Republicans Struggle to Explain Their Opposition to Action on Climate

Part of the problem with the Republican Party is that they approach everything as a business matter. They seldom say what they actually believe, preferring instead to put together a sales pitch that rationalizes their positions. As I've pointed out before, this explains the constant insane Republican rape theories. These Republicans believe that all abortion is murder and that using law to force a woman to give birth to her rapist's baby is just the most sensible thing ever. But experience tells them that this position isn't very popular, so they make up BS sales pitches explaining that rape never results in pregnancy. That they don't actually believe what they're saying is obvious -- if sexual violence can't result in pregnancy, why would they care if exceptions rape and incest are written into abortion bans? They wouldn't. It would make no sense, because it would never happen anyway. They keep getting caught up in these idiotic rape theory firestorms for a reason -- explaining what they really believe would actually be worse, from a PR standpoint. So they lie and take their beating for it. It's simply their best option.

Steve Benen spots a similar situation in global warming. Republicans believe -- in shockingly large percentages -- that global warming is a massive conspiracy among scientist to either soak institutions for grant money or to actually somehow bring the world to communism. The science of climate change is part of this conspiracy, meaning the scientific consensus is likewise BS. Whenever reality butts heads with their ideology, conservatives seem to cook up a conspiracy theory to explain why they're still right -- and worse, they tend to believe that theory.

However, the capital newspaper The Hill reported yesterday that Republicans are not attacking the science of global warming in response to the president's new climate push. Instead, Republicans are "battering Obama’s wide-ranging new climate plan with arguments it will cost jobs and hurt the economy." Another case of what they really believe being a political loser? It would seem so.

Steve Benen: ...[I]n response to the president's fairly aggressive plans, Republicans appear to have given up on pushing the "it's all a big myth" line, instead arguing that Obama's plans must be resisted because they'll undermine job creation.

It suggests GOP officials believe the public is inclined to agree with the White House on the science, so they'll have to change the subject. Global warming deniers may dominate Republican politics, but the focus groups have apparently told party leaders it's not what the American mainstream wants to hear.

Of course, accepting the science and arguing that we can't do anything because it would cost us jobs is as amazingly insane as your average rape theory. The argument is basically, "Yeah, we're heading into a situation that could -- and very likely will -- threaten humanity's survival. But, you know, it'll cost too much and people in polluting industries will lose jobs, so I guess we should all just go extinct." It may comes a surprise to you, but I find that less than convincing.

And of course, this argument's as much a pile of BS as what they really believe. New technologies are constantly killing off older ones and, contrary to what Republicans are saying, that's not bad for the economy. In fact, it's good for the economy. It's progress. It's why civilization didn't collapse when automobiles put the buggy whip industry out of business. New technologies create new markets and new jobs, so the jobs lost at Acme Carriage Whips and Crops just moved over to Ford Motor Company. If coal gets put out of business by solar, for example, the same sort of exchange will happen -- just as jobs have followed technology since the wheel replaced the skid.

But don't take my word for it, experts agree.

Huffington Post: In a comprehensive 2012 review of more than 25 studies that attempted to gauge the effect of environmental regulations on jobs, a team of researchers led by [Richard Revesz, the director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University] found that many claims about such regulations were unreliable.

While studies commissioned by the coal industry warned that millions of jobs could be lost, others conducted by left-leaning think tanks and environmental groups predicted that millions of jobs would be gained, their survey found.

By contrast, the most detailed studies concluded that job losses and gains from environmental regulations essentially balanced out. "When serious studies have been done, the impacts tend to be small -- sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but small," Revesz said.

Or, to put it in other terms, "Duh."

Take the news that Republicans are shying away from arguing against climate science as good news. It means they know they've lost that fight. And go ahead and take their new "job-killer" attacks as good news, as well -- because it makes no sense at all and it's very easy to refute. Taken together, it's very promising news, because it shows that -- just like rape and abortion -- Republicans have no good or convincing arguments left to them.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]


Roberts Court an Enabler in GOP's Self-Destruction

John Roberts and George W. Bush
In writing for the majority in favor of gutting the Voting Rights Act (VRA), Chief Justice John Roberts' argument boiled down to one point; that "the conditions that originally justified" singling out nine southern states and portions of seven more for increased oversight in election laws no longer existed, so that oversight was obviously unnecessary. This "the tire's not flat anymore, so we can tear off the tire patch" reasoning probably didn't fool too many people. Even the most racist and/or committed to the Republican War on Voting could likely see that it was a rationalization, not a solid logical point. As is so often the case, conservatives came to the conclusion they wanted to all along, then made up an explanation that backed up that pre-determined conclusion. The only other explanation would be that the conservative minority on the Supreme Court was made up of very stupid people who have no idea how logic works. But these are -- allegedly -- America's top legal scholars, so that explanation seems unlikely.

No, five of our supposedly "unbiased" high court judges -- the Chief Justice among them -- are blatantly dishonest and hopelessly biased by rightwing talking points. Roberts had previously demonstrated this trait in this very case, citing bogus census numbers. So the Chief Justice had the same command of the facts as your average Rush Limbaugh listener. Go ahead and let that depressing notion sink in. Fellow justice Antonin Scalia called the provision of the VRA a "racial entitlement," as if protecting people's right to vote was some special favor the government did for people who don't happen to be white. Again, this an opinion you could get from just about any frothing and stupid talk radio zombie.

Underneath the unconvincing lies is the real reason for the decision -- to aid in the Republican War on Voting. Racist voter ID bills and gerrymandering plans that would nullify the non-white vote can now be launched without federal oversight and Texas got right to work doing exactly that. Roberts ripped the patch off and, to absolutely no one's surprise at all, the air immediately began rushing out of the hole.

But Justices aren't politicians, so some ideologically-driven decisions are not the wisest politics. Yes, southern Republicans would love to see the Voting Right Act go away, but the issue of race is so toxic -- especially for bona fide racists -- that they would much rather have had SCOTUS just throw the whole thing out, rather than kick it back to congress. This has deepened divisions in an already deeply divided party.

