Ben Adler | The Nation

Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Conservative Media Smears Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/HO, Martin Family Photos)

As someone who covers conservatives full time, there is little left for them to do or say that can actually shock me. But in the last few days they have managed to do it by impugning the late Trayvon Martin with misleading and dishonest attacks on his character and justifications for his murder. They’ve also eagerly played to racist whites by perversely accusing African-American politicians of trying to capitalize on Martin’s tragic murder merely because they’ve expressed appropriate concern over it.

For those who don’t know, Martin, 17, was walking to his father’s house in Sanford, Florida, when a local busybody named George Zimmerman called the police to report his unfounded suspicions that Martin was up to no good. Even though the dispatcher told Zimmerman to leave the matter to the police, who were on their way, Zimmerman followed Martin, got into a confrontation with him and shot him. Liberals and civil rights advocates across the country have been outraged that Zimmerman is not being charged in Martin’s death because he claims he was acting in self-defense and Florida has a “stand your ground law,” promoted by national conservative groups such as the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, that allows one to commit murder in self-defense.

Even if you support a right to bear arms and to act in self-defense, the conduct of local law enforcement authorities has been obviously wrong. It would be different if Martin had approached Zimmerman, attempted to mug him and then been shot. But Zimmerman’s own account, bolstered by recorded phone calls, is that he followed Martin and started the encounter. Even if Martin physically harmed or threatened Zimmerman in response, the culpability would be Zimmerman’s in this case.

Most of the conservative media have not only sided with Zimmerman but smeared the dead boy. On Fox News, Geraldo Rivera suggested that Martin had invited trouble by wearing a hooded sweatshirt, as millions of law-abiding young Americans, myself included, regularly do. He later appeared on the O’Reilly Factor to defend himself from charges that he was blaming the victim. Bill O’Reilly commiserated with Geraldo that he was being unfairly maligned, just as O’Reilly had been when he said that a young woman who goes out and gets drunk invites whatever misfortune may subsequently befall her, including murder.

Other conservatives have gone to shocking and disgusting lengths to impugn Martin. The Daily Caller—a lowbrow smear machine run by the overgrown preppie Tucker Carlson—published Martin’s Twitter feed. The DC doesn’t explain why Martin’s tweets are even remotely relevant, because they are not. But the implication, just like reports that Martin was suspended from school for possessing an empty bag with traces of marijuana, is that by being a normal teenager he was a bad person who deserved what happened to him.

Some of the worst actors of all in this affair have been the local police, working in concert with lazy or biased reporters. They have taken Zimmerman’s word as fact, notwithstanding his enormous incentive to lie and the fact that the other witness, Martin, is dead at Zimmerman’s hand and unable to respond. Consider this sensationalized, one-sided, irresponsible lead from the Orlando Sentinel on Monday: 

With a single punch, Trayvon Martin decked the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who eventually shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old, then Trayvon climbed on top of George Zimmerman and slammed his head into the sidewalk, leaving him bloody and battered, law-enforcement authorities told the Orlando Sentinel.

That is the account Zimmerman gave police, and much of it has been corroborated by witnesses, authorities say.

It opens as if Martin beating up Zimmerman were established fact, when it is actually merely Zimmerman’s account. The police have repeatedly cited, and in this case leaked, Zimmerman’s side of the story as justification for their inaction. (Lawrence O’Donnell gave the Sentinel reporter an appropriate dressing down on MSNBC Monday night.)

Martin’s mother is understandably suspicious that the police are also behind the revelation of his school suspension.

Meanwhile, the conservative media has been eagerly lapping up these reports to justify Martin’s killing.

Much of the right wing media has sided with Zimmerman on starkly racial grounds. Consider this blog post from Red State:

The left is in full spin mode now that the crazies of the New Black Panther Party has assumed the spotlight in the Trayvon Martin controversy. They are in fact an arm of the Democrat party though. It’s just another example of how out of touch the Dem party has become to average folks. The NBP are embraced until of course they do something as crazy as putting a bounty on someone’s head until all the evidence is presented. The more we hear about this story the more evidence mounts that Zimmerman acted in self defense. He did have a broken nose and a head injury but all that evidence is brushed aside by the lefties. A witness stated that he was the one screaming for help but that is all but ignored by the left and race hustlers alike.

“Average folks,” apparently, are white people, not families like Martin’s. (If you’re wondering what the obscure, marginal New Black Panther Party has to do with this case, the answer is nothing. They’ve offered a $10,000 bounty on Zimmerman, and right wingers are gladly pretending that this has something to do with everyone else who is concerned that Zimmerman may be getting away with murder.)

Even conservatives who have taken a reasonable stance on Martin’s murder itself are being deliberately blind about the larger implications. For example, multiple writers at National Review, while admitting Martin’s killing was unjustified, have complained that African-American politicians are noting that Martin was black and his assailant is Latino. “I do not think it is wise for the president to further inject race into the incident, when it’s not quite clear what role, if any, skin color played,” tsked NR’s Robert VerBruggen.

Veteran race-baiter Newt Gingrich concurred, calling Obama’s expression of concern for the role race may have played in Martin’s killing “disgraceful.” In a naked appeal to racist white sentiment disguised as a plea for color-blindness, Gingrich asked, absurdly, “Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot that would be OK because it didn’t look like him?” Gingrich’s comments, just like Zimmerman’s claims, were uncritically recycled on conservative Web sites such as World Net Daily.

Other conservative commentators have attacked Obama on grounds so bizarre it’s hard to tell whether they are being serious. Rush Limbaugh claimed on Tuesday that the Obama campaign “is exploiting the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in order (obviously, here) to secure votes (as though he needs them) from African-Americans.” How are they doing that? By “selling hoodies that say, ‘Obama 2012’ on them.” Surely Limbaugh must know that every campaign raises money through selling campaign gear. If Martin had been wearing a t-shirt or baseball cap would Limbaugh accuse Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney of trying to capitalize on Martin’s death?   

Conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas argues that Martin’s killing should be viewed no differently than any time a black teenager is murdered. “In light of the number of young black men who are too often gunned down on America's streets, what's different about the Trayvon Martin case?” Thomas rhetorically demanded. “Would Al Sharpton have made the trip to Florida if Martin had been white? Not likely.” Thomas goes on to impugn Sharpton for his role in the case of Tawana Brawley, a black woman who falsely accused white cops of raping her. While Sharpton certainly owes the cops a long overdue apology, it’s utterly irrelevant to this case. So is the question of why Sharpton and Jesse Jackson don’t comment on every teenager’s murder. What such complaints ignore is that the problem isn’t merely whether Zimmerman followed and harassed Martin because of Martin’s race. When one black teenager shoots another, and admits to it, the police arrest him and prosecutors charge him. This case is different because the police aren’t doing that. No one—except a willfully blind conservative partisan—thinks the police would behave the same way if the victim and shooter’s races were reversed. 

VerBruggen also wrote of Martin’s marijuana suspension, “This does lend credence to one small aspect of Zimmerman’s story—that Martin caught his attention because the 17-year-old looked like he was ‘on drugs.’ No drugs were found on Martin’s person, but so far as I can tell, the autopsy report has not been made public.” I’m guessing VerBruggen is not part of the two-thirds of American adults under the age of 54 who have tried marijuana. Otherwise, he’d know how ridiculous he sounds when suggesting that because someone was once caught with an empty bag containing trace amounts of the substance that they were likely to have been visibly “on drugs” while walking down the street. What does one look like when they may have recently smoked a little weed? Like this

The New York Post has been especially eager to cater to racist white sentiments, writing on their front page Tuesday that Martin’s death has been “hijacked” by “race hustlers.” They’re right about that, but wrong about identifying a group of black Democrats as the hustlers in question. The only race hustlers using Martin’s death to their political advantage are white Republicans such as Limbaugh and Gingrich.

Paul Ryan’s Gift to Obama

As George Zornick reported last week, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s budget for the coming fiscal year would have a devastating impact on the poor, elderly and disabled. By turning Medicare into a private voucher system and Medicaid into a block grant program, along with cuts to food stamps, it paints a frightening picture of what would happen if Republicans sweep the next election. Ryan’s plan enjoys enough support to pass in the House. In the Senate, which Republicans are likely to take over because Democrats have so many more seats up for re-election, it would only need a simple majority since budget bills can avoid being filibustered.

And that is why Ryan’s budget helps President Obama. If Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, replaced Obama in the White House, along with a Republican Congress, the Ryan plan would become law. Romney has been a supporter of Ryan’s draconian budgets in the past and he remains so today.

But this places Romney in a bit of a pickle. He must carry older voters by a wide margin to offset Obama’s strength among young voters. He knows what, which is why he disingenuously attacks Obama for cutting Medicare spending as part of the Affordable Care Act. (While that’s technically true, Obama was simply removing wasteful subsidies to private insurers through the Medicare Advantage program. No senior’s coverage was adversely affected. Meanwhile, Romeny supports undoing Medicare altogether.)

Meddling with Medicare and Social Security is very unpopular among seniors, even conservative ones. That’s why the Affordable Care Act faced such strong, and often incoherent, opposition from some older voters, epitomized by the infamous phrase “get your government hands off my Medicare!”

Romney must staunchly support the Ryan budget to burnish his suspect conservative credentials among the Republican base. But that allows Democrats to attack Romney for supporting the budget’s unpopular measures.

That’s why the Democratic National Committee happily blasted out a press release on Sunday with the subject line “Paul Ryan: Mitt Romney Will Enact My Budget.”

“Don’t take it from us,” read the DNC press release, “the architect of the Republican plan to end Medicare as we know it said himself during an interview on Face the Nation that Mitt Romney would enact his extreme budget if he were elected President. That means turning Medicare into a voucher program, increasing health care costs to seniors by thousands of dollars, and making arbitrary cuts to programs essential to middle-class families—all while giving massive tax cuts to the wealthiest and protecting taxpayer subsidies to oil companies and hedge fund managers.”

The Obama campaign instantly started hitting Romney directly for supporting the Ryan budget. Speaking to retirees last week in South Florida—an area filled with seniors who are disproportionately likely to vote and who could determine the results in that large swing state—Vice President Joe Biden warned of what Republicans would do to Medicare. “We believe in strengthening Medicare, and they don’t,” Biden said. “We can make Medicare solvent again. We don’t have to gut it to make it last.”

Expect protecting Medicare to be Obama’s equivalent of President Clinton’s famous pledge to “Save Social Security First” this fall.

The GOP Assault on the Voting Rights Act

Last week the Department of Justice denied preclearance to Texas’s law requiring voters to present photo identification under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires states and jurisdictions with a demonstrated history of passing discriminatory election laws to get approval from the DOJ for any change to laws governing the time, place or manner in which an election is conducted.

Within days Texas filed a challenge in federal court arguing that Section 5 is unconstitutional. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott maintains that the federal government exceeded its authority and violated the Tenth Amendment when it passed the measure.

Conservative opponents of civil rights are eager to see that challenge succeed. Writing in National Review—which opposed the civil rights movement—vice chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights and conservative scholar Abigail Thernstrom argues that Section 5 is outdated. National Review’s evolution on the subject is the standard conservative slither on civil rights. First you oppose it. Then, when society has evolved and you look like a bigot, you accept it. Then, as soon as humanly possible, you argue it was necessary at the time but no longer is. 

