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The White House dispatched Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer for a different kind of press conference on Friday in Minneapolis, where he tangled with a prominent writer known as Angry Mouse (Daily Kos’s Kaili Joy Gray). Hundreds of other writers were there, too, since Pfeiffer was headlining a conference for liberal bloggers.
The skepticism facing Pfeiffer is dominating coverage of this year’s Netroots Nation, along with broader stories recounting liberals’ “frustration” and disappointment with President Obama. But having attended this conference six years in a row (my life is the Internet), I think these stories miss the mark. They fit into a precooked narrative about “Progressives vs. Obama,” which is well-known, easy to write and, yes, partly true. Some of the most active and committed liberals in any area are going to have informed critiques of elected Democrats (from the White House on down). But that’s not what Netroots is about.
This conference is unusual because it was hatched online by activists, not any funded group with a formal agenda, and then evolved into a large and relevant draw for the upper echelons of the Democratic Party (Pelosi, Reid, Both Clintons, Gore, Dean). But it’s not focused on them. Obama felt the need to attend in person in 2007, when he was running for President, along with every other major candidate. But in the off years, when fewer candidates (and the reporters who trail them) drop in, the conference goes on, with three days of programming on policy, organizing, writing, publishing and politics. Most of the time and energy is devoted to wonky, detailed discussions—not presidential scheming or Obama-bashing.
For example, I’m writing this post from a session on government surveillance of American citizens, with two ACLU lawyers, policy blogger Marcy Wheeler, who made her name during the Libby trial, and Julian Sanchez, a libertarian writer. The ACLU is talking about S. 913, Sen. Rockefeller’s bill to create a one-stop ban on Internet tracking; Wheeler is detailing a new law enforcement program to use nail polish purchases in data mining to target potential terrorists. Along the way, they are noting which Democrats need to be pushed on civil libeties, flagging who is in town for the conference (Franken, Wasserman-Shultz). But the goal is to influence policy, with the elected officials as a tool. They’re not basking in a meta-political discussion of how “warm” people feel towards Obama, or whether they “have anywhere else to go.”
Still, like so many political activities, the press coverage here is doled out inversely. So these wonky panels are packed but undocumented, while the handful of sessions about the Obama’s relationship with the Left look like a Green Room. There were forty-two panels on the first day, for example, but the one titled “What to Do When the President is Just Not That Into You” kept showing up in articles about the conference. There were definitely more nationally themed fireworks at that talk, but I thought the session on local labor organizing in Wisconsin, for example, was more significant.
Then again, who cares, right? Bloggers talking about reporters talking about bloggers sounds pretty irrelevant. The media and political perception of The Base/The Left matters, however. Gatherings like this—with 2,400 people, this is one of the largest liberal conferences—are one of the few times when real people and in-person reporting could substitute for recycled narratives about Obama angst. Maybe that’s asking too much.
—— Update ——-
3:40 pm Friday —It’s striking to see that Netroots Nation is the top story on the political web on Friday afternoon, even topping Weiner coverage according to Memeorandum, a useful aggregator that ranks news articles. The top stories reflect the narrative above, with ABC News talking about progressives venting their frustration with Obama, and HuffPo reporting a “break-up” between liberals and the president. (That’s untrue, in the literal sense that most people here will still help and vote for Obama’s re-election.) Meanwhile, Balloon Juice blogger Dennis G. tackles the Netroots narrative in a good post:
I’ve been to Netroots Nation before and I know that there is far more to the event than these reports hyping “Angry Left” and “Democrats is disarray” memes seem to suggest. A lot of great discussions are being had, connections are being made and some real organizing for future victories is being done. But these reality based stories of the conference will not be how Netroots Nation is described to folks beyond the walls of the convention center. Control of that message has been surrendered. By Sunday, the “Manic Progressives” meme will be one of the non-stories in competition to replace Weinergate as the side show du jour. This notion that Right and Left both hate Obama in equal measure will help to [drown out coverage of the GOP]. It will feed the both sides are extreme and therefore the same story line. It will make the never-ending series of hostage negotiations with the GOP a bit more difficult. It will do nothing to help progressives win a single victory. And yet, this “Manic Progressives” message will be the one that defines Netroots Nations for most people who hear anything about it. So it goes.