Politico: ...Boehner was dead silent on the issue. Many Republicans privately said that nothing will get done this Congress to rewrite the law. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who chairs a committee that oversees election administration, said she respects the decision. The Voting Rights Act was not discussed at a closed meeting of House GOP leadership Tuesday evening. Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, called the Voting Rights Act “pretty technical” and pertinent to only “a limited number of states.”

But other top Republicans seemed eager to fix it. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who has spent the 113th Congress trying to appeal to segments of the population that have rejected the Republican Party, said in a statement Tuesday he wants to find a “responsible path forward” for dealing with voting rights.

“My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all,” Cantor said in a statement. “I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”

The Supreme Court's tolerance of voter suppression represents the more foolish approach to a very real Republican problem. In the last two election cycles, black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout -- a difference that will only grow wider as time goes on and demographics take their toll. Gutting the Voting Rights Act and suppressing the minority vote with voter ID laws and gerrymandering can't work forever. It's not a solution. In fact, it actually aggravates the problem by further segregating the GOP from an electorate that grows more and more diverse by the day. You can't stand between a voter and the voting booth, then expect them to vote for you when they finally get around your blockade. In the end, success in the Republican War on Voting would be suicidal and the conservatives on the Supreme Court are enablers of self-destructive behavior.

Besides, these voter suppression techniques can't make a difference in national elections. If the GOP wants to see a Republican President in any of their lifetimes, they're going to have to find a method other than cheating to get Republicans elected. Most of areas freed from the VRA's oversight aren't in any danger of turning into blue states and the electoral college is winner take all. It doesn't matter if the Republican candidate wins by one vote or a million, the end tally is the same. In presidential politics, there is simply nothing Republican voter suppression can really do to elect a Republican candidate. And in the meantime, all they really manage to do is create ill will among voters they're going to need eventually. At the presidential level, all they're doing is needlessly alienating voters by stealing the elections that won't change a thing.

So John Roberts' big plan to save the Republican Party is as nonsensical as his rationalization for it. It's the Republican Party that's leaking voters and this only speeds up that predicament.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]


Washington D.C., a Corporate Subsidiary

Stack of money
When the Senate rejected closing loopholes in background checks for gun purchases earlier this year, they definitely went against the will of the people. After all, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 92% of voters supported the expansion. Yet the Senate, in a not-even-close 54-46 vote, rejected the bill, preferring instead the soft-on-crime status quo. With public support for the bill so nearly universal, why would the Senate side with criminals and reject what is a very common sense measure?

The answer to that is simple. The National Rifle Association owns a lot of senators. And let's not pretend -- as the NRA themselves do -- that the gun lobby organization is nonpartisan. The NRA owns the GOP. Of the fifty-three Democratic senators serving at the time, forty-nine received no funding from the NRA. Only seven Republicans could say the same. And you have to assume that some of those seven aren't funded because they're shoe-ins. Why waste money on a candidate who's in no danger of losing? Just throw up a national ad statewide and call it a day. The senate went soft on crime because the Republican Party did. And the Republican Party made sure criminals and terrorists could still get their weapons through the gun show loophole because the NRA demanded it.

And so we now have a status quo embraced by Senate Republicans, but rejected by 92% of Americans. Clearly, something is broken here. But there's a fix and it's steadily gaining ground.

Gallup: Half of Americans say they would personally vote for a law that establishes government funding of federal campaigns, while 44% would vote against it.

The poll was conducted June 15-16, just days before the New York State Senate narrowly defeated a comprehensive campaign reform bill for that state that would have included public financing of campaigns. Most key subgroups of Americans express fairly tepid support for this type of reform proposal. But Democrats, Easterners, and Midwesterners offer somewhat higher support; roughly six in 10 among these groups say they would vote for it. Among their counterparts, support drops below half. The only groups expressing majority opposition are those living in the South and Republicans.

Even more popular would be limits on how much a campaign can raise and spend, with 79% saying they'd personally vote for such limits. But that sort of limit doesn't really solve the problem, does it? It still puts government up for sale, but in a first come, first served basis. But the more effective means is gaining ground with Americans.

Over the years, Gallup has consistently found Americans dissatisfied with the way campaigns are financed, but not especially eager for Congress to make addressing it a high priority. Similarly, while Americans have supported a whole host of campaign reform proposals involving enhanced disclosure and caps on what candidates can raise and spend, they have shown more reluctance toward footing the bill through federal financing. That was clearly the case in 2007, when 57% called public financing "unacceptable." There may be less objection today, with fewer than half, 44%, now saying they would vote "no" if given the chance to vote on implementing a public financing system, and public confidence in Congress historically low. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how hard Americans will press Congress to enact such a major reform.

Part of the problem is that you're asking the government to spend money and Americans don't like that. But half of us see that this is a case of spending money to save money. The NRA example aside, congress hands out money to donors on a regular basis. This transfer of wealth comes in the forms of tax incentives, unnecessary military purchases, corporate subsidies, etc. One prime example is the prison/industrial complex, which profits from private prisons and lobbies for ever-increasing mandatory minimums and against ending the War on Drugs, in order to keep those private prisons filled and profitable. None of this corporate welfare is free and the cost to taxpayers is much greater than publicly funded campaigns would be -- especially when combined with limits on spending.

None of this was pointed out by Gallup, whose question was straightforward. But half of America knows it. We watch Washington shovel money down ratholes, then blame us for deficits. If you listen to them, it's our Social Security that's dragging us down in debt, it's our Medicare, not the hundreds of billions spent on corporate welfare. You'd think, among Republicans especially, that returning tax dollars to taxpayers would be the most popular thing ever. But their rhetoric does not match their actions. If we keep returning tax dollars to taxpayers in the form of entitlements and services, how will we ever be able to afford handing out money to donors and tax cuts for Wall Street? Want your tax money spent on you? Rob a bank and go to prison. Otherwise, getting your tax dollars to benefit you is a "government handout."

Of course, the big problem with the moving poll numbers on the issue is staring us all in the face. Congress doesn't care how popular or unpopular things are. If they did, we'd have expanded background checks right now. They don't care if you think they're lousy, so long as they have enough money to run ads convincing you that their opponent would be even worse. It's not what you'll vote for, it's what you'll vote against.

