Far too much media coverage of politics focuses on the horserace angle--who's ahead, who's behind, who's up or down. It relies on false equivalency: if Politician A says X, then the reporter goes to Politician B, who's sure to say Y. That's lazy journalism, and it doesn't actually inform the public about which position (if any) is actually true, or adheres to the facts as we know them. At TWiA, our mission is to discuss politics through the prism of policy--to look, in other words, at the real-world implications of the things that politicians say and do, to make connections others might miss, and to explain it all in language a lay person can understand. Also to offer suggestions of how you can help somebody in need, to report on what's awesome, and to keep tabs on bears. If you like TWiA, share or repost or tell a friend, and be sure to leave comments, even if they're arguments. Especially if they're arguments.
This Week in WMDs
The New York Times reported a powerful story this week about soldiers who served in Iraq encountering health problems because of exposure to chemical weapons, and who were denied appropriate medical care and told to keep quiet about what they'd found. Naturally, many on the right have decided this revelation means that the Bush/Cheney administration was right all along, and there were WMDs in Iraq.
That's not what it means.
What it really means is that the Bush/Cheney administration once again worked to deceive the American public. They knew those weapons were there. Those were old weapons, many of them of US design, dating from earlier days when Saddam Hussein was our guy in the Middle East and we supported his war against Iran. The existence of those old chemical weapons was thorougly documented at the time, and even the Bush administration admitted those were not the WMDs they professed to be worried about. The Washington Post's Fact Checker column provides examples of Bush administration officials' declarations--long since proven wrong, and not disproven by this new story--of an active weapons program in Iraq, and concludes, "Anyone who claims that the New York Times story vindicates George W. Bush-era claims of Iraq WMD automatically earns Four Pinocchios."
The news here isn't that the administration was right about the existence of active and ongoing WMD programs that might one day have posed a threat to the US, but that the military, under Commander-in- Chief George W. Bush, denied treatment to and demanded silence from those exposed to chemical agents. And although all the American exposure to chemical agents occurred during the Bush administration, more weapons were found by Iraqi troops after the Obama administration took over, and those--and the exposure cases documented during the previous administration--were still withheld from the public. Both administrations share some culpability, although we'd argue that the Bush administration's runs far deeper.
That administration took the country into a war that didn't need to be fought, distracting us from the one that did. That war served Al Qaeda's ends more than ours, disrupted the balance of power in the region, created new terrorists, and strengthened Iran. We're still seeing the fallout, and will for a long time to come. The administration didn't create the thousands of years of Sunni/Shia conflict, but it opened fault lines that had been at least been patched over. It was the worst American foreign policy decision in generations, maybe ever. It's no wonder some of President Bush's supporters jump at any opportunity to claim that it was the right thing to do.
This Week in Climate
As a US senator, Chuck Hagel (R/NE) co-wrote legislation in 1997 blocking the country from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Now Secretary of Defense Hagel is singing a different tune--his department just released a new report declaring climate change not a future threat to national security, but an immediate threat. In a speech this week, Hagel said, “In two months, the United Nations will convene countries from around the world here in Peru to discuss climate change. Defense leaders must be part of this global discussion. We must be cleareyed about the security threats presented by climate change, and we must be proactive in addressing them.”
The facts that August and September were the warmest on record--and 2014 is well on its way to being the warmest year on record--might help buttress that conclusion.
Of course, some elected officials, like losing vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R/WI) continue to pretend the science isn't long since settled. As Jonathan Chait writes, "This is another way of saying that Paul Ryan is a nut. His ideological fantasies prevent him from accepting even basic scientific facts. He is, to be sure, a lucid nut, rather than a raving nut who accosts passersby on street corners. Ryan has spent his life imbibing the tenets of right-wing-movement thought, and he can apply the concepts he has learned to nearly any topic."
This Week in Ebola
Conservatives like to cut spending. Sometimes it seems that's all they want to do. Trouble with that is, often government spending finances important things. On the other hand, sometimes those important things don't work. On the other other hand, we have to salute private citizens who step up when needed.
It might be nice to have a Surgeon General, too.