It would be nice if Netroots Nation was in control of their message, but they are not. From the news reports it seems to be a gathering of the Left stading in solidarity with the Right to shout to the rest of the Nation that Obama is destroying America.
In other news, I ran into radio host Sam Seder in the convention hall, where he is hanging out in front of a promo poster that features him looking oddly ambivalent:
(Photo of Barack Obama from 2007 convention. Credit: Lindsay Beyersetein)
For other Netroots Nation coverage, check out Ari Berman on Dan Pfeiffer, John Nichols on Feingold, and Ari Melber on Wisconsin.
The Nation’s Ari Melber is writing from Netroots Nation this week, and he is participating in the conference by moderating a keynote session with Senator Al Franken and union leaders on Saturday, June 18. The Nation is hosting a livestream of the conference here. Contact Ari Melber: Twitter, Facebook.
Given the angst about the Obama administration at this year’s Netroots Nation conference—from the president’s policies on Afghanistan and civil liberties to his prioritization of deficit reduction over jobs—there was much speculation about what type of reception White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer would get during his appearance Friday morning. And sure enough, Daily Kos moderator Kaili Joy Gray—a k a “Angry Mouse”—grilled Pfeiffer about the president’s positions on jobs, gay marriage, Libya and his reluctance to fight back against the GOP and use his executive authority to circumvent Republican obstruction.
Things were testy from the start, when Gray asked Pfeiffer why Obama has not introduced a new jobs plan to boost the lagging economy. “It is a false decision to say we don’t have a jobs bill,” Pfeiffer responded. “We have a number of proposals in Congress that have been blocked by Republicans.” He pointed to a national infrastructure bank, a national wireless program, clean energy investments and tax credits for small businesses as examples. “You can expect the president will unveil a number of new initiatives,” Pfeiffer said when pressed on the issue.
Also on the economic front, Pfeiffer was asked if the White House would draw a line in the sand during negotiations with the GOP over raising the debt ceiling. “On Social Security, the president will do nothing to slash benefits, privatize the program or change the nature of the program,” Pfeiffer responded. “The same with Medicare.” But Pfeiffer refused to say whether the retirement age would be raised for either program. “I'm not going to have a negotiation with Republicans here on the stage with you,” he answered somewhat testily.
The discussion also touched on a number of other issues, including foreign policy and gay rights. “When will you stop kicking gay people out of the military?” Gray asked, referencing the implantation date of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “As soon as we possibly can,” Pfeiffer answered.
She also pressed the communications honcho on whether Libya would turn into another Vietnam, and why the White House has not sought Congressional authority for the mission. Pfeiffer answered that the administration “went in in a limited way with a multilateral coalition,” and was not in violation of the War Powers Act—an answer unlikely to satisfy critics of the Libya mission in Congress.
Gray asked Pfeiffer why Obama hadn’t filled vacant administration posts blocked by the GOP via recess appointments and whether Elizabeth Warren would be named the permanent director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Pfeiffer praised Warren’s “amazing work in getting that bureau stood up,” but would only say that “she’s one of the people who is under consideration, and we hope to have an announcement on that soon.”
Despite her relentless questioning, Gray didn’t get much out of the defensive Pfeiffer, and her strident tone even alienated a number of Obama’s progressive critics in the room. “This #NN11 questioner does not represent the netroots and is blowing a valuable opportunity,” wrote Adam Green of the Progressive Campaign Change Committee on Twitter. “Overall critique of #Nn11 questioner: she was out of the loop on what progressives are doing to strategically pressure Obama to fight.”
Indeed, the Q&A was unlikely to change the White House’s opinion of the so-called “professional left,” or vice versa. Thus far, the panels at Netroots Nation have been largely preoccupied with the Republican Party’s assault on workers in states like Wisconsin, and the corrosive effect of corporate money and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on our political system. (Full disclosure: I was on a panel yesterday about “Structural Barriers to Progressive Success.”) What the Obama administration is and is not doing almost seems like an afterthought.
In the two months since the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic breakdown during an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, what has the United States learned about nuclear safety? How are regulators working to prevent a similar disaster at one of America’s 104 nuclear power plants, about a quarter of which share the same design as Fukushima Daiichi?
This was the topic of discussion at a hearing by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee yesterday—and for the second time since the disaster in Japan, it summoned all five commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to appear and answer questions. The results weren’t exactly comforting, and demonstrated there’s still a long way to go towards a “safe” nuclear power infrastructure in the United States—if that’s even possible.