So the first step in getting publicly-funded elections is the hardest -- changing our motivation in the voting booth. To begin voting for things again, to stop being so reactionary. That's the only place opinion really matters and we should vote our convictions, not our fears. The first step in defeating corporate-funded elections is in ignoring corporate-funded smear campaigns from shadowy super PACs.


[photo by AMagill]


Right Going from Denying Rape's Importance to Denying it Even Exists

Women demonstrate against rape
It's hard to see House Republicans move yesterday to outlaw abortion after 20 weeks as a serious effort. The bill has no chance of being taken up by the Senate and, even if it was, it would die a well-deserved death under the President's veto pen. The bill was, perhaps ironically, dead from the moment of its conception. Originally, the bill had no exception for the victims of rape and incest -- and why would it? The supposed need for the bill was the contention -- based in nothing even remotely resembling fact -- that a fetus is capable of experiencing pain after 20 weeks. Are the fetuses of the victims of rape and incest immune to this supposed agony?

No, the so-called Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act was meant to sidestep concerns about the woman seeking the abortion by putting the fetus front and center. The hope was that the people will believe junk science claims about fetal pain and allow legislators to ignore the rights of crime victims. In other words, the reason the bill didn't exempt victims of rape and incest was because that was a big part of the point of the legislation -- to set a precedent for banning abortion regardless of the method of conception.

And to get people used to the idea that maybe denying abortion rights to the victims of sexual violence wasn't so bad.

But then the bill's sponsor, Trent Franks, decided the time was ripe for some idiotic rape theorizing. This went over as well as these things always go over (anti-abortion zealots are shockingly slow learners on this subject) and an exemption for victims of sexual violence was quietly written into the legislation.

And that's where Republicans exposed their dishonesty.

Imagine this all from the perspective of someone who believed every word in the original bill. What you're voting for is a law against torturing babies to death. Assuming that's what you really believed, would you then support an exception to that law? Would you support allowing a woman to torture her baby to death, just because that child was conceived through rape or incest? I'm kind of thinking you would not. Not in a million years. It would be playing politics in an unconscionable way. In writing in an exception for victims of rape and incest, Republicans proved that the rationale behind the bill was just an excuse, that "fetal pain" wasn't something they actually believed in.

Truth be told, the bill existed because the base demanded it. The hardcore anti-abortion-types saw an opportunity to exploit the grisly case of back alley butcher Kermit Gosnell and managed to convince themselves that all of America was as up in arms about it as they were. Speaker John Boehner spilled the beans on that count, when asked if the vote would further erode his party's chances with women.

"No," he answered. "Listen, after this Kermit Gosnell trial and some of the horrific acts that were going on, the vast majority of the American people believe in the substance of this bill and so do I." Like the existence of fetal pain, there's no evidence at all that the American people support this thing. Another Republican with a better grasp on reality said of the vote, "The stupidity is simply staggering."

Somewhere along the line, the Republican Party seems to have decided they always need some demographic to attack. And apparently it's now women. In addition to assaults on abortion rights, they've been incredibly insensitive about the crisis of sexual assault in the military. Saxby Chambliss argued that when men and women are put together, rape is going to happen -- because that's just natural. Meanwhile, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto thinks that this obsessive concern with so-called "rape" is just an "effort to criminalize male sexuality" as part of a "war on men." They've gone from downplaying rape to denying it even exists. In their minds -- or, at least, in their arguments -- rape is just dating.

"I'm of the opinion now... that if you really were to question [Republicans], that there is a sort of continuity of thought that rape is really not so bad and that the likelihood of getting pregnant is small," Rep. Louise Slaughter said yesterday. While her statement is certain to draw a fair amount of victim cards, it's hard to seriously argue that she's not right.

And it's hard to see this new trend of downplaying rape for political purposes -- or denying it even exists -- working out well for the party in the long run. They lost women in a big way in 2012. This is definitely not the way to win them back.


[photo by WeNews]


In Defense of Private Drones

Private drone with camera
Wonkblog's Timothy Lee has an interesting piece up on the use of commercial drones and states' efforts to come to grips with them. In case you're not familiar with them, these aren't the rather big pilotless aircraft used so controversially by the military. Instead, these are small aircraft like the remote-controlled model planes we're all familiar with -- except they don't look like models of anything. They're generally helicopter-like, with several rotors for increased stability. And, despite the darker associations the word "drone" carries with it, they're extremely useful.

...Because drones are cheap, light and don’t require a pilot, they can be put in the air for a fraction of the cost of a traditional airplane. That has created new opportunities for everyone from real estate firms to oil and gas companies to PETA  – anyone, in fact, who might have use for an eye-in-the-sky, but doesn’t have the money to hire a pilot and a plane. But the dawning era of cheap, private surveillance is leading a lot of states to ask how these private drones should be regulated.

Animal rights groups, for example, have announced plans to use drones to monitor farms for cruelty to animals. Some farmers are upset about the potential invasion of their privacy. So earlier this year, the Idaho legislature passed a drone privacy bill that specifically requires a farmer or rancher’s permission before a “farm, dairy, ranch or other agricultural industry” can be monitored with an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Does such a prohibition violate the First Amendment rights of animal rights advocates? There’s a good chance the answer is “yes,” but the courts have yet to consider the question.

The most obvious use of a private drone is aerial photography. At least, it's obvious to me. And this sort of thing actually isn't all that new. People use kites for the same purpose -- and have for almost as long as photography has existed.

Everyone talks about the downside of private drones, so let's consider the other perspective. For the most part, laws that already protect privacy from prying eyes would protect you from drones. For example, a peeping Tom isn't going to get off on the technicality that he was window-peeping at one remove through the lens of a drone. It's the act that's the crime, not the method. It's understandable that a family farm wouldn't want drones buzzing around staring at them and a balance must be found between First Amendment freedoms and the right to privacy. But like aerial photography, that conundrum existed before drones came along. It's just that PETA couldn't afford to hire helicopters to do the same thing. The only thing that's really changed is the expense. PETA would've been flying around farms with telephoto lenses years ago -- if they had Greenpeace-level funding.

