magical process we cannot identify--help the poor. Or not. Whatever.
Side Note: Speaking of Paul Ryan, he made a remarkable point in a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week: "This reminds me of a story [TWiA note: It's a "story" in that it's largely fictional; although he didn't present it as such and claims he didn't know, and the person whose story it sort of almost was tells it to draw an entirely different conclusion than Ryan did.] I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my buddy, Governor Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. But he told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch – one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids’. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him. That’s what the left just doesn’t understand.”
This is remarkable because what he's arguing here is that the poor kid--Ryan specified poor, remember--whose parents can't afford to provide his lunch and who needs the one schools provide, because hungry kids don't learn--he's saying that kid's parents don't care for him. He doesn't acknowledge that maybe they're struggling, maybe they can afford one family meal a day, with the help of food stamps. A kid who gets a free school lunch doesn't have parents who love him.
What the left doesn't understand? What Paul Ryan doesn't understand is truly staggering.
This Week in Budgets
President Obama released his 2015 budget proposal this week. Like whatever Paul Ryan eventually releases, it doesn't matter. Budgets are political documents; Congress controls the pursestrings, and the recent two-year budget agreement already set spending for 2015. As a political document, though, it makes a lot of good recommendations, including some, like expanding the earned income tax credit, that Republicans have supported (will they still, now that Obama's on their side?), investment in infrastructure (which two new reports warn is particularly vulnerable to "cascading system failures" due to climate change) and universal preschool, reform of the criminal justice system, stronger border security and cybersecurity, debt reduction, and much more. You can read the full document here, and here's what you need to know about it.
This Week in Pinocchios
Rep. Darrel Issa (R/CA), trying to explain on Fox "News" why his bald-faced Benghazi/Hillary Clinton lies earned him four Pinocchios from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, earns four more for lying in that explanation.
Issa embarrassed himself further this week by abruptly ending a committee meeting about the IRS "scandal" and shutting off the mic of the committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, when Cummings tried to ask a procedural question about Issa's decision. Issa admits that his investigation might have hit a "dead end." The fact is, it dead-ended a long time ago, when it became clear that there was no there there. As Politico reports this week, "Though emails in the report show Lerner and top IRS officials indeed had their eyes on potential abuse of tax-exempt status following the 2010 court ruling, nothing in the report seems to prove that Lerner had interest in protecting Democrats — just enforcing rules."
Issa is playing a tricky game here. He's trying to keep his profile elevated by grabbing headlines wherever he can. It's about raising money and potentially having influence in the upcoming 2014 and 2016 elections, by spreading that money around (he'll never be a candidate for higher office himself). He is doing it not by establishing a legislative record--for all his time in the House, he really doesn't have one--but by creating fake "scandals" and stirring up right-wing media outrage. Voters trapped in that bubble never hear that there is nothing behind those "scandals," they only hear the buzzwords: "IRS!" "Benghazi!" "Fast and Furious!" And hearing those, they write Issa checks.
This Week in Arizona
Last week, Governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, the bill that would have allowed businesses to cite religious grounds when they want to be able to discriminate against LGBT people (or anybody else, really). This week, Public Policy Polling (PPP) has done some polling about the feelings of Arizonans. About SB 1062 specifically, only 22% of Arizonans supported it, while 66% opposed it. The party breakdown is: Democrats, 86% against SB 1062, 11% for; Republicans, 51% against, 34% for; Independents, 64% against, 16% for.
On the more general issue of support for same-sex marriage, 49% of Arizonas support it, while only 41% oppose it.
One has to hope the state legislature recognizes the direction the population is moving, and decides to actually represent the will of the people.
Side Note 1: In a related development, State Senator Steve Gallardo (D) credits the SB 1062 dispute for helping him decide to come out publicly as gay (no secret to his family and friends). Gallardo said, "I am gay, I’m a Latino, I’m a state senator and it’s OK.” Here's a new interview with him.
Side Note 2: Does this mean he's doing something right? Or everything wrong? The Only Senator More Popular Than John McCain Is Every Other Senator.
This Week in Determination
As of this week, House Republicans have voted 50 times to deny health insurance to millions of Americans. All but 1 Republican voted for the measure, joined by 27 Democrats. Good job, guys! It's not like the taxpayers are paying you to do anything like, you know, work.
Incidentally, House members--according to the latest polling, 61% of Americans are willing to vote for a candiate who supports the Affordable Care Act. Only 36% said they absolutely wouldn't. You might want to think about that before scheduling vote number 51.
This Week in Shame
The Senate was a big bag of fail this week. They blocked the president's nominee as an assistant attorney general, Debo Adegbile, mostly because he worked as a defense attorney for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a police officer back in 1981. They're not saying Adegbile pulled the trigger or sang cop-killing-glorifying rap songs in Mumia's ear, just that he provided the man with counsel, as required by the US Constitution and the rule of law. As an added incentive to block him, Adegbile is a longstanding supporter of voting rights. The vote was 47-52, with seven Democrats voting with the Republicans to block him (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was one of those, for procedural reasons).
Then they wouldn't allow a vote on Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's (D/NY) bill to take military sexual assault cases out of the chain of command, which has done a terrible job of prosecuting them thus far. The vote was 55-45, 5 votes short of the 60-vote threshold (and not a party-line vote). Next week, they're expected to easily pass Senator Claire McCaskill's (D/MO) considerably less effective bill on the same topic. In a case of sad irony, on the same day Gillibrand's bill was shot down, the Army revealed that its top sex-crimes prosecutor has himself been charged with groping a female lawyer--at a conference on sexual assault. Gillibrand's bill is badly needed, and the Senate let every soldier down by blocking it.
Side Note: The Senate will soon decide on the nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General. Here's a poignant, detailed, and personal take on the good doctor. It's worth a few minutes of your time.
This Week in Fearmongering
NRA spokesweasel Wayne LaPierre at CPAC this week: "In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption everywhere you look, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns and handguns we want. We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and there are home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers and rapers, and haters and campus killers, and airport killers, shopping mall killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse our society that sustains us all."
And yet, more Americans lose their lives to firearms every year than to all those things combined.
This Week in the Courage of Ted Cruz
Cruz (tepidly) endorses the senior senator from his state--but only after he's already won the primary.
This Week in Mythology
Food stamps increase government dependency. Most mass shootings occur in gun-free zones. $4 billion in stimulus money went to ACORN. If you've heard these right-wing myths, or just about any others, now there's a place you can easily learn the truth: Mythopedia.
Also, in case Fox "News" isn't sufficiently right-wing and dishonest for you, here comes NewsMax TV. Yay?
This Week in How You Can Help
This week we'll draw your attention to the Center for Constitutional Rights. In their own words, "The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change." It's an organization well worth a few minutes of your time and a few bucks out of your pocket, if you're so inclined.
This Week in Bears
How we've trained bears to love human food.
Meet Humphrey. Prepare to smile.