Spent fuel rods posed a grave threat at Fukushima, as Christian Parenti outlined here. They are packed with radioactive uranium, and are very unstable. They are also generally not well protected. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, when asked by Senator Tom Carper about the spent fuel pools in the United States, admitted that “we have not given that enough attention.”
Jaczko also said that until Fukushima, the NRC had never really considered the possibility that multiple reactors or even multiple plants could fail at the same time, due to some sort of large-scale natural disaster or other event. “Our traditional approach has always been to assume a single incident at a single reactor,” he said. “Clearly Fukushima-Daiichi showed us that we have to consider the possibility of multiple units at a single site, perhaps multiple spent fuel pools being affected at the same time.”
Commissioners also had no answers about how to fix backup power systems that continue to cool nuclear material in the event of a major power outage. The batteries at Fukushima ran for only eight hours—not nearly long enough. In the United States, the standard length is only four hours. “This is something we have to look into and take action on,” said commissioner George Apostolakis. “I’m not sure what that action would be.”
Amidst these less-than-inspiring answers, the NRC commissioners tried to downplay the possibility of similar events happening here anyhow. “The likelihood of something like this happening in the United States is very, very small,” said Jaczko. Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the committee, asked commissioner William Magwood to list four or five areas of concern following Fukushima, and he couldn’t provide any. He responded instead that “you can’t predict events that will happen in the future. You have to be able to recover from whatever happens.”
In fairness, the NRC is only sixty days into a ninety-day review of nuclear safety in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, and the real substance will come on July 19 when it releases the results of that short-term review. A longer-term safety review will follow.
But larger questions loom about nuclear regulation. The NRC has frequently been criticized as too close to the nuclear industry. During the 2008 campaign, President Obama called it “a moribund agency…captive of the industry it regulates.” Boxer and Senator Bernie Sanders provided the hearing’s most substantive moments when they grilled the commissioners on this point.
In Vermont, state officials are attempting to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant by refusing to issue a state certificate of public good so the plant can operate—even though the NRC gave Entergy, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, a twenty-year license in March to continue operations there.
Sanders was incensed at reports that earlier this week, the NRC held a secret vote urging the Justice Department to intervene and force Vermont to allow the nuclear plant to continue operations. Through two rounds of questions, Sanders asked each commissioner if they participated in such a vote, and how they voted. Each commissioner refused to aawer his questions. Jaczko did admit under intense questioning from Sanders that his staff did meet with representatives from Entergy—but not with state officials.
Sanders repeatedly criticized the commissioners, and urged them to step back from the issue. “If the state of Vermont chooses energy efficiency and sustainable energy for its future, instead of an aging and trouble-ridden nuclear power plant, it is not the place of the NRC to prevent us from doing that,” he told them. “The NRC’s mandate is very clear. Its concerns begin and end with safety. It is not supposed to be the arbiter of political or legal disputes between a $14 billion dollar energy company and the people of Vermont.”
Boxer, meanwhile, picked up on a statement from one commissioner that it’s “important [the NRC] hears from both sides” when making regulatory decisions. “Please tell me—don’t you have the ability to decide for yourself if a plant is safe or not safe?” she asked.
“You’re independent. So when I hear you say that there’s a safety issue, you want to hear both sides, that troubles me. I think hearing both sides is fine, but at the end of the day, you have to perform your own inspections,” Boxer said.
For the federal government, Medicaid is a deal. It provides fairly comprehensive health care coverage to more than 50 million people at a significantly low cost. For states, on the other hand, Medicaid isn’t so great. On average, the federal government only covers 57 percent of Medicaid’s tab, leaving the rest for state governments to handle.
In normal economic times, states do an adequate job of covering their share of Medicaid costs, but thanks to the economic collapse, state finances are collapsing under the strain. From 2007 to 2010, eight million people joined Medicaid rolls, and according to an analysis done by the Wall Street Journal, Medicaid now accounts for more than 20 percent of total state spending in 25 states:
The problem for states is that the federal government’s supplementary Medicaid funding runs out in July, and absent that support, Medicaid becomes completely unsustainable for most state budgets. As such, some governors (mostly Republicans) are lobbying for relaxed Medicaid rules, so that they can tighten eligibility standards and lessen the strain on their budgets without raising taxes. Here’s the Washington Post with more:
There is a growing impatience among governors,” said Mike Schrimpf, communications director for the Republican Governors Association. “As the Medicaid portion of state budgets grows, the issue becomes even more pressing.”