And that's where we really start to get into the benefit for everyone. The expense of using conventional aircraft isn't just in the cost of the machine, but in the cost of the fuel. Small, lightweight, and battery-operated, a drone could conceivably operate with a neutral carbon footprint. And since they're small, they're launched on site, instead of flown in from an airstrip -- in some cases hundreds of miles away. Of the two options when you might need an "eye in the sky," the drone is much greener than conventional aircraft. It won't be much use in surveying tremendous areas of land, but if you want a photo of the farm you're selling, it's pretty much perfect.

As I say, I'm not proposing that we just let people with drones do whatever the hell they want. What I'm saying is that maybe we should wait to see what the problems actually are, instead of writing laws based on speculation that might regulate this technology out of existence. There's a lot of potential for abuse in private drones -- but there's a lot of potential for abuse in anything.

We have to be sure that, in our fear of that potential, we don't overlook the sizeable potential for real benefit.


[photo by FaceMePLS]


Are Selective Reading, Social Media Driving Partisanship?

Sculpture of man reading newspaper, made from newspapers
On the bright side, it's good evidence that rightwing complaints of "liberal media bias" are baloney. A new Gallup poll tracks public confidence in the media and finds that confidence down across the board. Confidence in newspapers is now at 15% for conservatives, 25% for moderates, and 31% for liberals. In television news, it's 18% conservative, 24% moderate, and 26% liberal. Sure, conservatives trust media the least, but if there were any hint of liberal bias, liberals would be pleased as punch with these news outlets.

According to Gallup, the trust in newspapers peaked in 1979 at 51% and has been rocky since. Trust in television, on the other hand, has never been very high -- it topped out at 46% in 1993. The reason for this drop in confidence is fairly clear, according to Gallup:

Americans' confidence in newspapers and television news has been slowly eroding for many years, worsening further since 2007. By that point, newspapers and television news had been struggling for years to figure out how to adjust their strategy for a growing Internet audience.

It was also around that time that social networking sites truly began to proliferate, causing news outlets and journalists to work to find their place on them and serving to expand the role of citizen media and user-generated content. Twitter had launched in 2006, and by 2007-2008 was growing its audience rapidly. Facebook had reached 30 million users by mid-2007 and more than 100 million by the end of 2008.

Unfortunately, a lot of this social media information is complete BS. Your crazy uncle Howard's Facebook links about Barack Obama's secret terr'ist background and his fake birth certificate are not reliable news sources. Yet a Pew study on the state of the media finds that, while TV is still the king (likely driven by local news), online sources are now a close second when it comes to the places where people get their news. Granted, a lot of that online news is still newspaper and TV reporting, but even that old school news reporting is commented on by partisans right there on the page. Further, the links to many of these stories are supplied by people with an ax to grind -- stories that back up their point of view get shared around, those that don't get ignored. Stories about snow storms and cold snaps get passed around by global warming deniers, while stories about steadily rising temperatures, heat waves, and droughts don't.

This selective sharing would result in the appearance of partisanship by the sources shared. In other words, if crazy uncle Howard keeps linking to AP articles about poll numbers and faux scandals, then someone who's not on Howard's side of the divide may begin to wonder how reliable Howard's favorite wire service can be. You never see the stories he ignores; all you get are the "Sarah Palin says Pres. Obama kicked her dog" headlines and never the "Factcheck: Sarah Palin full of crap" ones.

And of course, in the newspaper world, this is all aggravated by the rise of the paywall. If I'm linking to a CNN page, at least you can roam around CNN and see what else they have to say. If a shared link gets you through a newspaper paywall and you've already hit your monthly limit, you can't do that. So most of the time, you're reading a newspaper's online content via partisan sources -- which would in turn make the paper itself seem partisan. Editorial content and blogs are biased, yes. That's the point; they're opinion. But only the most blatant propaganda outlet -- say, the Washington Times -- is actually biased outside of that. Most actual hard news reporting is straightforward.

So ironically, the paywalls may be aggravating the problem they're trying to relieve.

Meanwhile, the rest of the online news sources can be BS factories -- especially those cited by conspiracy-minded rightwingers and talk radio programmed teabaggers. If a big chunk of someone's info comes from Breitbart.com. Michelle Malkin, and Jim Hoft, they're not going to have a lot of trust in the more traditional media outlets -- mostly because the real news so often completely contradicts the propaganda these people put out. This is where the "liberal media bias" myth is most reinforced. People who only believe the things that prop up their ideologies aren't going to trust outlets that put out pesky fact-based journalism than undermines those ideologies. Contradicting your bias is mistaken for bias.

You probably should distrust media -- the careers of people like Judith Miller prove that -- but the distrust of newspapers (not counting tabloids, distrust those as much as you want) is probably overblown. Still, it is what it is and our lack of trust in the media is a sort of feedback loop driving the partisan divide. We can pick and choose our news, so we do. And our choices create false impression about the sources we choose from, while that same selectivity makes us more starkly partisan.


[photo by ollesvensson]


No Money for Firefighters, Thanks to Austerity

Wildfire consumes forest
Welcome to the wonders of austerity!

Grist: Tea Partiers who watched gleefully as the sequester slashed government spending are welcome to douse forest fires near their homes with teapots full of Earl Grey this summer. Across-the-board budget cuts mean federal wildfire fighting efforts could be overwhelmed.

The U.S. Forest Service will hire 500 fewer firefighters this year and 50 fewer fire engines will be available than previously expected, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this week. The Interior Department also plans to pare back its firefighting crews.

The seasonal firefighting jobs are going up in smoke because of Congress’s inability to come up with a national spending plan. President Obama called for spending cuts and tax increases to help balance the budget, but Republicans would have none of the latter.

As they always are when it comes to anything other than military spending, prison-building, or corporate welfare, Republicans are being penny wise and pound foolish. In insisting on deep cuts to spending and in cheering on the sequester, they've managed to save $50 million in Forest Service spending -- or what the pentagon spent about every half hour on a randomly chosen day in 2013. So we'll throw $1.6 billion in a day at defense against foreign armies, but we're not willing to spend that much in a year defending against natural disaster. You might have noticed, we don't get invaded by foreign militaries every year. Spending on natural disasters is somewhat predictable, meaning you can set up an approximate budget for it. We've decided to stop doing this, because we're smart like that.