We rarely report on the antics of far-right fringe websites; although they're occasionally worth checking in on if only because more and more Republican candidates and elected officials seem to get their "information" from them. A glance at WorldNetDaily feels a lot like reading through the grand old spoof tabloid Weekly World News in its heyday, except for the nagging sensation that the WND writers aren't aiming for parody. Here's a smattering of Ebola-related headlines from WND this week: Obama's Disease-infected America (Obama's bringing Ebola to America so he'll have an excuse to cancel the 2016 elections); Obama's African Ebola Nightmare (in which Larry Klayman of right-wing nutball group Judicial Watch writes, "I do not advocate violence, and I want Obama to be taken alive to be deported and pay for his inadequacies under the rule of law. But he must be forced from office as soon as possible, before all is lost. We the people simply cannot, and should not, take it anymore."); Mystery Virus Found Where Illegal-Alien Kids Sent (in which Phyllis Schlafly claims that Obama is bringing Ebola here on purpose, because "Obama doesn’t want America to believe that we’re exceptional. He wants us to be just like everybody else, and if Africa is suffering from Ebola, we ought to join the group and be suffering from it, too. That’s his attitude.”); Obama's Dangerous Pretexts for Endangering Americans ("Barack Obama used the denial of risk as a pretext for failing to restrict travel from Ebola-stricken African nations. This, too, was viewed as imprudent. Is his intention to facilitate an Ebola outbreak in the United States?"); and What if the Conspiracy Theories are True? (FEMA has $1 billion worth of disposable coffins stored in Georgia because he's known all along that he's bringing Ebola here. Why? "My fear is that this has all been orchestrated from the very beginning. Who knows? Maybe the current administration needs this to happen so martial law can be declared, guns can be seized and the populace can be controlled. Once that happens … game over." Those coffins, by the way, are just as imaginary as the rest of this stuff.)
The writers for the Weekly World News knew they were writing comedy. They didn't expect to persuade, just to entertain. But the writers for WND have no such understanding. When Klayman writes that President Obama is an illegitimate president, "and Muslim to boot," he knows he's lying, but he wants people to believe him. He wants them to tell their friends, "You know, the president's Muslim. I read it in the news." Sites like WND should come with huge disclaimer banners saying, "None of what you see here is remotely true. If you're looking for facts, you've come to the wrong place." Because the people who would turn to that site for information are people who are inclined to believe what it says. And when it promotes the most offensive, absurd, disgusting BS around, those people--included electred Republicans--become less informed about what's actually going on around them.
WND, its writers and staff, and its supporters should be deeply ashamed of the dishonesty they're spreading.
Side Note 1: Sadly, it's not just fringe sources like WND. According to MediaMatters.org, "Fox News contributor Keith Ablow went on an unhinged racial rant against President Obama, accusing him of failing to protect the country against Ebola because his 'affinities, his affiliations are with' Africa and 'not us ... He's their leader.' Ablow also compared America to a hostage with Stockholm Syndrome, electing a man who dislikes the country and 'has names very similar to two of our archenemies, Osama, well, Obama. And Hussein.'" Also on Fox, Glenn Beck--who has built a lucrative career out of turning Americans against each other and against our representative democracy--claimed that the president is ignoring Ebola in Dallas because that city has an unfavorable view of him. In a sane world, Fox would be considered fringe; unfortunately, in this one it represents the mainstream thought of the conservative movement.
Side Note 2: While he's not blaming President Obama--yet--sen. Ron Johnson (R/WI) is getting into the fearmongering game with the lunatic theory that ISIS terrorists could use Ebola as a weapon in the US. We're pretty sure that Johnson doesn't know how Ebola is transmitted. Or he's just a pathetic fool. Or both.
Side Note 3: Popular mythology says that the air inside an airplane cabin is constantly recycled, that by the end of a flight everybody has breathed in some of the sneeze from the guy in seat 11D. But that's not the case--the air in the cabin is constantly refreshed by air from outside the plane, brought in through the engines. Every couple of minutes, you're breathing air from 28,000 feet that nobody has breathed for a very long time. Wired explains in more detail.
Side Note 4: This is disgraceful behavior by American teenagers, and we hope it's the last display of its kind.
This Week in Health Care
As we've pointed out here many times, when elected officials who should know the facts about policies they debate and vote on--particularly sweeping policies about which they profess strong opinions--can't seem to get even the basics right, there are really only two options. Either they genuinely don't understand the issues on which they have voted, or they're lying. Any conceivable third possibility--temporary insanity, brain-jamming signals sent by alien spacecraft--seems exceedingly far-fetched.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R/KY), who would love to become Senate Majority Leader after next month's elections, offered up a prime example this week in a debate with his Democratic opponent, Allison Lundergan Grimes. Thanks largely to the efforts of its Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, Kentucky is one of the Affordable Care Act's (ACA's) greatest success stories. Called Kynect there, it's extremely popular and has allowed more than 500,000 of the state's residents to get health coverage, either through the state exchange or Medicaid expansion.
McConnell wants to repeal the ACA "root and branch," in his words. Asked in the debate whether the state could keep its popular Kynect program, he said, "I think it's fine to have a website. Yeah."