This week, 29 GOP governors wrote a letter asking congressional leaders for greater flexibility in spending Medicaid dollars. They say that would give them much-needed control over the soaring cost of Medicaid, often the largest single item in state budgets.
This points to a major failure of the 2009 stimulus; in hindsight, the package should fully covered Medicaid costs through the recession and slightly beyond, to stabilize state budgets. Indeed, to step outside the realm of the possible for a moment, it would have been best if the permanently federalize Medicaid, removing it from state budgets and guaranteeing health care coverage for millions of low-income Americans.
The Affordable Care Act does some of the work here, in that it greatly expands eligibility for Medicaid, but it also keeps the basic structure in place. Medicaid will remain a federal/state partnership, when it really should be a federal program administered by the federal government.
Unfortunately, with massive cuts to the program looming as part of a debt reduction bill, now seems to be the wrong time to talk about making Medicaid more sensible and more robust.
Liberal activists rallied in Minneapolis on Thursday for Netroots Nation, a blogger conference that is now one of the largest gatherings in progressive politics. A whopping 2,400 people are here this year, the highest turnout in the conference’s six-year history. The draw is simple: a string of speeches, panels and parties with new political stars, from hometown Senator Al Franken to Paul Ryan’s would-be nemesis Rob Zerban, along with progressive classics like Van Jones, Howard Dean and Russ Feingold—liberals who have been more vanquished than rewarded for their prescience.
In the first timeslot on Thursday morning, organizers from MoveOn, DFA, PCCC and AFT outlined lessons from the Wisconsin labor protests. About half of the standing-room crowd was from Wisconsin, according to a show of hands, and they were interested in how to tap the backlash to change the dynamics beyond Wisconsin.
“We pushed our national membership to not just be bystanders but to actively partake in this election recall process,” said PCCC’s Adam Green. PCCC raised money online for a series of ads featuring Wisconsin residents, which targeted Republicans who had voted against collective bargaining rights. Levana Layendecker, a communications strategist for DFA, said her group spent $1.5 million on their Wisconsin effort. She used her appearance to announce a DFA program to hire thirty-five new organizers for the Wisconsin recalls.
But some questioned the role of these national liberal groups in Wisconsin.
The first question for the panel came from Jill Hopke, a 31-year-old doctoral student from Madison, who basically told the national groups that they did not spark the Wisconsin protests. It was local students hitting the streets, she said, “bringing sleeping bags” and blocking the Senate chamber.
“The reason that I was there protesting had nothing to do with partisan politics,” Hopke stressed, “but that our basic rights to organize were being attacked.” Hopke, who testified at about 2 am during the legislature’s overnight hearings, told The Nation after the panel that some people think the Wisconsin effort was sparked by legislators leaving the state, or by national intervention. Yet the real catalyst, she argued, was people with skin in the game standing up for themselves and organizing locally.
The panelists essentially replied in agreement, stressing that Wisconsin started locally and their challenge was how to follow and assist.
“We’re not carrying a single banner,” said MoveOn’s Daniel Mintz, likening the nascent network backing the protesters to an “open source movement.” He cautioned, however, that the Tea Party had an advantage in using a recognizable national brand, which enabled “folks who are not coordinating [and] not talking to say, ‘I’m part of the movement.’”
The session also reflected a sense that Democrats were not automatic allies for labor priorities.
Matt Browner Hamlin, a web strategist for SEIU, asked from the audience about why a fundamental “class warfare problem” is met with largely electoral responses.
MoveOn’s Mintz replied that the answer was “not to elect more Democrats, or even more and better Democrats.” That phrase was deliberate—it was the rallying cry from Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, and other top bloggers, in previous election cycles. So it’s telling that MoveOn, one of the largest liberal groups with 5 million members and a financial engine for many Democrats, is striking a more strident tone.