“The Voting Rights Act was absolutely essential in ending the brutal regime of racial subjugation in the South, but it has become a period piece—anti-discrimination legislation passed at a time when southern blacks were kept from the polls by violence, intimidation, and fraudulent literacy tests,” writes Thernstrom. “Those disfranchising devices are as unlikely to return as segregated water fountains.” Thernstrom focuses most of her argument on the question of redistricting, and she argues that increasing residential integration and ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within minority communities makes the creation of majority-minority districts either unnecessary or impossible. “The notion of a ‘black community’ as the foundation of a black legislative district is also becoming an anachronism.”

There are two separate arguments being advanced by civil rights opponents: that Section 5 is unconstitutional because it falls outside the federal government’s enumerated powers, and that it is bad policy. Both are bogus. Section 5 is clearly constitutional, and we very much need it to protect the right to vote.

When Texas votes for seats in the House and Senate or the presidency, the results affect every American. Thus it is in the national interest to insure that elections are conducted fairly. “Not having discrimination in the electoral process is important to all of us,” says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau.

Congress has the authority to regulate national elections, and it has the power under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution to protect the rights of African-Americans from state governments. “Congress has broad authority to regulate procedures for federal elections under Article I, Section IV of the Constitution,” notes Daniel Tokaji, an election law expert at Ohio State University. “Because Texas ID requirement would apply to federal elections, we don’t even need to get into the question of whether Section 5 falls within Congress’s Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment power.” While Tokaji agrees that imposing federal power over redistricting may raise some constitutional questions, the Texas complaint maintains that the federal government has no business telling states not to disenfranchise their citizens.

Moreover, contra Thernstrom, southern blacks are indeed being kept from the polls today. Case in point: the Texas voter ID law itself. Blacks and Latinos in Texas are disproportionately likely not to have driver’s licenses other forms of state-issued photo identification, as are poor people and the disabled. As the DOJ noted in making its decision, “According to [Texas’s] own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification.” Texas did not collect data for African-Americans. But national studies have shown they too are less likely than whites to have the requisite ID. The DOJ has also recently denied preclearance to a similar law in South Carolina for the same reason. (South Carolina is also suing the DOJ, but they are not claiming that the law is unconstitutional, only that it is being incorrectly applied.)

This is not an isolated incident. Every time the VRA is renewed, Congress documents that it is still needed by examining allegations of vote suppression. “[Section 5] has stopped laws from going into effect that would restrict minority participation,” says Nancy Abudu, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. The most recent renewal was in 2006, when Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress and the White House, so it can hardly be characterized as a Democratic power grab. “[In 2006] Congress did a very good job of collecting the evidence of why Section 5 remains necessary,” says Abudu.

“The only places covered by Section 5 have a history of discrimination,” explains Shelton. “Every state under Section 5 was reviewed carefully for its record and complaints. [Opponents] are right: it is an extraordinary measure to take that is inconsistent with states’ rights. But these are states that have proven bad behavior. The law is protecting the participation of all eligible Americans.”  

Romney Joins Gas Price Pander

For someone running for office on the strength of his knowledge and experience in the free-market economy, Mitt Romney sure is spouting a lot of ignorant nonsense. Romney has used the same epithet—“doesn't understand the economy”—against both President Obama and Newt Gingrich.

But Romney is contradicting basic economic facts on the campaign trail this week. He has adopted Gingrich’s demagogic strategy of blaming President Obama for rising gas prices. On Sunday Romney told Fox News there is “no question” Obama’s policies are responsible for prices at the pump. “He said that energy prices would skyrocket under his views, and he selected three people to help him implement that program. The secretary of energy, the secretary of interior and EPA administrator. And this gas hike trio has been doing the job over the last three-and-a-half years, and gas prices are up.” Romney has repeated those comments at campaign events on Sunday and Monday. 

Romney, of course, is pulling a bait-and-switch when he claims Obama stated a goal of raising gas prices. Obama did say that his cap-and-trade proposal would raise prices of electricity, which Romney conflates with gasoline by collectively lumping them as energy. But cap-and-trade did not pass. Romney fails to specify which policies Obama has enacted that have raised the price of petroleum, because there aren’t any. The only argument Republicans such as Romney and Gingrich can muster is that Obama has rejected some proposals to drill for oil or build pipelines in environmentally precarious locations.

Aggregate domestic oil drilling has actually risen under Obama. But that doesn’t matter. Suppose it had declined. Oil is a global, fungible commodity. As demand increases in industrializing nations such as China and India, prices are sure to rise eventually. Global supply of oil is finite, so there is no way that global demand can increase indefinitely without prices going up.

You’d think from listening to Romney and Gingrich that they were ideological fellow travelers of Hugo Chávez. After all, their proposal to reduce American gas prices would help only if we nationalized the oil industry. If we continue to operate as a free-market economy, then ExxonMobil will sell the oil they drill here to the highest bidder, not necessarily the American consumer.

Even if we did nationalize the oil industry, increased drilling would have a limited impact on prices. We account for about 25 percent of global annual oil consumption, while we have only 2 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.

So there are two possibilities: either Romney doesn’t understand how the economy works, or he is just a dishonest craven panderer. Considering that he holds two advanced degrees from Harvard, counts on Harvard professors as economic and foreign policy advisers and cites Harvard professors in his speeches—while bashing Obama for “taking advice from the Harvard faculty lounge”—my guess is that the answer is the latter.

Will Running to the Right Hurt Romney?

Many liberals, and increasingly even mainstream journalists, believe that Republican candidates—including likely nominee Mitt Romney—are doing irreparable damage to their general election prospects. MSNBC hosts such as Rachel Maddow gleefully chortled for hours on end that Romney will be radioactive to women in November because of his failure to reprimand Rush Limbaugh for calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a prostitute after she testified to Congress in favor of health insurance covering contraception. ABC’s The Note ran a recent dispatch titled, “Are Republican Hopefuls Swinging Too Far Right?”

“Although running to the right is part of Republican primary politics, some are starting to worry,” writes ABC’s Alicia Tejada. “With Santorum’s surge, Romney has been forced to move to the right, too, taking positions his supporters admit may make it harder to win the votes independents in the fall if he is the nominee.”