The result is predictable.

Associated Press: Remains of two people have been found in an area burned by a wildfire that has destroyed at least 360 houses northeast of Colorado Springs.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said one person who was reported missing Wednesday was found safe, but crews on Thursday found the remains of another person reported missing. About an hour later they found the remains of a second person, he said.

The number of homes destroyed by the voracious wildfire, driven in all directions by shifting winds, was likely to climb as the most destructive blaze in Colorado history burned for a third day through miles of tinder-dry woods. It was 5 percent contained.

The destruction surpassed last June’s Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 347 homes, killed two people and caused $353 million in insurance claims just 15 miles to the southwest. The heavy losses were blamed in part on explosive population growth in areas with historically high fire risk.

OK, so this is going to cost more that $353 million in damage, we saved $50 million by firing firefighters, so that works out to one incredibly stupid decision by fiscal geniuses in Washington who are bad at math.

And, of course, this increased need for firefighters isn't a temporary thing. It's the new status quo, thanks in part to inaction by those same fiscal geniuses. "This year’s Western fire season began early with blazes in Southern California," Grist reports, "a phenomenon that California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) blamed on climate change. Last week, the head of the U.S. Forest Service warned Congress that climate change is prolonging the annual wildfire season."

So no, it's not just an extremely bad fire season. It's the new normal and will continue to get worse. We can't spend money on fire fighting, we can't fight global warming, we can just sit here and leak money like a sieve as the bills from natural disasters pile up, because that's what you call your "fiscal conservatism." Oh, and this all happens while we throw $1.6 billion in a day at a military developed for Cold War threats -- you know, the kind of threats that happen to not exist anymore.

As long as we're cutting things, maybe now would be a good time to rethink Republican austerity. It's an luxurious extravagance we really can't afford.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]


How the NSA Controversy Could Make Partisanship Even Worse

Gnus fighting
At first, the story about the NSA's massive domestic surveillance program was actually working in President Obama's favor. A Pew poll showed that most Americans approved of the program, yet it continued to be the big Washington story -- meaning half-baked White House nontroversies like Benghazi or the IRS scandal had been knocked off the front page. The President was able make what would normally have been some controversial moves, mostly under the radar, as the media's attention was fixed on one shiny bauble. For the most part, Republicans -- who would normally have dived on any whiff of scandal -- took the administration's side on the issue. Despite the landmark nature of the revelations, it looked like it was going to be clear sailing.

But then a second poll came out -- this one showing Americans not supportive of PRISM. Then Gallup had similar findings. Now Reuters/Ipsos has a different take, nearly as problematic for the administration:

Roughly one in three Americans say the former security contractor who leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance activity is a patriot and should not be prosecuted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

Some 23 percent of those surveyed said former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is a traitor while 31 percent said he is a patriot. Another 46 percent said they did not know.


Roughly one in three Americans say the former security contractor who leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance activity is a patriot and should not be prosecuted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

Some 23 percent of those surveyed said former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is a traitor while 31 percent said he is a patriot. Another 46 percent said they did not know.

The large "don't know" percentages here are good news for the White House, since these probably represent persuadable people -- although persuadables are a double-edged sword, since they can be persuaded either way.. But the initial numbers aren't good and if you read down further, they get terrible. 45% of respondents said a surveillance program was OK in some circumstances, 37% said it was completely unacceptable and, "only 6 percent say they have no objections to the program."

Let me repeat that last very important statistic: only 6 percent say they have no objections to the program. That's a nightmare number for the White House and NSA supporters in Congress. According to Reuters/Ipsos, PRISM -- as it exists right now -- has nearly zero public support. Some people may find it acceptable with some more restrictions, some won't find it acceptable no matter what changes are made, but almost no one thinks the status quo is fine with them.

I can't help but think back to a column by Nate Silver, written when only the Pew poll was out. In it, he argued that domestic surveillance could become a wedge issue in the upcoming elections. Not an inter-party wedge, but an intra-party one, dividing the electorate in the party primaries. Silver took a look at support for the Patriot ACT and found that this sort of security overreach was least supported by candidates at the far ends of the political spectrum -- although that lack of support fell more heavily on the liberal left than on the more authoritarian right. Still, if there's a domestic surveillance split in a party primary, it'll be between establishment types and insurgents.

Which means these poll numbers could turn out to be bad news for the nation. If these poll numbers continue to hold true, then candidates on the far ends of the political spectrum will have the edge in that debate. When the 2016 smoke clears (or even sooner), we could wind up with an even more polarized Washington, as ideological bookends take more of the seats. They agree on domestic surveillance -- but that's pretty much the extent of the common ground. Otherwise, it's the Tea Party vs. the Occupy movement. Personally, I'd like to see fewer moderate dems -- but if the price is more 'baggers at the same time, then it's too expensive.

I suppose it's the law of unintended consequences coming into play here, but if this turns out the way it looks like it might, Washington has only itself to blame for the ensuing political disaster. By mindlessly supporting a "security at any cost" mindset, they may have dealt the country a staggering blow.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]


Maybe We Aren't so Supportive of the Surveillance State

If the recent Pew poll on the NSA's PRISM program showed a disappointing support for an unprecedented level of domestic surveillance, a new CBS News poll offers cheering disagreement with it. Where the Pew survey found 53% found tracking phone data to investigate terrorism "acceptable," CBS's numbers are much more what you'd hope for from Americans.

In the wake of the recent disclosure of two classified U.S. surveillance programs, most Americans disapprove of the government collecting the phone numbers of ordinary Americans, but approve of its monitoring those suspected of terrorist activity, according to a new CBS News poll.

Seventy-five percent of Americans approve of federal agencies collecting the phone records of people the government suspects of terrorist activity, but a 58 percent majority disapproves of this type of data collection in the case of ordinary Americans.

Majorities of Republicans and independents oppose the government collecting phone records of ordinary Americans; Democrats are divided.