“When I look at the 1930s, one of the big differences that leaps out,” Mintz said, “there were big movements of people doing stuff separate from what was going on in government, and exercising power that was separate from FDR and the Democrats in Congress.” A movement is “already building out there,” Mintz argued, and “we need to harness that energy.” He also plugged June23.org, a hub for the new “American Dream” campaign MoveOn is pushing with Van Jones and The Roots, who are playing at the launch event in New York next week. (Nothing says grassroots movement like Jimmy Fallon’s house band. Kidding—I love The Roots!)
If there is a bright spot for labor beyond the backlash, it could be demographic. The widely read blogger Matt Yglesias, who was sitting on the floor just outside the labor panel—apparently posting about the CIA’s interest in another famous blogger, Juan Cole—just noted data showing young Americans actually have the most positive views of labor unions.
When the labor session wrapped, people streamed out into the next sessions, including a panel on the “Arab Spring” with four bloggers flown in from the Middle East. I’m there now, so in the spirit of blogging, I’ll be updating this post with more reports throughout the conference. There’s even a rumor that Ari Berman is speaking later…
The Nation’s Ari Melber is writing from Netroots Nation this week, and he is participating in the conference by moderating a keynote session with Sen. Al Franken and union leaders on Saturday, June 18. The Nation is hosting a livestream of the conference here. Contact Ari Melber: Twitter, Facebook.
How do we understand the riots that exploded in Vancouver after the beloved Canucks lost the Stanley Cup Finals? How do we understand the burning cars, broken glass and injuries that stand as an enduring coda of their game seven defeat at the hands of the visiting Boston Bruins? Having communicated with several dozen people in “the most livable city in the world,” I think I have a modest perspective on why the Canucks’ 4-0 loss was followed by fire.
One thing was made abundantly clear to me, please disregard the “analysis” of TSN’s Bob McKenzie a k a “The Hockey Insider” who blamed “left wing loons” for the rubble. Mackenzie tweeted that he was sure responsibility lay with “anarchists and some organized extremists…many of the same people and groups who orchestrated riots in Toronto last summer at the G8.” This is unsupported and profoundly irresponsible garbage with no basis in fact. Vancouver activist Harsha Walia said to me, “It’s ridiculous that even a hockey riot needs a scapegoat. A deliberately created media circus of sports fervor, millions of alcohol advertising dollars and City-sanctioned street party zones all over downtown will unsurprisingly lead to a massive street brawl."
Let’s also dispense with the fiction that this was the fault of all “Canuck fans.” The fans on the whole were actually in fine form after the game. They gave Conn Smythe winner, Bruin goalie Tim Thomas, a standing ovation and also rose and cheered for every Bruin from Vancouver, British Columbia. Of the millions of Canuck supporters, this was a minuscule mob. As Shiema Ali of Vancouver wrote to me, “I live in Vancouver and left the downtown core just before the game started. There were tons of people coming into the city who were already drunk and rowdy (in a bad way) —win or lose those people were ready to riot.”
What happened after the game was neither in the spirit of people at the arena not the spirit of those who bravely protested the G8. As activist and hockey fan Derrick O’Keefe said to me, “Sometimes a riot is the ‘language of the unheard,’ in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. But sometimes a riot is just an expression of young male stupidity and violence— this was the case last night in Vancouver.”
Another person said to me, “There were lots of [LGBTQ people] down there, some got roughed up, some dental care needed. There are also attempts to pin this on ‘black bloc’ and references to ‘protesters.’ There are lots of frustrated young men for sure lashing out at authority but no analysis of what might be spurring this.”
I did receive this incisive bit of analysis from Dru Oja Day, an editor at the Media Co-op. “If you ask people to pour all of their emotions and anger into a game, then a major event (Montrealers have rioted after first round game 7 wins!) is going to occasion some outbursts. Hockey commentators like Hockey Nights’ Don Cherry are constantly associating hockey with the troops overseas (he went to Afghanistan and fired a live shell, for chrissakes) and promote fighting and big open ice hits. We shouldn’t be surprised.”
John Ward-Leighton also pointed out on his blog the role that the liquor lobby placed in turned an entire area around the arena into a branded “Entertainment Zone” larded with bars and free-flowing liquor.