But is it true? In some limited instances it is, such as extreme Republican stances on immigration alienating Latinos. But in general, eight months is a very long time in politics. No one should think that a minor kerfuffle such as Limbaughgate would determine the 2012 election.

Most swing voters and irregular voters who make decisions at the last minute about whether to vote and who to vote for are not political junkies. They do not pay close attention to political shenanigans in March. The sort of people who care what Romney didn’t say about what Rush Limbaugh said about a law student are already partisans of the left or right. They are not swing voters, and if they are, they will have moved on to more current or significant issues by November. There were probably some Republicans in the spring of 2008 that were convinced Barack Obama would never be elected president with a pastor like Jeremiah Wright. But voters don’t hold politicians responsible for what someone else said or did. If Obama could survive being associated with Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers, Romney can survive this. “Just like Bill Ayers made a lot of noise in the summer of ’08 at the expense of Obama but failed to matter by November, this election will not be won or lost on Rush Limbaugh, contraception or Sandra Fluke,” says Leonardo Alcivar, a Republican consultant who has worked on several presidential campaigns.

Like Wright and Ayers, linking Romney to Limbaugh is useful for Democrats because it makes their base see a relatively reasonable-seeming opponent as a hostile culture warrior. “I just don’t think there are that many swing voters voting on the issue of contraception that view anything said by Mitt Romney as that offensive or even problematic,” says Soren Dayton, a veteran of John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “It’s a great way to raise money for Democrats, I think it’s really smart, but it’s not about swing voters. It’s a way to turn up the outrage machine.”

The Democrats’ best bet to make Limbaugh’s comments stick to Romney is to make it part of a larger character issue: Mitt Romney the gutless panderer wouldn’t stand up for what he knows is right. That’s what Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel attempted on Thursday when he said Romney “doesn’t have the fortitude, the strength or the character in my view to stand up to Rush Limbaugh.”

The Latino vote, on the other hand, is a real issue for Romney. Anti-immigration sentiment in the Republican Party has alienated Latino voters. Even though Senator John McCain (R-AZ) had advocated comprehensive immigration reform, the GOP’s damaged brand among Latinos caused him to perform far worse among them than did President Bush. (In 2004 Bush won 44 percent of Latinos, McCain received only 31 percent of their vote.) The sharpest minds in the GOP—from Karl Rove down—know that if they do not correct this Republicans will be at a growing disadvantage as the Latino population booms. But Romney, desperately seeking issues on which he can credibly claim to be more conservative than his primary opponents, has doubled down on anti-immigration rhetoric. He has attacked Texas Governor Rick Perry for favoring a state-level law that would make children brought here illegally eligible for in-state college tuition, and gone after Newt Gingrich for saying that after twenty-five years, a law-abiding, taxpaying resident with family here should not be deported if she came illegally.

A recent Obama campaign memo boasts, “According to recent polls, the two leading contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, may very well have already sealed the political fate of their party with the Hispanic electorate—the fastest growing voting bloc in the country. Their extreme rhetoric on immigration during the televised debates has rejected our history as a nation of immigrants and alienated millions of Hispanic voters nationally.”

Republican strategists concede it will make it hard for the Republican nominee to win over Latinos. “I think it’s more likely to be the case that immigration is a problem than the Sandra Fluke stuff,” says Dayton. “It’s not plausible that Mitt Romney’s going to be held accountable for something he didn’t say, whereas Romney and Republicans overall are on a dangerous trajectory with Latinos that really challenges putting together winning coaitions in some parts of the country.”  

But Obama faces his own potential problems with Latinos. Like everyone, they are disappointed by the slow economic recovery. And Obama, while stepping up border security and deportations, hasn’t made a meaningful push for immigration reform.

Republicans are trying to win over Latinos on an economic appeal. Romney’s campaign frequently blasts Latino-targeted press releases. Polls suggest this has yet to work.

And Democrats are responding that Republican proposals to shred the social safety net will hurt Hispanics. “Mitt Romney’s economic plan embraces the ‘cut, ap and balance’ approach in the House that will require cuts to Medicare,” said Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) in a Friday conference call on the upcoming Puerto Rico primary. “And he supports Paul Ryan’s plan that would end Medicare as know it. The Ryan plan will shift the cost of healthcare onto seniors.”

Running against the Ryan plan, and Romney’s support for it, is a good strategy with virtually any demographic.

Goodbye Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at the Alabama primary night rally Tuesday, March 13, 2012, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Newt Gingrich may not drop out of the race just yet, but his campaign for president is effectively finished. On Tuesday, Rick Santorum won both Mississippi’s and Alabama’s primaries. Gingrich came in second, but that’s not good enough. Last week Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said they had to win both Mississippi and Alabama, and everywhere else in the Deep South to remain a credible candidate. “From Spartanburg [SC] all the way to Texas, those all need to go for Gingrich,” Hammond said.

On Super Tuesday Gingrich won only one state—Georgia, which he represented in Congress—out of ten. Santorum picked up several states and gave Romney a scare in the key battleground of Ohio. It is clear that Rick Santorum has firmly supplanted Gingrich as the leading conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.

This is especially so because of the geographic distribution of each candidate’s support. As this map of the results prior to Tuesday demonstrates, Gingrich’s support has been isolated to the South. The only states he won are South Carolina and Georgia, and the only counties he won elsewhere were in Northern Florida and a few spots in Oklahoma. Romney dominates the Northeast, Southwest and urban Midwest. Santorum wins the rural Midwest and Great Plains.

This didn’t give Gingrich a plausible path to the nomination. But if he won Mississippi and Alabama, he could have stayed in the race as a potential power-broker. A Republican who wins all the Deep South primaries has a credible claim to represent the heart of the party’s base.