To too many of my fellow liberals, I say pull your heads out of your butts. The concern isn't over who is weilding the power, but that the power exists. If you trust the Obama administration to use this data wisely, that's one thing. But would you have the same trust in overly ambitious liars and cutthroat demagogues like you might find in a Ted Cruz administration or a Scott Walker administration? The potential for abuse is so great and so simple that this program simply should not exist. There's nothing but a thin shred of law -- and no oversight, you don't actually have to prove anything to the court -- that would stop a president from using his data-collection powers to blackmail political enemies or read the emails of of his election opponents' campaign teams.

Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, put it well; "It's the sort of power that if you give it to a corrupt government, you give them the ability to stay in power forever."

So get your hypocrisy under control, recognize that this is about the program, not the executive, and get your ass back over on the right side of history.

So which poll is more accurate? It's hard to say. CBS has a margin for error of three points plus or minus, while Pew has a margin of 3.7%. CBS is more confident in their rsults that Pew, but a 0.7% difference is getting pretty nitpicky. Looking at past performance doesn't tell us much either. After the 2012 election results were in, CBS News/New York Times was off 1.1 points on average, Pew was off 1.5. So not much of a difference there, either. I don't have Nate Silver-type stat skills, so the best I can tell you is you're going to have to wait for more data. Will the next poll back up Pew or CBS?

For all the reasons I've already listed, you've got to root for CBS. Americans should not be comfortable with this and if the CBS numbers are correct, we're still too comfortable with it. I'd want somewhere in the 75-80% category, where the only holdouts are the lunatic 20% who are always on the wrong side of popular results. 58% is close to 60 -- in fact, given the margin for error it could be 60 -- which is about the low end of where I'd like to see the numbers. Ending this program should be expanded background checks-level popular.

Because it has to end. The claim that it might stop a terrorist attack does not make it worth the price. I have a plan that would guarantee no future terrorist attacks in America: lock everyone up in a maximum security prison forever. If you think that idea is insane, then we agree on the principle if not on degree. There are some things that are just going too far, even if -- as my modest proposal would -- they could absolutely guarantee an end to terrorism. Can we agree that some things go too far that could not make that guarantee?

And, as the Boston Marathon tragedy demonstrates so well, the PRISM program -- as incomprehensively huge and mind-bogglingly far-reaching as it is -- cannot make that guarantee. Meanwhile, it makes our democracy vulnerable to corrupt hacks, opportunists, and ideologues. Again, it's not about the person in the White House, it's a about a power that person shouldn't have, no matter who they are. It puts our democracy at risk and if we sacrifice democracy for protection from terrorists, what would we have left worth protecting?


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]


Continuing the Surveillance State

Sea of cell phones

A Pew poll out yesterday has some calling Democratic voters hypocrites on the subject of the surveillance state. In 2006, only 37% answered that NSA surveillance was "acceptable." Today, that number is 64%. The accusation is that Democrats were against it under Bush, but are now for it under Obama. And there's a measure of truth to the charge. When broken down as Democrat, Republican, and Independent, dem voters are the most accepting of NSA snooping under President Obama, by more than ten points. But Democrats can be excused for some of those numbers by the wording of the questions.

In 2006, respondents were asked, "The NSA has been investigating people suspected of terrorism by secretly listening in on phone calls and reading emails without court approval..." The 2013 question is, "NSA has been getting secret court orders to track calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism..." The first asks if you approve of something that is a crime, while the second asks your opinion of something that's not a crime. Independents follow Democrats on this -- though not in the same numbers -- with 55% rejecting illegal wiretaps and 53% accepting the NSA's collection of metadata, where (we're assured) no one listened to the content of the calls. These are, in fact, two very different questions; it should come as no surprise that people gave two very different answers.

Unfortunately, that defense falls apart on another question: "Should the gov't be able to monitor emails if it might prevent future terrorist attacks?" In 2002, 51% of Democrats said no. Today, 53% say yes. Republicans also flip on support, so they're not getting off the hook. But the bright spot in this one is Independents. In 2002, indies were closely divided on email interception -- 45% pro, 49% anti. Today, they are overwhelmingly opposed -- 38% pro, 60% anti.
So the numbers are moving in the right direction, despite partisan hypocrisy. Unfortunately, that movement is not enough to end the program any time soon. With solid majorities supporting the PRISM program as it is, it seems unlikely that we'll see any real changes to it. Pew reports their poll "finds no indications that last week’s revelations of the government’s collection of phone records and internet data have altered fundamental public views about the tradeoff between investigating possible terrorism and protecting personal privacy."

And in Washington, it's difficult to find someone opposed to the program. Writing for The Week, Jon Terbush reports:

Within the government, there is a near-universal consensus that the intelligence operations in question are legal and necessary. Even Republicans, who have taken every opportunity to keep a slew of White House scandals in the news, have lined up behind Obama on the issue.

What that all suggests is that there's practically no political pressure, either from inside the government or from the public, for the White House to curb its counterterrorism efforts and order the NSA to rein in its surveillance.

We used to make jokes about all the phones in the Soviet Union being bugged, now we're fine with a similar situation here. I find this crushingly depressing. Steve Benen observes that "the American mainstream is far less concerned with federal surveillance programs than civil libertarians had hoped. Indeed, the Post/Pew poll found that 45% of the public -- very nearly half -- believe the government should be able to go even further than it currently is when it comes to spying on Americans, so long as the goal is to prevent terrorism."

"And with results like these," he concludes, "the political appetite for changing the law will likely be non-existent."

That's a pity, because this law would be more at home in the old Soviet Union than in the United States of today. America deserves better -- if only Americans would realize this and demand better.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]


Immigration Reform from the White Guy Party? Increasingly Unlikely.

Don't look now, but the GOP is on the verge of committing electoral suicide.

ABC NEWS: Bipartisan meetings in the House of Representatives on a comprehensive immigration reform bill have failed, and the congressmen will meet for the last time today without reaching an agreement on a House bill, ABC News has learned.

The stumbling block is GOP insistence that newly legalized workers now working in the shadows have no access to government-sponsored health care during their 15-year pathway to citizenship, according to two sources with access to the secret house “Gang of 8? meetings.