“It was clear that a lot of of the participants in last night’s riot and looting were at the very least impaired and looking for trouble,” said Ward-Leighton. “This ‘zone’ has nothing to do with entertainment and much to do with the almost criminal profit taking of the proprietors of the establishments who far from ‘serving it right’ pour drunken idiots into the streets nightly to brawl and drive drunk….The fault for last night's idiocy was not about losing a hockey game or the police response, the bomb had its fuse lit with the myth that the only way you can have fun is to get stinking drunk.”
And yet the action —or inaction of the police is garnering attention as well. Alex Kerner, a law student and activist said to me, “How the police dealt with this riot compared to the G20 in Toronto last summer is instructive. While the destruction of police cars, property and lighting of fires was much more extensive this time, the police tended to focus only on those who committed the acts of vandalism. Some tear gas was used, but for the most part the targets were the actual rioters. Contrast this to the G20, where police used much more limited property damage by anarchists during the protests to sweep through the entire protest and arrest a record number of participants, irrespective of their actions. This sends a pretty sharp message from police that being around a pointless hockey riot is much safer than being at a protest with an actual purpose.”
It’s also worth noting that of the dozens of people who have needed medical attention, the overwhelming majority have required treatment for “exposure to tear gas or pepper spray” from, of course, the police. In addition, the push from police and the media for people to “post on Facebook” pictures of rioters so they can be identified and prosecuted signifies some kind of queasy step toward “social media as police state” that we should reject. Today a sports riot, tomorrow a demonstration.
One aspect that’s not getting nearly the publicity as the riots themselves are the people who risked danger, going in the street doing volunteer cleanup, while the streets still raged. As O’Keefe said to me, “Here in Canada, we’re dealing with a federal government hell bent on cutting back public services—they’re about to legislate postal workers back to work—but these are exactly the working people who tended to the wounded and put out the fires that night. In a way, we could thank the testosterone-laden morons for reminding a hockey crazed city that the real heroes in society don’t play a game for money; the real heroes fight fires, drive ambulances, treat the sick and clean up garbage.” The real heroes are also those who try to connect with the angst and alienation that leads to such destruction and channels it into protesting the very people “hell bent on cutting back” the services we so dearly need.
As one of those real heroes, Harsha Walia said to me, “There is a sense that people rioted over a ‘stupid apolitical hockey game.’ While I too wish people were motivated by social justice issues, the hockey game is not apolitical by any means. The riots were a fundamentalist defense of a type of nationalism, most evident in the beatings of Bruins fans in Vancouver last night. NHL hockey is not simply a game, it is representative of obedience to consumerism and is part of the state’s attempt to forge a false identity—despite vast differences and inequalities across race, class and gender, through the spectacle of sport.”
The state does reap what the state sows. We should remember that as the hand-wringing by police and government officials commences in the wake of Vancouver’s Great Hockey Riot.
Tim Pawlenty’s economic plan relies on a single fantastical notion, that tax cuts always produce an increase in revenue. When challenged on that with the Bush tax cuts, which depressed revenue for most of the last decade, Pawlenty has taken to attacking Bush for insufficient conservatism, blaming the president for spending too much while cutting taxes. To avoid the same trap, Pawlenty plans to do two things: first, make massive cuts in entitlements and social spending, and second, take the Bush tax cuts and pump up the volume. His plan would reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, cut the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, and eliminate taxes on capital gains, dividends and estates.
As this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, Pawlenty’s tax plan dwarfs the Bush tax cuts in size and scope:
Under current law, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, the richest 400 taxpayers paid an effective tax rate of 17. Under Pawlenty’s plan, the richest 400 would pay an effective tax rate of 4.7 percent, a 73 percent reduction. To pay for this, Pawlenty would completely dismantle the federal government, leaving it a hollow shell of itself, and leaving millions of Americans to languish in poverty.
Naturally, conservatives love it.
I have not written about Anthony Weiner’s sext scandal, a sad little saga that has received tons of news coverage because it is considered more interesting than actual news.
Last week, it felt like the top story in politics. But that’s not actually true.
Overall, Weiner took up 17 percent of all news coverage, but as the graph shows, coverage diverged widely depending on the medium. (The numbers are from coverage from June 6 to 12, and “Congressional scandals” refers to Weiner.)
Newspapers only spent 7 percent of their coverage on Weiner, and he didn’t get much more attention online. Meanwhile, cable spent one out of every three minutes on the beleaguered Brooklyn representative. So if you think Weiner was the big story, you might just be getting your news from the wrong place.