But Gingrich can no longer claim to represent the soul of the GOP any more than Santorum. Santorum won Tennessee and Oklahoma on Super Tuesday, and so he is as much the South’s preferred candidate as Gingrich. Unlike Gingrich, Santorum also has won or come in a close second in many states outside the South.

When Gingrich comes to the South, he deftly deploys culture war appeals. It worked in South Carolina. He tried it again this past week. But it didn’t work well enough this time. Republicans—especially the ultraconservative in the South—badly want to beat Barack Obama, and they know it’s time to narrow the field.

The Gingrich campaign maintains they are still in the race. Speaking on MSNBC, Gingrich’s daughter Jackie said Tuesday’s results show “we’re still very strong.… we’re moving on to Illinois and Louisiana.” So they’re not dropping out for now. Gingrich, addressing supporters in Birmingham, insisted he intends to go all the way to the Republican convention in August. Since Gingrich came in second in both states, he portrayed the night’s results as proof of Romney’s weakness. “If you keep coming in third you’re not much of a front-runner,” Gingrich cracked. In a typical Gingrichian flourish, he noted that “the conservative candidates” won 70 percent of the vote, and that “the elite media’s effort” to declare Romney’s nomination inevitable is incorrect. He delivered these lines, and most of his speech, with a scowl on his face.

But Gingrich looked gleeful recounting how the Obama administration has become defensive on the price of gasoline, thanks to Gingrich’s preposterous promises that he would lower gas to $2.50 per gallon. As Jackie correctly noted on MSNBC, “my father is the only Republican driving the conversation,” pointing to Obama’s responses to Gingrich on gas prices.

That’s true enough. But it is nothing of which he should be proud. Gingrich is making a stupid, nonsensical argument, and in doing so he is damaging what is left of his shredded reputation for intellectual seriousness.

Michele Bachmann made an equally loony promise to reduce the cost of gasoline to less than $2 per gallon through increased drilling. The problem is that petroleum is a fungible commodity and the price is set by global supply and global demand, not merely domestic production. Moreover, the United States uses roughly 25 percent of the world’s oil, while it has only 2 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. Anyway, domestic oil production has risen under Obama. Bachmann may have the excuse that she does not know or understand these facts. Gingrich probably does understand how commodities markets work, but he is acting like a moron to get attention.

It may be hard to remember now, but before he ran for president Gingrich had largely reinvented himself. He had resigned as Speaker of the House as a disgraced, unpopular embarrassment to his party. For a decade Gingrich tried to revive the more appealing aspect of his public persona: the earnest futurist wonk. He worked in think tanks and advocacy groups, wrote books and articles, and partnered with Nancy Pelosi on climate change and Al Sharpton on education reform. If Gingrich hadn’t run for president, it might not have been outside the realm of possibility that he could receive an appointment from the next Republican administration. If nothing else, he would have had some influence from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute and Fox News.

Instead, Gingrich’s campaign reminded everyone of his most unsavory characteristics. It brought renewed attention to his serial infidelity. Mitt Romney lambasted his lobbying for Freddie Mac. Gingrich made polarizing appeals to racial resentment. The entire Republican establishment came out to squash his candidacy, publicly reminiscing about his poor leadership in the House. He will leave the campaign, whenever that happens, as a divisive has-been.

Santorum’s wins do not mean Romney is no longer the most likely nominee. Romney won the Hawaii primary, the caucus in American Samoa and some delegates from his reasonably close third-place finishes in the South. He remains far ahead in total delegates.

Contrary to what some have suggested, Romney will not select Gingrich as his running mate. Aside from the fact that the two men clearly hate each other, no one would choose a running mate with Gingrich’s liabilities. If there is a Romney presidency, Gingrich will be on the outside. 

Will the Courts Protect Voting Rights?

Last week brought two rare pieces of good news for voting rights advocates. In Wisconsin, Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan granted a temporary injunction, requested by the NAACP’s Milwaukee branch and immigration rights group Voces de la Frontera, preventing implementation of the state’s photo identification requirement for voting. Meanwhile, the Third Circuit of the US Court of Appeals reaffirmed a 1982 consent decree preventing the Republican National Committee from intimidating minority voters.

Unfortunately, voter intimidation and disenfranchisement will still occur, in Wisconsin and throughout the country. 

The Wisconsin law, passed last spring, is facing four suits. The first, which is before Judge Flanagan with a trial set to start April 16, argues that a photo identification requirement violates the right of every citizen to vote guaranteed by the Wisconsin state constitution. The League of Women Voters has filed a similar suit, and argued their case last week in front of Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess.

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, is appealing Flanagan’s injunction to the state Court of Appeals. It will ultimately end up in the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority. Much like their counterparts in the US Supreme Court, those judges reliably side with Republicans and conservatives. They are unlikely to overturn the law, which was passed by a Republican legislature and signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker. “The state will win this 4-3,” predicts Sam Munger, a researcher at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, a think tank at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. 

There are also two challenges to Wisconsin’s law in federal court. One, brought by the Advancement Project, argues that the law violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Another, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, makes the same argument and also contends that it violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. In southern states, such as Georgia and Texas, when voting rights advocates wish to challenge a photo ID law, they have a more powerful weapon at their disposal. Section 5 of the VRA governs only southern states with a history of racially discriminatory voting laws. In those states, showing a racially discriminatory impact can overturn a voting law. In Wisconsin, Section 5 does not apply and so a challenge must be brought under Section 2 of the VRA, which gives the state more leeway and places a higher burden of proof with regard to discrimination. 

In 2007 the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s photo ID requirement. That challenge was on constitutional grounds. That means the VRA Section 2 argument is untested, but experts say it is unlikely to prevail. While it is virtually impossible that the Supreme Court will overturn a similar law on the same constitutional grounds, it could hold that an otherwise constitutional measure violates the 14th Amendment when applied to certain groups. 