Democrats say that since these newly legalized immigrants would be paying taxes they should be eligible for benefits.

Was it just months ago that the Republican Party realized they needed to give on comprehensive immigration reform or continue to lose elections? Yes it was. And nothing has changed. "The Republican Party is on bad terms with a long list of voters," Greg Sargent wrote a few days ago. "It has no credibility with African Americans, almost none with young voters, little with Hispanics, and is on the rocks with women."

So why throw the Latino vote away? Steve Benen believes he has the answer. Keeping immigrants off Obamacare is partly about the GOP's unhinged hatred of the reforms, but there's more.

...Republicans’ hatred for Obamacare, and Rubio’s presidential ambitions, both existed a month or so ago, when immigration reform was going swimmingly. So what’s changed? How about the confluence of Obama administration “scandals”—the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups, the Justice Department’s aggressive pursuit of journalists, and the ongoing Benghazi saga—that have re-energized the GOP?

What do those stories have to do with immigration? Here’s what: Let’s set aside the question of just how scandalous these "scandals" really are, and how much they really reflect on the Obama administration or the White House. The point is, the Beltway media has bought into them just enough to create, at least temporarily, a storyline about an administration dogged by political controversy. And that's led Washington Republicans and their conservative allies to believe that they can ride that storyline back to power—just as they tried to do in the late 1990s with the Clinton impeachment. (A related benefit: The IRS story, in particular, is a perfect way for Boehner, McConnell et al. to line up behind the Tea Party and bolster their shaky credibility with the GOP’s activist base.)

If there's one thing the GOP does not want to do, it's change in any meaningful way. Immigration was always a wedge issue to split white voters away from Democrats. But it's been used for so long that what began as a cynical attempt to create division has become a hallmark of the party. In fact, the Obamacare provision the GOP is offering satisfies two cherished GOP wedges -- being immigration hard asses and dog whistle racist messaging that paints minorities as lazy and only interested in getting free stuff from the government. Remember what your mom warned you about -- that if you kept making that face, it'd stay that way? That's the GOP. They've kept making their racist, anti-immigrant face for so long that they can't stop now without alienating their base.

So any excuse to ditch immigration reform will do. "They see a potential way to win back the Senate next year and the White House in 2016 without having to alienate their core supporters by backing immigration reform," Benen explains. "So their motivation for getting behind the project has gone out the window."

Of course, there's no way the IRS story is going to last until 2016. It's falling apart now. It probably won't make it until 2014. The best the GOP can do with it is to use it to excite the base and get them to the polls, but it's already been well-established that the base is not enough. Their past rhetoric has basically painted them into this corner where they can either make a play for Latino voters or pander to the prejudices they've cultivated in their base. They knew it would be difficult to do both, but it's starting to look impossible.

So they need a way out and this is it. They'll say to Latino voters "We gave it a shot" -- and hope there are enough chumps in that demographic to buy it and make the difference. And behind those chumps' backs they'll proclaim to the base, "We did it! We beat immigration reform!" Two-faced as always, the GOP will attempt to have their cake and eat it too.

But I just don't see it working out in the long run. They're going to have to lose the racist wedge issues eventually, so why put it off?


[photo by Fibonacci Blue]


GOP Hyping IRS 'Scandal' to Death

Man screaming
I get the feeling that if you pulled a modern conservative aside and said, "Dial back the rhetoric," they'd stare blankly at you like you'd just spoken in an ancient regional variant of Middle English. I think years of RINO hunting have evolved the part of the brain that controls moderation nearly out of existence. Given an issue on which they have an opinion, they'll become instantly hyperbolic. Everything is the Holocaust, everything is like the Soviet Union, everything is the worst thing ever! A community bikeshare program, for example, is totalitarian government run amok. "I disagree" is never enough. It's always, "I disagree, BECAUSE YOU'RE HITLER!!" Shrill, shrieking, and strident, the modern American conservative has developed a whine high-pitched enough to make anyone's ears ring.

So it's not much of a surprise to learn that Republicans are taking one of their "White House scandals" and keening on about it in a register that can shatter stemware. As the IRS/Tea Party controversy fails to catch fire with the American people -- by virtue of spinning its wheels in the mud -- individual members have apparently decided to crank everything up to eleven and set the nation's teeth on edge. And while they seem to believe that this will elevate the issue, what they're really doing is burying it under piles of BS.

In arguing that the GOP is blowing their big chance to tar Obama, Ed Kilgore points to Dana Milbank's latest column:

A third House committee joined the stampede to examine the IRS on Monday, and its chairman did exactly what you would expect somebody to do before launching a fair and impartial investigation: He went on Fox News Channel and implicated the White House.

Asked by Fox’s Bill Hemmer what he hoped to learn at Monday afternoon’s hearing, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) offered this bit of pre-hearing analysis:

“Of course, the enemies list out of the White House that IRS was engaged in shutting down or trying to shut down the conservative political viewpoint across the country — an enemies list that rivals that of another president some time ago.”

It was a sentence in need of a verb but packed with innuendo. And it is part of an approach by House Republicans that seems to follow the Lewis Carroll school of jurisprudence. Not only are they placing the sentence before the verdict, they’re putting the verdict before the trial.

"Rogers isn't some random Fox personality; he's one of Congress' most powerful officials," Steve Benen reminds us. "And on the IRS story, he's already unhinged, spewing nonsense on national television."

There is, of course, no evidence at all of coordination between the White House and the IRS -- let alone any "enemies list." Even the weak and circumstantial connections being reported by rightwing media are BS. Evidentiary support for actual White House involvement in this "White House scandal" boils down to wishful thinking by wingnuts who fantasize about impeachment. Yet here's Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, assuring Fox News that his investigation is going to find that connection -- before he's even looked. He's dialing this hearing up to eleven, making sure everyone's looking at how earth-shatteringly important it all is. And it's almost certain to be another boring empty net party that tears the "scandal" meme down much more than it builds it up.

Meanwhile, Ed Kilgore points out that Darrell Issa's grandstanding on the issue -- already stalled and going nowhere -- is about to take a bit of a hit. The concept of the sympathetic witness seems to be completely lost on him.