We're certain that McConnell knows it's more than just a website. The ACA he so despises is how the Medicaid expansion is funded. People who use the website to look for health insurance often receive federal subsidies, via the ACA, to buy it. The ACA regulates the insurance companies offering policies through the website, making sure that they don't discriminate on the basis of preexisting conditions, charge women more than men just because of their gender, or kick kids off their parents' insurance before age 26, among other things. Without the ACA, the Kynect website would be just that--a website, on which people could look at health insurance options they once had but don't anymore. And 500,000+ Kentuckians would once again be without insurance.
McConnell also claimed that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the ACA would cost the country 2.5 million jobs. That's just as nonsensical. The CBO didn't say those jobs would go away, it said that the people currently holding those jobs would no longer be forced to stay in them for the health insurance, and could now afford to retire or leave jobs to become entrepreneurs or otherwise choose not to remain employed inthe same position. To those 2.5 million people, the ACA offers freedom that didn't exist before. And those 2.5 million jobs will be filled by other people, further improving the unemployment situation.
We don't think McConnell is a particularly stupid man. Unfortunately, that leaves only the alternative explanation--that he's a deeply dishonest man who thinks his constituents are stupid. We can only hope that Kentucky voters recognize when they're being lied to.
Side Note 1: The press has largely given McConnell a pass on his ACA obfuscation. Here's one theory as to why.
Side Note 2: McConnell is not, of course, the only Senate candidate having a hard time with the truth. Arkansas candidate Rep. Tom Cotton (R), whose relationship with the truth is tenuous at best, told another big lie in a debate this week. We're saddened by politicians who believe the people they would serve can't be trusted with the truth, and by voters who hear things that are patently untrue and don't bother to check.
This Week in the Presidency
Six years in, people are already working at summing up Barack Obama's presidency. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, a frequent critic of the president, writes, "Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn't deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it's working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it's much more effective than you'd think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy."
The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman, often an Obama fan, takes a different viewpoint, wondering "What happened to that fresh, idealistic guy? What happened to his power and popularity in the United States? Why doesn’t he dominate the political stage the way he once did? Why isn’t he as effective as we thought he would be?"
The truth, as always, lies someplace in between. Reality could not keep up with Obama's soaring rhetoric. He could not have known, back in 2007-08, how divided the country would become, thanks in large part to the bubble effect caused by 24-hour cable news channels, talk radio, and an internet on which people tend to look just for information that supports their existing viewpoints. He could not have known that on the night of his inauguration, top-level elected Republicans would meet with the express purpose of making his presidency a failure, and would then do everything they could to block his accomplishments, regardless of the cost to the nation. And no one ever truly knows the challenges of the presidency except those few who have held that position--certainly, he expected it to be hard, but he probably had no clue how hard.
All that said, as Krugman points out, his accomplishments are real and profound and far-reaching. The ACA will never be repealed, many American lives will be saved, many bankruptcies avoided. The American economy was saved from complete disaster, which would have pushed the global economy off its own cliff. Marriage equality is on track to become the law of the land in every state. For once, a president is seriously beginning to address climate change and immigration reform and equality of opportunity.
Obama is not a perfect president. But he is one who matters--one who was elected on a progressive platform and has put those ideas into action where he could. What he can accomplish in his final two years is an open question--though a Democratic Senate would help. But what he has already accomplished is huge. He's not a president that history will forget.
This Week in Voting (and Race)
Krugman touches on the point, but without going into a lot of detail--plenty of people in this country still don't like the president because he's black. We fair-minded types like to imagine we're living in a post-racial society, but when one looks at gun deaths or incarceration rates or joblessness or any of a number of other statistics, it becomes obvious that race still matters a great deal.
During the run-up to an election in which Republican efforts to suppress minority voting might make a real difference, it's instructive to look at the results of new research. It shows that whites tend to support voter ID laws more if they're shown pictures of black people voting. This was true across the political spectrum, even among people who consider themselves free of racial bias. But that bias is cooked into a lot of us by history and culture, and we'll have to work harder to eliminate it. Getting rid of blatantly racially motivated voter suppression efforts would be a good first step.
Judge Richard Posner is a Reagan appointee who in 2008 ruled in favor of the first of these restrictive voter ID laws. He has--to put it mildly--changed his mind. In response to an absurd ruling last week supporting voter ID laws in Wisconsin, Posner dissects the rationale for such laws, point by point, and explains why they're bogus and what the real reason behind them is. About that ruling, he writes, "The panel is not troubled by the absence of evidence. It deems the supposed beneficial effect of photo ID requirements on public confidence in the electoral system 'a legislative fact-a proposition about the state of the world,' and asserts that 'on matters of legislative fact, courts accept the findings of legislatures and judges of the lower courts must accept findings by the Supreme Court.' In so saying, the panel conjures up a fact-free cocoon in which to lodge the federal judiciary. As there is no evidence that voter impersonation fraud is a problem, how can the fact that a legislature says it’s a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials? If the Supreme Court once thought that requiring photo identification increases public confidence in elections, and experience and academic study since shows that the Court was mistaken, do we do a favor to the Court-do we increase public confidence in elections-by making the mistake a premise of our decision? Pressed to its logical extreme the panel’s interpretation of and deference to legislative facts would require upholding a photo ID voter law even if it were uncontested that the law eliminated no fraud but did depress turnout significantly."
And this, "Voter-impersonation fraud may be a subset of “Misinformation.” If so, it is by all accounts a tiny subset, a tiny problem, and a mere fig leaf for efforts to disenfranchise voters likely to vote for the political party that does not control the state government. Those of us who live in Illinois are familiar with a variety of voting frauds, and no one would deny the propriety of the law’s trying to stamp out such frauds. The one form of voter fraud known to be too rare to justify limiting voters’ ability to vote by requiring them to present a photo ID at the polling place is in-person voter impersonation."
And this, "Some of the “evidence” of voter-impersonation fraud is downright goofy, if not paranoid, such as the nonexistent buses that according to the 'True the Vote' movement transport foreigners and reservation Indians to polling places."
And he adds, "There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens."
Posner is not some wild-eyed liberal. He's an extremely conservative jurist, and an extremely influential one. His 2008 ruling is often referenced in support of voter suppression efforts, even when it doesn't apply (it was a narrow ruling applied to a specific state with specific laws). If you've ever doubted the truth of TWiA's frequent criticisms of these laws, or assumed that TWiA's admitted political biases played into our interpretation, read Posner's ruling in full. He understands what these conservative state legislatures are trying to do, and he calls them on the carpet for it. As he should. Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, and we need to get it right.
Side Note 1: In Texas, where last week a judge blocked the state's vote-suppressing ID bill, this week an appeals court reinstated it, citing the proximity of the election. Meanwhile, when the first judge ruled, the state immediately stopped issuing IDs--now that another court has overturned that ruling, the state will begin again. Does anybody think the state is in a hurry to issue IDs to people it thinks might vote for Democrats?
Side Note 2: Ed Kilgore argues that there is another reason for voter suppression, although it serves the same goal that Judge Posner outlined above--the far-right idea that voting should be a more limited franchise; that, for example, people who don't pay income taxes shouldn't be allowed to vote, just as a matter of principle. The fact that the far right believes all those people would vote for Democrats anyway is just gravy.
Side Note 3: The Arkansas Supreme Court blocked a voter-suppression bill that the Republican-led state legislature had passed--over the governor's veto--on the grounds that the bill violated the state's Constitution. That means next month's election can go forward without unnecessary restrictions being in effect.
Side Note 4: Here's why expanding voting among poor people has a beneficial effect on public health.
This Week in Ill Intent
Speaking of people who hate the president, Missouri's Jefferson County Recorder of Deeds Debbie Dunnegan upped the ante this week in a Facebook post, which read, "I have a question for all my friends who have served or are currently serving in our military … having not put on a uniform nor taken any type military oath, there has to be something that I am just not aware of. But I cannot and do not understand why no action is being taken against our domestic enemy. I know he is supposedly the commander in chief, but the constitution gives you the authority. What am I missing? Thank you for your bravery and may God keep you safe."
When asked about the post, she said, "Something innocent and simple got twisted into a disaster because it's an election. I meant no ill intent toward the president. I meant no ill intent toward anybody." She added that she's leaving the post up, because she thinks it will help her reelection effort. We here at TWiA World Headquarters would hate to see the kind of post she would put up if she did have ill intent toward somebody. We're also still wondering where in the Constitution she thinks it says the military can "take action" against the president. She must have a special copy, because it's not in the ones we've seen.
This Week in How You Can Help
Worried about Ebola? Don't fret too much--the flu kills 30,000 Americans every year; so far, Ebola has killed one.
But if you'd like to help, even if at a somewhat smaller level than the King of Facebookland can do, here's a list of groups working on the Ebola crisis and how you can donate to them. Or you could play it safe and go with Doctors Without Borders. Either way, it wouldn't hurt for a lot of people to toss a couple of bucks their way.
This Week in Bears
A mother bear and her cub were reunited--with a little human assistance--after the cub got stuck in a trash bin.