The consent decree between the Democratic and Republican National Committees is unlikely to be overturned. However, it does not prevent voter intimidation from happening. The agreement, which dates back to 1982, prevents the RNC from coordinating efforts to harass, disenfranchise or discourage likely Democratic voters by challenging their right to vote at the polling place. The consent decree is a court-supervised settlement to a suit brought at the time by the DNC alleging that RNC programs to prevent voter fraud resulted in the intimidation of minority voters, violating the Constitution and the VRA. But that just means that such efforts are left to state and local parties or outside organizations.  

The RNC sought to get rid of the consent decree, and a district Court ruled that it would remain in place for another eight years. A three-judge panel on the Appeals Court upheld continuing the consent decree and raised the possibility of keeping it beyond the eight-year time frame. As the ruling noted, the RNC has not been able to produce evidence of actual voter fraud taking place. Therefore, it is hard to see why they require the freedom to conduct programs meant to combat it that may have a discriminatory impact. “It’s important as symbolic victory rather than actually preventing RNC from doing anything,” says Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UC Irvine. 

This may not even be the final word. As Hasen noted in a blog post, “I do not know if the RNC will try for a rehearing en banc in the third circuit, but a motion for an injunction pending appeal to the Supreme Court Justice in charge of the Third Circuit, Justice Alito, does not seem to far-fetched to me.”


Bad News for Voting Rights in Swing States

Pennsylvania is a large, crucial swing state that leans a bit more Democratic than its neighbor Ohio. President Obama must win Pennsylvania if he is to retain the White House. That’s about to become more difficult.

Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state Senate passed a bill Wednesday—on a mostly party-line vote—to require that voters show photo identification in order to vote. Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, supports the bill and will sign it into law once the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives passes it. Voter identification laws disenfranchise those without a photo ID. Multiple studies have shown that people without IDs are more likely to belong to a Democratic-leaning constituency, such as low-income, minority or young voters. It can also fall especially hard on people with disabilities and the elderly. That’s why Democrats oppose such a law. And as the Associated Press reports, “Counties, civil liberties advocates, labor unions, the AARP and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also objected to the bill.”

The AP also notes, “The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has warned lawmakers that adding the additional step of requiring poll workers to check photo IDs will create longer Election Day lines at polling places.” Long lines at polling booths can cause people to give up and go home. That happened in many Ohio polling places in 2004. Some experts, such as Mark Crispin Miller of New York University, argue that those problems in Ohio may have thrown the election to President Bush.

The Pennsylvania bill is actually more moderate than many of its progenitors in states such as Georgia. Valid identification includes a student ID card from a Pennsylvania college or university, identification from a personal care home or employee cards for county or municipal workers. Voters without identification will be able to cast provisional ballots. However, they would then have to return within six days to prove their eligibility. Such an onerous burden will often go unmet, meaning votes will be thrown out.

Pennsylvania would become the third-largest state, after Texas and Florida, to require voters to produce photo identification. Florida is another large, important swing state. Voting rights have long been a contentious issue in Florida. Many Democrats and civil rights leaders believe that Governor Jeb Bush’s administration allowed George W. Bush to beat Al Gore in Florida in 2000 by ordering a purge of the names of felons from voting rolls. Such purges often ensnare legitimate voters with the same names and prevent them from voting. Thanks to the War on Drugs, felons in Florida are disproportionately black and Latino, as are people with the misfortune to share their names.

African-American Democratic state senators in Florida are trying to find ways to expand opportunities for citizens to vote, but Republicans are stymieing them. As the Miami Herald reported on Wednesday:

Deciding that the proposal was off topic, Senate leaders refused to allow African-American senators to tag a proposal expanding early voting onto voter identification legislation.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale, filed an amendment to HB 1461 that would have given counties the option of opening early voting locations on the Sunday before an election day. Last year, the Legislature approved sweeping new election law that, among other things, limited early voting hours and prohibited early voting within 72 hours of an election. 

Don’t worry, though, that Florida Senate Republicans have abandoned civil rights altogether. They made sure to amend the bill to prevent voting clerks from scanning the photo IDs they require voters to show. As the Herald reports:

Senators approved a different amendment sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart. That proposal allows voters to opt out of having their driver licenses scanned at the polls.

The state’s supervisors of elections requested the option of scanning licenses, saying it will expedite the registration process during high-turnout election days. But Negron said civil liberties were at stake and people should be allowed to vote without potentially giving poll workers access to private information.

“This is the defining moment of the Libertarian caucus of the Senate,” Negron said while urging senators to approve his amendment.

It passed on a voice vote, eliciting cheers from conservative senators.

“Freedom,” Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, shouted after the vote while pumping his fists in the air.

This is a twofer for Republicans: they get to pose as defenders of small government, while ensuring long lines thanks to the ID requirement. Tea Party Republicans say they support civil liberties, but they make a big exception for the right to vote.

Romney’s Worsening Working-Class Voter Problem

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves after voting in the Massachusetts primary in Belmont, Massachusetts, Tuesday, March 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

As of 11:40 pm Tuesday night, Ohio’s crucial Republican primary was too close to call, long after the polls had closed. With 91 percent of precincts reporting, Mitt Romney led Rick Santorum by just over 5,000 votes out of more than a million cast. Basically, Ohio is a tie.

Whomover ends up with the plurality in Ohio, the takeaway from Super Tuesday is the same: working class voters don’t like Romney, and it’s his greatest liability.

Romney avoided a decisive loss in Ohio by unleashing an advertising barrage in which he and his Super PAC outspent Santorum and Santorum’s Super PAC roughly four to one. It was a repeat of what happened in Michigan a week earlier. Santorum was ahead of Romney before the ad blitz and exit polls show that Romney has the same crucial demographic problem. Romney lost to Santorum in Ohio among voters making less than $100,000 per year and those without college degrees, just as he did in Michigan.

In November, the candidate who wins the Midwest will win the election. To carry the Midwest, the Republican nominee will need to dominate among white, working class voters. It’s possible that Romney’s weakness among those voters in the primaries doesn’t tell us much about how he would perform against Obama. “White, non-college educated voters are precisely the slice of the electorate where the President is weakest,” notes Leonardo Alcivar, a political consultant and veteran of Republican presidential campaigns. The ones choosing Santorum over Romney will probably choose Romney over Obama. But it’s also possible that Romney’s lack of personal appeal to white, working class voters holds true across partisan and ideological lines. In that case, while the current Santorum voters will back the eventual Republican nominee, Romney may turn off blue-collar swing voters. Maybe they will vote for Obama, or maybe they will just stay home.

Recent polls suggest Romney may not be strong enough among those voters to overcome Obama. As Ron Brownstein wrote in National Journal on Monday, polls show the primary has been taking a toll on Romney’s image among swing voters:

In the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, Obama held a 50 percent to 43 percent advantage over Romney nationally, up from a 47 percent to 44 percent lead in the average of the news organizations’ polls during the second half of 2011, just before the voting began in the Republican race. What’s especially striking about the new survey is that it shows Obama has made his biggest gains among the group. that has consistently resisted him the most: white voters without a college education

In the NBC/WSJ surveys through the second half of 2011, Romney led Obama among those working-class white voters by a commanding 52 percent to 38 percent…. But in [the] latest survey, Romney’s advantage with those voters had shriveled to just five points—48 percent to 43 percent. By comparison, in 2008 non-college white voters backed John McCain over Obama by a resounding 58 percent to 40 percent; Republicans won even more of them (63 percent) in the 2010 Congressional election.

To win in November the Republican must perform even better among non-college white voters than McCain did. The Obama coalition consists of non-whites, educated whites and young people. As Jonathan Chait recently explained in New York magazine, that leaves Republicans with three paths to winning: making inroads among non-whites, driving up their margins among older white, working class voters or disenfranchising Democrats. They have pursued the latter two options. In so doing they have further alienated non-whites. A Fox News poll released Monday shows Obama beating Romney among Latinos 70 percent to 14 percent.

“[Romney’s] a fundamentally flawed candidate,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Santorum supporter, on MSNBC. “He cannot really appeal to the average voters.”

It’s easy to see why. Romney is John Kerry, except that while Kerry served in Vietnam, Romney went to France as a Mormon missionary. He’s stiff and awkward, and he grew up privileged. In recent weeks, Romney has reinforced his patrician image almost every time he has spoken without a script. Romney went to the Daytona 500, and managed to make two gaffes: mocking fans for wearing cheap ponchos and saying that while he is “not the most ardent” NASCAR fan, he has several friends who own teams. The fact that Santorum has been inaccurately tagged as a biographically and substantively working class candidate is largely because anyone looks proletarian next to Romney.

This doesn’t mean Santorum would be the stronger Republican nominee. Santorum’s problem is the inverse of Romney’s: he consistently loses college educated voters and those making more than $100,000. He performs best among the very conservative and religious. His campaign is so disorganized that he did not get on the ballot in Virginia, and he failed to fill out delegate slates in congressional districts in Ohio. Exit polls show Santorum winning very conservative voters in Ohio, while Romney carries voters who are somewhat conservative, moderate or liberal.

Romney remains the favorite to be the Republican nominee. He entered Super Tuesday with the most delegates, and he will receive the most delegates from Tuesday’s primaries. (Romney won his home state of Massachusetts, the neighboring state of Vermont and Virginia.) He has out-raised his opponents and he continues to rake in the Establishment endorsements, most recently John Ashcroft, Eric Cantor and Tom Coburn. That’s partly because the corporate wing of the GOP thinks Romney is the most electable candidate. He probably is, but he may not be as electable as he needs to be.

According to the Huffington Post as of Monday, “In Oklahoma…Romney’s super PAC is outspending Santorum’s super PAC by nearly 50 to 1. In Tennessee that margin is 9 to 1.” Romney lost both states to Santorum on Tuesday. In Tennessee Romney carried only voters making more than $200,000. In Oklahoma he carried voters who make more than $100,000, but he lost voters making less than $50,000 by a wide margin.

If Romney is the nominee, his problem with less wealthy voters won’t stop him from winning the Southern states he lost on Tuesday. Those states are too Republican for it to matter. But his problem with the same demographic in the Midwest could be decisive.

“The question for working class white voters will be whether they vote,” says another Republican consultant. “When you look at recent polls, [Romney] is not beating Obama there. When a critical part of any close campaign is turning out your low propensity voters, how does Romney turn out unenthusiastic working-class white voters? I don’t think he can.”

Romney’s solution in Florida, Michigan and Ohio was to drown his less well funded opponent—first Newt Gingrich, then Santorum—in negative ads. It isn’t good for turnout, but if it depresses his opponent’s support more than his own, it works. That will presumably be his template for the general election. “I think that [Romney] will go incredibly negative on Obama,” says the GOP consultant. “I think that’s all he’s got.”

But does that work in the general election? “I don’t think the Mitt Romney strategy of outspending your opponent 4 or 5 to 1 will work against Barack Obama because you cannot outspend the incumbent president,” said Gingrich in his victory address from Georgia on Tuesday night.

Romney’s only appeal to downscale voters is his relentless focus on generating job growth. In his victory speech in Massachusetts Tuesday night, Romney used the word “jobs” nine times. If the economy keeps growing stronger, this may not be the trump card he believes it to be.

Of course, if Republicans took a different approach, they would not be so dependent on appealing to working-class white voters. “Beyond 2012, the primary process exposes a great challenge to the Republican Party,” says Alcivar. “In the years to come, [non-college white] voters will make up a smaller part of the electoral pie. The old adage that politics is about addition has never been more true. Republicans are fighting for a smaller and smaller piece of the electorate, while Democrats are fighting for growing numbers of newer voters—Hispanics, African-Americans and women. Long term, this won’t be a Mitt Romney’s problem, but the Republican Party’s problem.”