Today’s big hearing in Darrell Issa’s Ways & Means Committee shows another rather glaring problem with the IRS investigation: a cavalcade of “victims”— including four local tea party groups, a near-moribund anti-gay-marriage organization, and an anti-choice organization—which aren’t exactly universally respected. It will be difficult to avoid the impression that the purpose of the hearings is to allow conservatives to whine to each other about the perfidy of the Obama administration—not exactly a new phenomenon. It’s the kind of show that only “the base” is likely to appreciate or, over time, watch at all.

And what are they whining about? That the IRS actually let them claim to be non-political social charities -- like homeless shelters or American Red Cross -- but asked them to them jump through a hoop or two first. Remember, for all the tears and the giant pile of victim cards, none of these organizations were denied tax-exempt status, despite their clearly political purpose. This aspect of this "scandal" already has people scratching their heads -- and Issa thinks it'd be a great idea to expose the public to specific examples. According to The Hill, one of these put-upon "charities" -- the Coalition for Life of Iowa -- "was asked not to protest in front of Planned Parenthood offices as a condition of their tax-exempt application being approved." In other words, before they had their tax-exempt non-political status approved, they needed to stop it with the political activities.

The horror!

By building everything up so high, Republicans can't help but set themselves up for a big fall. The framework of the facts and the evidence can't support the accusations. I'd say that it was all going to come tumbling down like a house of cards, but houses of cards don't make the deafening crash I think we're likely to hear. More like a house of manhole covers. And anyone who doesn't get clear of this teetering tower of giant expectations when it finally collapses stands a good chance of being crushed by it.


[photo by dcarlbom]


Report: Young Voters Not Buying GOP Spin

Occupy Movement
Despite the party's focus on trumped up -- and dissipating -- "scandals," there is still some attention being given to the big Republican rebranding project. It's easy to see how the controversies became the shiny bauble; there was a lot of resistance to rebranding, mostly because it looked a lot like the party would have to abandon core beliefs that were extremely with the voting public. Despite assurances that no, no, no they would only have to speak differently, not legislate differently, many felt this was still going too far. Sure, Todd Akin's rape theorizing hurt the party, they reasoned, but he was right. Or at least, on the right track. And you don't fight the evils of abortion and gay marriage and illegal immigration by never talking about them. Editing party members' speech is censorship and censorship is -- for all intents and purposes -- taking these issues off the table. With scandals, you create reasons to vote against someone, not for you. As a result, you have to change nothing.

And to a certain extent, those skeptics of rebranding are right. You can't legislate against things without ever talking about them. The GOP will need to do more than rebrand -- they'll have to change some policies and give up some lost and losing battles. These people, who make up a big chunk of the party, will have to take the furthest back burners and simmer there forgotten -- probably forever. They don't like that idea, so they resist rebranding. Which also explains why the rebranders call it rebranding. They don't want to lose the nutjobs, because they still need them to turn out. They want their votes, they just want them to shut up about their ideas.

But when you look at the party's problems with different demographics, you see that it's not just the hate-filled social conservatives that are the problem. The problem is everything.

Politico:  A new postmortem on the November elections from the nation’s leading voice for college Republicans offers a searing indictment of the GOP “brand” and the major challenges the party faces in wooing young voters, according to a copy given exclusively to POLITICO.

The College Republican National Committee on Monday will make public a detailed report — the result of extensive polling and focus groups — dissecting what went wrong for Republicans with young voters in the 2012 elections and how the party can improve its showing with that key demographic in the future.

It’s not a pretty picture. In fact, it’s a “dismal present situation,” the report says.

The problem that Republicans face in winning over young voters is that those voters aren't buying GOP spin. They see Republican policies as they plainly are, not as they're presented by the party. So the problem isn't rebranding -- a lot of these issues have already been "rebranded" by spin and propaganda. The problem is that these voters aren't chumps. ThinkProgress' Igor Volsky took a look at the College Republican's report and came away with some key takeaways, including "Climate change is real," "Expand universal health care coverage," and "End the attacks on women’s reproductive health."

But it's in economic issues that the party really takes a beating. Younger voters are not buying their BS. They blame Republicans for the crash and recession, believe that lowering taxes doesn't create jobs, want the wealthy to pay their fair share, want to cut defense spending, say that Bush's wars blew up the deficit, and trust Democrats more on dealing with student loans. And again, almost all of these issues have already been rebranded (i.e., spun), so rebranding isn't the problem here. The core Republican policies are the problem. These voters aren't buying the excuses, they're clear-eyed about the reality.

And it's not that young voters like high taxes and overly strict regulations, they're just not falling for the way the GOP uses these issues as scapegoats to push other agendas. "Policies that lower taxes and regulations on small businesses are quite popular," the report says. "Yet our focus on taxation and business issues has left many young voters thinking they will only reap the benefits of Republican policies if they become wealthy or rise to the top of a big business. We’ve become the party that will pat you on your back when you make it but won’t offer you a hand to help you get there."

In other words, they aren't hearing what Republicans say, they're watching what Republicans do. When all Republican economic policies boil down to a massive giveaway to the wealthy, when the preferred tax structure is a transfer of wealth from the bottom up, when Sen. Joe Barton apologizes to BP for getting our Gulf of Mexico in their oil, it's pretty clear you're dealing with people who serve only the top income earners.

And so I think this report may mark the beginning of the end for the big GOP rebranding effort. When the "serious" fiscal and economic conservatives could blame the social conservative nutbags for their problems, that was one thing. When the economic nutbags are also responsible, that's quite another thing entirely. If the GOP were to fix both problems, what would be left? They'd have to go back to Eisenhower -- who I'm pretty sure most modern Republicans would call a communist. There is no scapegoat to drive out of the village carrying the parties sins -- the whole village is awash in those sins. The only way to win over new voters is to stop standing for what has come define modern conservatives -- Reaganaut "trickle-down" BS and social politics of hatred and exclusion.

When the answer to the question, "How do Republicans attract new voters?" becomes, "Stop being Republicans," both the question and answer will be ignored. At its core the question really is, "How do we survive?"

And the unwelcome answer is, "You don't."


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]