The entire report is available at Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The idea behind this morning’s hearing by the House Homeland Security Committee is that America is endangered by an increasing number of violent jihadis who are being recruited to the cause in prison. The committee chairman, Representative Peter King, described it as a danger that “remains real and present, especially because of Al Qaeda's announced intention to intensify attacks within the United States.”
King’s hand-picked panel largely agreed. Patrick Dunleavy, the former deputy inspector general for the New York State Department of Corrections—who conveniently has a book coming out in the fall about “the shocking link between America’s prisons and terrorism”—described “sustained efforts [by Al Qaeda] to target inmates.”
The problem, however, is that there is no real problem. Bert Useem, a professor at Purdue University who was the lone panelist not sympathetic to King’s cause, noted that of the 1.6 million people currently incarcerated in the US prison system, there have been only twelve terrorism cases with some evidence that the offender became radicalized in prison. “If prison was a major cause of jihadi radicalization, you’d expect to see more,” he told the committee.
King and his panelists had their own evidence. They didn’t offer any pesky statistics, but rather florid descriptions of terrorists who, while incarcerated, turned violent under the influence of prison Islam—or “prislam,” as it came to be known during the hearing.
But even this anecdotal evidence falls apart under closer inspection. For example, King raised the case of James Cromitie, who will be sentenced tomorrow for his role in planning attacks on an Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, and two synagogues in New York City.
According to King, Cromitie “was radicalized in a New York State prison.” He is “not alone,” King warned. But in fact, the government has made no claim that Cromitie nor any of his co-conspirators hatched their plot in prison, nor that their prison experience contributed to their crimes. Inmates and chaplains at the New York state prison where Cromitie was incarcerated said he did not take part in any of the Islamic prayer meetings.
Moreover, Cromitie’s lawyers have portrayed him as the victim of an altogether different kind of recruitment. They allege that a government informant paid Cromitie $250,000 to plan the terror attacks. When Cromitie expressed reluctance, the informant pressed on, according to court documents. “I told you…I can make $250,000, but you don’t want it, brother. What can I tell you?” he said.
King was equally dishonest when he invoked the case of Jose Padilla, who was convicted of trying to set off a radioactive bomb in the United States. King’s version of events, as described in his opening statement, is that Padilla “converted to Islam in a Florida jail,” and that “while on the inside, Padilla met a fellow inmate who led him to a radical mosque.”
In reality, the Broward County Sheriff said at the time there was no record of Padilla requesting to meet with an imam, attending Islamic classes, or requesting a name change while incarcerated there. A family friend told CNN that he converted to Islam after he married a Muslim woman in 1996 and moved to the Middle East.
King failed to prove statistically or even anecdotally that Islamic radicalization in prisons is a serious problem worthy of a high-profile Congressional hearing. And even if King were right, it would be odd focus solely on that brand of recruitment and not also on the well-documented problem of white supremacist groups who also recruit and radicalize inmates to commit crimes, along with similar efforts by violent street gangs. Several Democrats made this point during the hearing, but were sharply dismissed by Republican colleagues. “The political correctness in this room is astounding,” scolded Representative Dan Lungren.
It would be easy to dismiss King’s bluster as just that—political theatre. But even that is dangerous, as Representative Mike Honda pointed out here yesterday. “Because of prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of Republican leadership, King is targeting the entire Muslim-American community. Similar to my experience, they are become increasingly marginalized and isolated by our policies.”
Bluster in Congress about terror policies also has real-world effects on law enforcement. When the Department of Homeland Security issued an assessment of domestic terrorism threats, and specifically right-wing extremists, Republicans in Congress were enraged. King himself said DHS should instead “be targeting mosques.” King’s rhetoric was highly effective—DHS dismantled the unit investigating non-Islamic domestic terrorism in the wake of Republican outcry.
Over-hyped concern about Islamic radicalization in prisons also led the Bush administration to concentrate Muslim and Arab inmates in federal prison into a highly restricted unit, as Alia Malek reported for The Nation earlier this year. A pending lawsuit claims that designation to such units was “discriminatory, retaliatory and/or punitive in nature and not rationally related to any legitimate penological purpose or based on substantiated information.” The same could easily be said of today's hearing.