Rick Santorum's Elite Background

Of all the states to hold primaries on Tuesday, everyone agrees that by far the most important is Ohio. It is the largest state voting, and it is essential for Republicans to carry in November.

But the reason Ohio is especially important this year is that Rick Santorum is in a dead heat with Mitt Romney in the Ohio polls. The reason is presumably Santorum’s appeal to conservative blue-collar voters. Thus far, Santorum has performed better in the industrial Midwest than in the service economy Sunbelt. Romney is stronger among wealthier, more educated and suburban Republicans, Santorum among the more religious, less educated, less affluent and rural. In Michigan, Santorum carried voters making less $100,000 per year and those who did not graduate from college, while those who make more than $100,000 and college graduates provided Romney with his narrow margin of victory.

Why is this? It’s not because Santorum’s proposals on taxes and spending are less skewed towards the wealthy than Romney’s. If anything, they are even more so.

The conventional explanation offered by the media is biographical. Consider this dispatch from the Washington Examiner in Arizona last month: “ ‘I’m not a manager, I’m not a visionary; I’m a guy from a steel town,’” Santorum said at the Maricopa County GOP Lincoln Day lunch, drawing a parallel with the former Massachusetts business executive. Santorum’s rise in the polls has come as GOP primary voters warmed to his working-class background.” Reporters have uncritically bought the idea that Santorum comes from humble roots and that gives him a personal connection with voters of modest means. It has become so widely accepted that it is treated as objective fact. Even the Associated Press wrote in a news article Saturday that “[Santorum] began talking more about his working-class background,” in Michigan.

This is baloney. Santorum is from less of a working-class background than Bill Clinton, Joe Biden or Barack Obama. As a blog post on The Democratic Strategist noted, “Rick Santorum is an MBA, fancy lawyer, politician and slimy lobbyist. His parents were a clinical psychologist and administrative nurse. He is no more authentically ‘blue collar’ than he is Chinese.”

White lab coats don’t have blue collars. Santorum went to Penn State as an undergraduate and for law school and received an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh. Graduates of top-tier flagship state schools and multiple graduate programs are not working-class people.

As recent Huffington Post and New Republic articles on demonstrate, Santorum was hardly a populist during his college years. Santorum, who sported a beard and smoked a pipe, was more of a typical frat boy. He was ambitious, conservative on economic issues and not terribly ideological. In fact, he has said that he was “basically pro-choice,” on abortion until he ran for Congress. Since leaving Congress, Santorum has become a wealthy lobbyist.

Santorum knows he cannot burnish his blue-collar credentials by talking about his life. So instead he constantly invokes his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked in coal mines. Grandpa Santorum appears in everything from Santorum speeches to e-mails to supporters. Consider how Santorum’s most recent e-mail blast began:

We just gave Mitt Romney the fight of his life in his home state and now we are in for a long, important battle to the Convention. But before I get to that, I just have to pause and tell you a story about my grandfather. He was an immigrant from Italy. He became a coal miner, and he worked hard every day. To think that his grandson could rise to the top tier of the most important Presidential election in American history is something that could only happen in America. I thought of my grandfather a lot during the early days of this campaign. I was spending long nights crisscrossing Iowa to talk with voters, driving in my own car while other candidates were taking private jets. It's hard to be an underdog.

Mitt Romney has tried the same gimmick of claiming credit for the fact that his grandparents were not wealthy, but it did not work. Somehow, Santorum has gotten away with this equally phony shtick. Consider this New York Times column by David Brooks:

The Republican Party is the party of the white working class. This group—whites with high school degrees and maybe some college—is still the largest block in the electorate…. The Republicans harvest their votes but have done a poor job responding to their needs. The leading lights of the party tend to be former College Republicans who have a more individualistic and even Randian worldview than most members of the working class. Most Republican presidential candidates, from George H.W. Bush to John McCain to Mitt Romney, emerge from an entirely different set of experience…. Enter Rick Santorum. Santorum is the grandson of a coal miner and the son of an Italian immigrant…. His worldview is not individualistic.

Actually, Santorum is a former College Republican: he was president of the Penn State chapter. When it comes to economics, Santorum’s views are relentlessly, heartlessly, individualistic. His communitarian impulses are restricted to imposing his views on sexuality on others.

But Santorum is a shrewd politician. His fraudulence as a working-class candidate, both biographically and substantively, hasn’t stopped him from making reactionary appeals to anti-elite resentment. Speaking to the Americans for Prosperity Presidential forum in Michigan a week ago, he attacked President Obama for proposing to make post-secondary education accessible to all Americans:

President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to [the] test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.

Liberals sneered that this was a major gaffe for Santorum. Considering that Santorum has more advanced degrees than Obama, wouldn’t sending kids to college remake them in Santorum’s image as much as Obama’s? Substantively, Santorum’s smear was completely dishonest. Obama did not actually say everyone should go to a four-year liberal arts college. Rather, he wants to make technical schools and community college options available to people who will work in manual professions. Anyway, liberals reasoned, don’t even non-college graduates want their children to go to college? Isn’t opposing college like opposing apple pie?

If you watch the video of Santorum speaking, you’ll see the audience loved his riff. Kathleen Parker, a reasonable conservative at the Washington Post, asserted in a column criticizing Santorum’s comments that the audience did not actually share Santorum’s views. “Said audience did applaud, but this is because they don’t like Obama and would have cheered no matter what Santorum said about him,” wrote Parker. This is wishful thinking. I’ve seen a lot of Republican campaign speeches, and I’ve seen plenty of attacks on Obama receive less enthusiastic applause than that did.

There’s no doubt that Santorum is more adept at appealing to cultural and class resentments of working-class voters than Romney. But that doesn’t mean he is actually working class himself, and the media should not indulge this fantasy any more than they should have let George W. Bush pretend he was a brush-clearing cowboy.

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