Moderating the GOP debate on Monday night, John King was mint-fresh and emcee-efficient. Ever alert and well-informed, he cut short most of the candidates’ flights of rhetoric and moved them along briskly, almost as if they were holographics he could touch-move on CNN’s “Magic Wall.” He even produced a potential game-changing moment: When he asked Tim Pawlenty about his much-hyped coinage “Obamneycare”—“If it was Obamneycare on Fox News Sunday,” King said, “why isn't it Obamneycare standing here with the governor [Mitt Romney] right there?”—Pawlenty weaseled, and was instantly transformed into this year’s flip-flopping Romney.
But overall, King’s no-nonsense, staccato style of moderating had the inadvertent effect of toning down the crazy. Most of what these candidates said verged on the delusional—the Ryan plan to kill Medicare will actually save Medicare, or slashing taxes, spending and regulations will bring prosperity to all (or, as Pawlenty insists, will grow the economy at 5 percent a year!). But forced by King to compress their talking points and answer in a check-the-box way, the standard GOP red-white-and-blue rhetorical fireworks were largely neutralized.It was like bringing your batty uncle down from the attic and getting him to talk reasonably in the parlor by limiting him to simple, declarative sentences.
In the 2008 GOP debates, Tom Tancredo was allowed to ramble on for minutes about how brown people are destroying this country; Giuliani had time to repeat “9/11” so often he made himself into a joke before Joe Biden provided the punch line. But this year, with King interrupting the candidates constantly to hurry them up (the annoying grunts and “uh”’s you hear in the background are his), Newt barely had time to pull the pin on his verbal grenades before King made him fall on them. Newt began, for example, to call for loyalty oaths for anyone (read: Muslims) serving in a Gingrich administration, but King moved on from him before he could demand we all greet each other with “Hail, Freedonia!” and turned to Herman Cain to ask, “Thin crust or deep-dish?”
Michelle Bachmann, apparently newly trained to not look “hypnotized” (as Chris Matthews likes to put it), didn’t call anyone a socialist. She did start to sound familiarly wacko when she explained that economic recovery required not only the repeal of Obamacare but the death of the EPA, which, she said, “should really be renamed the Job-Killing Organization of America.” Rather than ask what would that do to drinking water, cancer rates, etc., King directed our attention to the tweets lighting up a big screen. (Bachmann still managed to win applause for some statements, be they nuts or neutral, by applying her rah-rah cadence, which always sounds as if she’s climbing a mountaintop. “I want to announce tonight, President Obama… is… a… one-term president!” she said to cheers. To which King responded, “I'm being polite so far. But I want to remind everybody about the time.”)
Maybe time on the Magic Wall does something to you, makes you think as well as act digitally—King, at least, seems to have picked up the synapses of a high-frequency trader. He still does the Wall, but since taking over Lou Dobbs’s old slot with his own hour-long show (and ably spoofing himself in a John Oliver parody a couple years ago), he’s grown. And at the debate, King did touch on the Republicans’ core illogic, asking Pawlenty, “Where's the proof that just cutting taxes will create jobs? If that were true, why during the Bush years, after the big tax cut, where were the jobs?” But other than pursuing Pawlenty—five times—on Obamneycare, King generally didn’t push hard enough to get at the nub of self-delusion that has consumed the Republican Party.
The GOP is approaching the point where outright crazy is passé, even counterproductive. They needed to go wild, even birther, in 2010 to fire up voters, but now, to win general elections and sometimes even primaries, going the way of Palin and Trump won’t always do. Oh, they’ll still pander to the Tea Party, but they’re slowly realizing that they need to lay out their barely sane policies in a sane-sounding way just to keep from scaring the horses (not to mention the independents).
For that, John King did them a favor. Still, despite the clipped and anodyne tone of the debate, not even all Republicans are buying it. Terry Pfaff, a former New Hampshire state senate candidate, asked from the audience:
I'm not a libertarian Republican, I'm not a Tea Party Republican. I'm just a mainstream Republican. And we need both—the independents and mainstream Republicans to win in November.
How can you convince me and assure me that you'll bring a balance, and you won't be torn to one side or the other for many factions within the party? You have to have a balanced approach to governing to solve our serious problems.
King had the Tea Partiers—Bachmann, Cain, Rick Santorum—respond, and they all made nice Big Tent noises. But Pfaff seemed frightened, even queasy, just listening to them. Take a look at his face: