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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

The Autumn of David Stern

NBA Commissioner David Stern emits an aura that inspires an energy-sapping, dull fear in those around him. Players, media and even the owners that pay his rumored eight-figure salary all acquiesce meekly in his presence. The brave get gelatinous. The brown nosers polish their kneepads. The toadies ribbit.

It’s certainly understandable why. Players fear that their employment opportunities will wither upon retirement. Media members fear that their access to the league will simply end. Fans fear that Stern could pull a Seattle Sonics and simply jack their team. Even owners don’t speak out against him. After thirty years, he’s become more like a tinpot dictator or a small-town Southern sheriff than a commissioner. Stern has become the emperor no one dares say is buck naked and now the basketball world is paying the price. We are going to lose much or all of the 2010–11 season due to a David Stern engineered owner’s lockout. The NBA right now has more storylines than General Hospital. Could this be the year Lebron and the Miami Heat figure it out? Will Kobe tie Jordan with six rings? Can the Miracle Mavs repeat? What could Derrick Rose do for an MVP encore? But these questions won’t be answered. We don’t get answers to these questions because too many teams are losing money, and Stern has determined that only a lockout and taking it out of the union’s hide is a path to solvency.

There are of course exceptions to this conspiracy of silence. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks once made a sport of tweaking Stern, but after several million dollars in fines, he got the hint. Last year, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said that there is no free speech in the NBA and Stern responded, “We won’t be hearing from him for the rest of the season.” He then said of Van Gundy, “I see somebody whose team isn’t performing…who seems to be fraying.” Rasheed Wallace was an exception, saying, “I ain’t no dumb-ass n— out here. I’m not like a whole bunch of these young boys out here who get caught up and captivated into the league…. I know what this business is all about…. I know the commissioner of this league makes more than three-quarters of the players in this league.”

Stern responded publicly, “Mr. Wallace’s hateful diatribe was ignorant and offensive to all NBA players. I refuse to enhance his heightened sense of deprivation by publicly debating with him.” You might notice that Rasheed Wallace isn’t providing commentary on NBA TV.

Mess with Stern, and become an object lesson. As Stern said to a group of NBA All-Stars, “I know where the bodies are buried because I’ve buried some of them myself.” Stern has built an atmosphere of fear and intimidation over three decades with the subtlety of Rupert Murdoch. Even the owners, the ones who pay his salary, don’t dare ask how much Stern, ostensibly their employee, gets paid.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports quotes a source who says that “two maybe three” owners even know the answer to this question. As Wojnarowski writes, “Mostly, it speaks to the authoritarian culture created within the league office, and how Stern carries it out through the NBA. Some younger owners have been warned to never push the issue with him, never ask, because it’s simply unadvisable to get on the wrong side of the commissioner.”

Meanwhile the solution to the NBA’s financial crisis is obvious. It’s doesn’t lie in dramatic slashing of salaries, or more public subsidies. It’s revenue sharing. The NBA shares less revenue than any other major league. In the NFL, the Green Bay Packers make the same television money as the New York Giants. In the NBA, it takes the Portland Trail Blazers more than ten years to make the same broadcast revenue that the Lakers make in one year. Forbes magazine determined that the league as a whole made money and if revenue was shared, the league would be fine. Stern’s response to Forbes’s findings was a sneer and a growl.

It’s obvious to me that what stands in the way of a logical financial agreement is Stern himself. His intransigence is the logical extension of a decade of dress-code dictates, bullying officials and even changing the material on the basketball despite the fact that the new balls cut the hands of players. He has created a logic that no one dares stand up and say, “This guy has to go.” He has become like Gabriel García Márquez’s dictator in the novel Autumn of the Patriarch. As Márquez wrote, “The regime wasn’t being sustained by hope or conformity or even by terror, but by the pure inertia of an ancient and irreparable disillusion, go out into the street and look truth in the face, your Excellency, we’re on the final curve.” We are on the “final curve” of a Commissioner’s reign that saw the league go global, win millions of new fans, and create a remarkable constellation of superstars. But it’s a reign that now ends with us, the fans, being robbed of the game we love. Yet this “inertia of disillusion” has fans, players, media members and owners on the sideline, too cowed to speak truth as obvious as it is unspoken: we don’t need David Stern to have the NBA. His removal as commissioner would provide a path to labor peace and get the league back in business. But if no one stands up, Stern gets to fulfill every dictator’s wish: to destroy the very world of his own creation.

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Who's Helped and Who's Harmed By Debt Deal?

Congress might pass a debt deal this week that would raise the debt ceiling into 2013 and reduce government spending by $2.5 trillion. After all the debate over who would be affected—or not—what does the final policy scoreboard say?

In short, it’s a rout of the lower and middle classes by the wealthiest Americans. Since the deal relies entirely on spending cuts with no revenues—don’t believe the White House spin that revenues are possible, because that would require Republicans to suddenly desire them—the wealthy escape any sacrifice since very few of them rely on the government services that will be cut.

Rather, as Brookings Institution senior fellow William G. Gale writes, “Low- and middle-class households have seen stagnating or declining earnings over the past few decades, and they have been hit hard in the Great Recession by the housing market collapse and the job market collapse. Now, they are being asked to shoulder—via spending reductions—all of the fiscal reduction agreed to so far.” (Yes, that Brookings Institution).

How specific cuts will be determined, and who exactly is affected, is still hard to know. The deal truly “kicks the can down the road,” in the overused Washington parlance. The $917 billion in “immediate” cuts are not really immediate, nor enumerated. Federal spending will operate under caps over the next ten years equal to $917 billion less than what was projected, but the exact areas of reduction are unknown and obviously depend quite a bit on political outcomes. The caps are relatively modest until 2013, and a Republican Congress with a budget proposal from President Rick Perry would make much a different decision about where to cut than would Obama, Pelosi and Reid.

Then, $1.5 trillion in additional cuts will be determined by a so-called super committee of six Democrats and six Republicans. Entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are subject to “across-the-board” cuts here, and if no agreement is reached by November 23, a “trigger” will be pulled, with the gun aimed squarely at senior citizens and the Pentagon.

So there are a lot of permutations for these cuts—but make no mistake about who is exposed, and who isn’t. Cuts are guaranteed, revenue is not. Here’s a quick rundown of the larger bill:

Who is exposed:

Veterans: Almost half of the first round of cuts will come from “security spending,” which includes the Pentagon budget but also the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and notably veterans benefits and compensation. The White House assured veterans they won’t be harmed if the trigger is pulled, but did not assure them they are safe from any of the preceding cuts. More than 2.2 million veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11, 2001, many of whom have been seriously injured and require extensive care. The Disabled Veterans of America already has said it is “anxious” to see how these spending cuts are assembled.

Students: Graduate students would be the hardest hit, as the bill proposes an elimination of the interest subsidy on federal student loans for “almost all” of them. This means that beginning July 1, 2012, grad students will be responsible for the interest on their loans while in school and during any subsequent deferment period. Also, while the federal government currently offers subsidies for on-time payments in order to promote responsible pay-backs, they will be eliminated under the debt ceiling deal. Also, education accounts for the largest share of non-defense discretionary spending. It’s nearly inconceivable that budget-cutters won’t target that juicy budget line in making their cuts.

Seniors: As noted, Medicare is subject to across-the-board cuts in the super-committee, and if the trigger is pulled, provider payments will be slashed—though only up to 2 percent. The makeup of the super-committee and outside-the-Beltway campaigns to protect Medicare will determine a lot about the degree of cuts, but remember that inside the Beltway, the “left” side of the debate has been defined by President Obama and the Gang of Six as raising the eligibility age to 67 and/or $500 billion in cuts. So this probably won’t end well.

The poor: Again, Medicaid will be subject to cuts by the super-committee. The Republican position, articulated in the Ryan budget, is a devastating 35 percent reduction in the next ten years, even as health costs rise. (However, Medicaid is protected from any cuts if the trigger should go off). Beyond that, federal housing assistance is the fourth largest slice of non-defense discretionary spending and is thus a likely target for cuts.

The unemployed: Unlike what happened during the December showdown over the Bush tax cuts, the White House was unable (or unwilling) to secure any extension of help for the jobless. That December extension will expire at the end of this year, and this was one of the last best shots to make sure that 3.8 million people won’t lose their benefits at that point.

Who’s protected:

The wealthy: Up until very recently, Obama and most Democrats were demanding that wealthy Americans pony up for some deficit reduction. The demands were admittedly narrow, and focused on itemized deductions on people who owned private jets or multiple homes—but both groups are exempted from sacrifice under the current deal. The super-committee could theoretically approve tax increases, including ending those loopholes, but House Speaker John Boehner has already sworn that won’t happen, and it’s tough not to believe that. If the Republicans on the committee refuse to back down on revenues, as they have in every recent negotiation, Democrats on the committee will be facing Medicare-slashing trigger unless they acquiesce—as they have in every recent negotiation.

Wall Street tycoons: In his budget proposal earlier this year, Obama recommended taxing the profit share of private equity managers, venture capitalists and other Wall Street high-rollers at the ordinary personal income tax rate, instead of at the smaller capital gains rate. No such deal was struck under the current bill, so these mega-rich traders won’t spend a penny reducing the deficit—again, unless Boehner undergoes a religious experience and appoints pro-tax, anti–Wall Street Republicans to the super-committee. (He’d have to spend a long time looking first).

Oil and gas companies: Obama repeatedly demanded that oil and gas companies lose their tax breaks, since they are raking in record profits and enjoy many deductions and subsidies in the tax code. “If we choose to keep a tax break for oil and gas companies that are making hundreds of millions of dollars, that means we’ve got to cut some kids off from getting a college scholarship [and] that means we’ve got to stop funding grants for medical research,” Obama said in June. Since those tax breaks were preserved, in hindsight that soundbite was of a prediction than a warning.   

Republican Presidential Candidates Slam Debt Deal

Republicans should be happy with the debt-ceiling deal President Obama reached with Congressional leaders on Sunday night. They successfully took a routine function of government—allowing the Treasury to borrow money to pay for spending commitments Congress has already made—and used it as a cudgel to beat significant spending cuts with no tax increases out of a Democratic president and Senate.

But they aren’t. The party’s presidential candidates, who are an excellent weathervane for measuring the mood of the primary electorate, are almost unanimous in their opposition to the deal, which would shave at least $2.1 trillion off the debt, entirely from cuts to discretionary (including military) spending. House Republicans, despite their staunchly right-wing politics, are stuck with the responsibility of governing and preventing a catastrophic debt default. So they are rallying around Speaker John Boehner and the deal.

But GOP presidential candidates, most of whom do not currently hold office, are free to take the maximalist position. Front-runner Mitt Romney, who is supposed to represent the moderate, responsible wing of the presidential field, has said the deal should be voted down. He issued the following statement Monday morning:

“As president, my plan would have produced a budget that was cut, capped and balanced—not one that opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table. President Obama’s leadership failure has pushed the economy to the brink at the eleventh hour and 59th minute. While I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama’s lack of leadership has placed Republican Members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal.”

Romney, as is his wont, tries to appeal to extremist conservatives while leaving himself some wiggle room. He seeks to soothe the egos of House Republicans who may be stung by his implication that they are sell-outs if they vote for the deal, by saying it’s really Obama’s fault that they have to vote for it.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty also opposes the deal. His spokesman Alex Conant sent The Nation a statement:

“This deal is nothing to celebrate. Only in Washington would the political class think it’s a victory when the government narrowly avoids default, agrees to go further into debt, and does little to reform a spending system that cannot be sustained by our children and grandchildren.”

While many of the second-tier candidates have not issued statements, it’s probably safe to assume they will take the same tack, since they are all positioned to the right of Romney and Pawlenty, In fact, conservative heroine Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) promised long ago that she will not vote for any debt-ceiling deal that does include repeal of healthcare reform, so it’s obvious she will be dead set against this agreement.

The only Republican presidential aspirant to support the deal thus far is former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who is angling for the support of independents and political pundits by striking a more reasonable tone. Huntsman endorses the deal, saying:

“While this framework is not my preferred outcome, it is a positive step toward cutting our nation’s crippling debt. 
Because the legislation promises cuts commensurate with the debt ceiling increase, forces a vote on a much-needed federal balanced budget amendment and provides the only avenue to avoid default, I encourage members of Congress to vote for this legislation.”

Still, Huntsman is hardly adopting a moderate stance on the larger budgetary questions. The Balanced Budget Amendment he speaks so fondly of is, as Ezra Klein has explained, a completely impractical and radical proposal that would turn the federal government into an ungovernable mess like the state of California. (Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett calls it “mind-boggling in its insanity.”)

It’s also important to remember that this deal is not yet done, even if it passes. A special Congressional committee will be asked to come up with $1.5 trillion in further deficit savings. What those savings will consist of is going to be hotly contested in the months to come. Huntsman, the supposed moderate in the GOP field, demands that they include no additional new revenues, saying, “Going forward, I will aggressively advocate for a plan from the congressional committee that includes real cuts, entitlement reform, and revenue-neutral tax reforms—without any tax hikes.”

In short, the Republican presidential contenders can be counted on to push their party and the public debate even further to the extreme right between now and November 2012.

Obama Releases Video Crediting Supporters for Debt Deal

President Obama released a new video for campaign supporters on Monday, crediting them for the tentative debt deal that he just reached with Congress.

“The pressure you put on Washington is one of the reasons we finally reached a resolution,” Obama says, “in the only way we could, through an agreement between both parties.” 

That feels like a stretch, since the tentative agreement covers most GOP priorities without addressing any of the proposals traditionally associated with the Democratic base. 

One of the early, popular comments on YouTube pushed back on that score.

“What a joke, this isn’t an agreement between both parties, it’s the republicans holding the nation hostage and the democrats giving them all they want,” wrote commenter Aetrion on Monday morning.

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina forwarded to the video to the campaign’s massive email list under the headline, “Here’s the story,” and asked supporters to take it viral.

Please share this video with everyone you know,” he wrote. 

Along with the video, the campaign website features a brief fact sheet touting the benefits of the tentative plan.

The video is below—for more Nation coverage of the debt agreement, check out reactions from Katrina vanden Heuvel and William Greider.

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Violence and Economic Mobility in the Jim Crow South

Between Melissa Harris-Perry, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Matthew Yglesias and The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer, there’s been a great discussion on the origins of the American middle class, and the extent to which it was purposefully built to exclude African-Americans. To add to the conversation, I’ll say this: in addition to emphasizing the actual anti-black policies pursued by the federal government, it’s also worth noting the pervasive climate of anti-black violence that directly discouraged African-Americans from reaching above their “station.”

Lynchings, for example, were often used against blacks who emerged as economic competitors to local whites, and overrall, the lynching rate was correlated with regional economic performance. When competition for jobs was low, lynchings declined, and when competition for jobs rose—particularly during economic downturns—lynchings increased. The same was true for outbreaks of mass racial violence; by and large, white supremacists targeted prosperous black communities for destruction. The Tulsa race riots stand as a prominent example, along with the Rosewood massacre of 1923 and the East St. Louis riots of 1917.

In other words, not only could you be killed for transgressing the nebulous and arbitrary social requirements of the Jim Crow, but you could also be killed for starting a business, accumulating wealth and otherwise trying to improve your situation. Together with state and federal discrimination against blacks, you had—until the middle of the twentieth century—a country where the government worked to prevent black economic advancement, with an assist from widespread violence from private actors. With few exceptions, this predicament was unique to African Americans, and a critical part of understanding the “wealth gap” as it developed through the twentieth century and into the present.

Unfortunately, this is one of those things that doesn’t have a place in the public conversation, in part because most Americans either can’t or won’t imagine an America where—if you were the wrong color—pulling yourself up by your bootstraps was punishable by death.

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Tiny Tea Party Rally vs. Large Progressive Rally: Which Gets More Beltway Ink?

Yesterday, an American Dream Movement rally demanding a debt deal that “protects seniors and makes corporations and the rich pay [their] fair share” drew a significantly larger crowd than a Tea Party rally a day earlier that essentially demanded the opposite. Both were held on Capitol Hill, both focused on the same ginned-up debt ceiling “crisis,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find the Beltway media noting the difference in crowd size—or even reporting on the progressive rally at all.

Wednesday’s conservative rally, organized by the Tea Party Express, was a bust: only about fifty people showed up to see presidential candidate Herman Cain and hear Senators Jim DeMint, Rand Paul and Mike Lee speak. “It had all the makings of a big time Tea Party rally,” Politico wrote. But “by the time the senators had spoken there were still fewer than 50 tea partiers in attendance.”

But then, Thursday’s American Dream rally—organized by MoveOn, Rebuild the Dream, AFSCME and AFGE, and featuring speakers like Van Jones and Representatives Keith Ellison and Jan Schakowsky—clocked in an estimated 450–500 people, according to the coalition. Oddly, though, as of twenty-four hours later, Politico didn’t mention it. CNN.com, meanwhile, talked up the Tea Party rally both the day before it took place and afterward—when it spun the measly crowd (and its own pre-event notice) by writing: “Don't be fooled by the tiny turnout at the Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill Wednesday. The conservative movement doesn't much need rallies anymore. November 2010 changed all of that.”

That’s a handy excuse. And maybe that’s why CNN.com didn’t bother to mention the American Dream rally at all. What could it have said?: “Don’t be fooled by the larger turnout at the progressive rally on Capitol Hill Thursday. The liberal movement desperately needs rallies. November 2010 made it so”?

Thursday’s rally was built on the progressive coalition’s mass action on Tuesday: 20,000 people protesting the various debt deals at more than 800 Congressional offices across the country. For those smaller rallies, MoveOn’s Justin Ruben told me, “We received a huge amount of local coverage, and very little national coverage.”

Readers, if I’ve missed any mainstream reporting on the big American Dream rally, let me know. But I won’t hold my breath. For the most part, the corporate media has been Pavlovian in breathlessly covering even the tiniest TP event—really, anyone tripping into a public space wearing a tricorn hat will do—while virtually ignoring similar gatherings with a progressive tilt. (Exception proving the rule: the Madison, Wisconsin, rallies were too massive to ignore.)

Compare, for instance, how the MSM handled the Tea-Partyed-up town hall meetings protesting healthcare reform during the summer of 2009 to this year’s town halls protesting the GOP bill that would end Medicare, as Rachel Maddow did in April. If the Beltway media treats Tea Partyers like celebrities, it covers liberals, she said, “almost as foreign news.”

And it’s just that sort of double standard that helped create the myth of the Tea Party’s power before which an insane Washington, DC, believes it must genuflect.

That is, the media helped manufacture the Tea Party’s power every bit as much as the Tea Party manufactured our current debt “crisis.”

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The 'Right-Wing Nutters' Who Are Pushing the Country to the Brink

There’s a tense vote count in Washington today as House Speaker John Boehner tries to rally Republican members behind his debt ceiling plan. After one postponement and public disapproval by many prominent House Republicans, Boehner’s plan is teetering on the brink.

The conservative rebellion against Boehner’s plan is being driven by Tea Party activists and many of the freshman members they helped elect. For months, the House Republican leadership has been quietly tutoring these members on the intricacies of the federal budget and the need to raise the debt ceiling, using what Politico called a “stunningly simple” presentation of color-coded charts and graphs. This week, leadership even showed a clip from a Ben Affleck action movie to help persuade the members to act.

But so far, the aggressive pitch doesn’t seem to be working—at one point this week, Boehner was only eight votes from defeat. And if he cannot rally his party to support a dreadful plan with no chance of ultimate passage anyhow, what can he get them to vote for? In the words of British Business Secretary Vince Cable, “The biggest threat to the world financial system comes from a few right-wing nutters in the American Congress.”

That may seem harsh, but only to someone that’s not familiar with the specific Tea Party forces that are whipping conservative members into this rebellion. One group in particular, Let Freedom Ring, has mobilized Tea Party groups across the country and enjoys close connections to incredibly powerful Republican lawmakers. And a quick examination of the group’s history shows that if anything, Cable is being generous.

Let Freedom Ring was founded in 2004 by Colin Hanna, a former state official in Pennsylvania who now enjoys very powerful political connections. He is a part of Grover Norquist’s weekly strategy meeting, and has served as emcee of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a yearly gathering of far-right wingers who like to joke about nuking Chicago or the foreign-born, communist occupant of the White House.

In recent months, Let Freedom Ring has made an aggressive pitch for the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act—this is the legislation House Republicans are currently holding out for, contra Boehner’s plan (or any other). The act would immediately cut spending to pre-2008 levels, eventually cap spending at 19.9 percent of Gross Domestic Product, and pass a balanced budget amendment to the constitution. Such dramatic reductions would savage domestic spending programs; Robert Greenstein at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said the legislation “stands out as one of the most ideologically extreme pieces of major budget legislation to come before Congress in years, if not decades.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called it “perhaps some of the worst legislation in the history of this country.”

The legislation originated in the Republican Study Committee, a group of 175 ultraconservative House members led by Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. As soon as the RSC drafted the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act, they turned to outside groups and in particular Let Freedom Ring to help promote it. In a Family Research Council interview with Hanna and FRC president Tony Perkins, Jordan explained that “we just went to members of the RSC and said ‘What makes sense?’ And we came back with this cut spending, cap spending, and get a balanced budget amendment to the constitution. And then you all took off with it,” he said, turning to Hanna. “The outside conservative groups, Americans, have taken off with this.”

Jordan added that if the long-shot legislation doesn’t pass, and the federal government hits the debt ceiling, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. “I’d rather have the crisis now and say ‘let’s deal with it,’ ” Jordan said. “Versus making a few changes, raising the debt ceiling, and having the crisis in two or three years…. virtually every economist—there’s a consensus out there saying we will have a debt crisis in two to three years.”

Soon after the legislation was unveiled, Let Freedom Ring organized a coalition of over 100 conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, Freedom Works, Tea Party Express, and local Tea Party chapters from coast to coast.

Then Let Freedom Ring and its coalition led the charge. They created a website, cutcapbalanceact.com, which has a pledge asking lawmakers to support the legislation—so far, every major GOP presidential candidate except Jon Huntsman has signed it, along with twelve senators and thirty-nine House members. Over 240,000 people have also pledged to push their elected representatives to support Cut, Cap, and Balance, which already has forty co-sponsors in the Senate and 115 in the House.

The group had a news conference on Capitol Hill in June, featuring Hanna, Jordan, Senators Lindsey Graham, Jim DeMint, Orrin Hatch, Mike Lee and Rand Paul along with Representatives Joe Walsh and Ron Paul, and others. “This is beyond partisanship; this is beyond ideology. This is truly about survival,” Hanna told the assembled reporters.

This week, when Boehner rolled out his latest debt ceiling proposal, the coalition led by Let Freedom Ring struck a major blow against it the same day. In a statement, the group blasted the proposal and said “falls short of meeting (the coalition’s) principles…. we urge those who have signed the Pledge to oppose it and hold out for a better plan.” Soon after, many conservative House members began publically denouncing Boehner’s bill.

This level of influence is impressive for a group that formed only seven years ago. In 2004, Hanna got $1 million from the reclusive conservative financier John Templeton to start Let Freedom Ring. Hanna had gained some national notoriety while commissioner of Chester County, PA, when he refused to remove a Ten Commandments plaque from the county courthouse, and Let Freedom Ring aimed to get evangelical voters to the polls that fall in support of George W. Bush.

At the time, the Wall Street Journal said the group was “attracting wealthy Christians who don’t want to be seen as political.” Hanna said the group would have “a positive political philosophy based upon respect for Constitutional principles, economic freedom and traditional values…. Let Freedom Ring will not engage in negative personal or partisan political attacks.”

That pledge didn’t last long. In 2005, the group aired controversial ads on national television advocating for a border fence with Mexico, where the narrator claims “illegal immigration from Mexico provides easy cover for terrorists” as slow-motion footage of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center plays on screen. 

In the 2008 presidential campaign, positivity really went out the window. As the election approached, Hanna sent missives to his large membership base charging that Obama would “appease worldwide Jihadism” and “[transform] America into a country we might not recognize within just 4 to 6 years.”

Let Freedom Ring created smear ads against Obama which channeled virtually every right-wing theory about the Democratic candidate. One ad, “Puzzle,” showed images of Jeremiah Wright (a “radical and [a] racist”), William Ayres, Tony Rezko, Louis Farrakhan, Iran, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and ACORN—all in sixty-one seconds. The ads were praised by Fox News because they “did something that John McCain’s camp has still not done: create a negative ad that challenged Barack Obama’s credibility.”

Hanna was also busted by NBC News conducting a push poll in Pennsylvania only days before the election, in which voters were asked if “knowing that the former head of Fannie Mae made millions of dollars while working there and worked on the Obama campaign" would make them less likely to vote Democratic. 

After Obama was elected, Hanna helped push the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. In an MSNBC interview, Hanna said “Obama and those supporters around him have not answered perfectly simple and straightforward questions that would have put this to rest long ago. Where is the proper documentation?”

Let Freedom Ring was instrumental in putting together the Tea Party and 9/12 rallies in 2009, and last year the group released a photography book of signs from the protests called Grandma’s Not Shovel-Ready. In the foreword, Hanna wrote that “it is our hope that these signs will give you strength, encouragement and an occasional chuckle in these challenging times. This book proves that in America, the spirit of freedom still lives!”

The book featured signs labeling “Comrade Obama” as “World’s #1 Crypto-Marxist,” and an “undocumented worker.” The book also flirted with revolution and overthrowing the government. “Oust the Marxist Usurper! Honduras did it!” read one sign.

Another man was pictured grimly holding a sign that said “I will give my blood for my children’s freedom.” (“Blood” was dripping with red ink). Another woman was shown holding a sign that said “A revolution is brewing. We will not subsidize tyranny. Violate our liberty at your peril.” A man stood next to her, wearing a T-shirt with crossed AK-47s and holding a sign that said “find out what happens.”

This type of Tea Party vitriol and dirty politics is unfortunately standard fare, accepted long ago by mainstream journalists as part of the political game. But it’s long past time to question how an organization that puts out a book like Grandma’s Not Shovel-Ready can also be a major power player in a debate that has the country five days from financial catastrophe.  

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The Rise of the Austerity Hawk Democrats

“Our plan includes more cuts,” Chuck Schumer bragged at a news conference on Capitol Hill yesterday when comparing Harry Reid’s debt plan to John Boehner’s.

The fact that Senate Democrats are trying to out-cut the cut-obsessed Republicans pretty much sums up the current political debate in Washington. “Harry Reid’s plan wins the austerity sweepstakes,” Adam Serwer wrote yesterday. “It's the austerity party vs. the austerity party,” blogger Atrios tweeted.

President Obama has actively shifted the debt debate to the right, both substantively and rhetorically. Substantively by not insisting on a “clean bill” to raise the debt ceiling at the outset and actively pushing for drastic spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs as part of any deal. And rhetorically by mimicking right-wing arguments about the economy, such as the canard that reducing spending will create jobs (it won’t), or that the government’s budget is like a family’s budget (it isn’t), or that major spending cuts will return confidence to the market and spur the economy recovery we’ve all been waiting for (Paul Krugman calls it “the confidence fairy”).

“For the last few months, I and others have watched, with amazement and horror, the emergence of a consensus in policy circles in favor of immediate fiscal austerity,” Krugman wrote on July 1. “That is, somehow it has become conventional wisdom that now is the time to slash spending, despite the fact that the world’s major economies remain deeply depressed. This conventional wisdom isn’t based on either evidence or careful analysis. Instead, it rests on what we might charitably call sheer speculation, and less charitably call figments of the policy elite’s imagination.”

In the last few weeks, the austerity hawk choir has only gotten louder. President Obama has successfully used the bully pulpit to undermine the case for progressive governance. 

Even after the 2010 election, which supposedly was a referendum on government spending, there was little evidence that the public cared about the deficit and a lot of evidence that they wanted Washington to address the jobs crisis. For example, 56 percent of Americans ranked the economy and jobs as their top priority for the new Congress following the election, while only 4 percent named the deficit.

By a two to one margin, according to a July Quinnipiac poll, Americans still believe that reducing unemployment is more important than cutting the deficit. But they only narrowly believe that reducing unemployment is more important than reducing federal government spending, by a 49 to 43 margin. And the public now says that “major cuts in federal spending” would help, not hurt, the economy, a 15 point reversal from March.

Things might have been different had President Obama made an aggressive and sustained argument that the government still has an important role to play in spurring an economic recovery and creating jobs. Instead, the president sided with the austerity hawks and strengthened the elite Washington consensus.

Throughout the debt ceiling debate, Obama keeps touting how he’s bucking the activists in his own party. It seems as if the president wants to run against the Democratic base in 2012 and position himself as the supposedly sensible centrist candidate. As a result, the president’s approval ratings among liberals are at the lowest point of his presidency.

That “triangulation” strategy worked for Bill Clinton in 1996, although he had the benefit of a rapidly growing economy. My guess is the 2012 election will be much more like 2004 than 1996, when the country is fiercely divided about the incumbent leader, unsure of the opposition, and in a politically restive mood. If that’s the case, Obama will need his base to knock on doors, make phone calls and persuade undecided voters who to vote for. That’s how Bush won in ‘04, by ratcheting up Republican turnout in states like Ohio. The more Obama bucks his supporters—and keeps ignoring the jobs crisis in favor of deficit hysteria—the dicier his path to re-election becomes, especially if the economy continues to lag.

But let’s forget about the 2012 election for a moment. Right now, the public is being deprived a real and vital debate about how to solve the economic crisis. Obama is governing like a moderate Republican. Republicans are governing like Grover Norquist. The net effect is that US politics keeps shifting further and further to the right.

--Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

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Peter King Targets Somali-American Radicalization—and the 'New York Times'

Representative Peter King’s third installment in a series of hearings examining domestic Muslim radicalization, held Wednesday on Capitol Hill, didn’t have a particularly inflammatory topic—the committee was exploring the real, albeit rather minor, problem of radicalization among Somali-Americans. But ever the showman, King began the hearing by throwing some bloody meat to the packed hearing room and the conservative media that lay beyond.

In Monday’s New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen labeled King an “ideological fellow traveler” of Anders Breivik, the Oslo shooter, because King’s frequent Islamophobia. (Cohen didn’t get specific, but for example, King has said there are “too many mosques in this country.”)

In his opening remarks Wednesday, King tore into the newspaper. “I note that certain elements of the politically correct media, most egregiously the vacuous ideologues at the New York Times, are shamelessly attempting to exploit the horrific tragedy in Norway to cause me to refocus these hearings away from Muslim-American radicalization,” King said.

“If they had even a semblance of intellectual honesty, the Times and the others would know and admit that there is no equivalency in the threat to our homeland from a deranged gunman and the international terror apparatus of Al Qaeda and its affiliates who are recruiting people in this country and have murdered thousands of Americans in their jihad attacks.”

King then went on to characterize his hearings as “liberating and empowering” to “many Muslim-Americans” who “are now able to come forward,” and closed by invoking the victims of the September 11 attacks.

The attack generated immediate headlines, and King announced on Twitter shortly after the hearing that Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor would highlight the conflagration.

From there, the hearing didn’t have too many fireworks—committee members questioned law enforcement officials and other experts about the recruiting efforts of Al Shabaab, a group fighting to overthrow the Somali government. Al Shabaab has successfully recruited about forty Somalis from the Minneapolis area to join their cause, including Shirwa Ahmed, who drove a truck bomb into a Somali government building in 2008.

Notably, Al Shabaab only seems interested in recruiting Americans to fight the Somali government—not the American one—but it’s at least something the House Committee on Homeland Security might reasonably investigate. This is in contrast to King’s first two hearings; the first one was general enough to potentially indict all Muslim-Americans, and as I reported last month, the second hearing discussed Islamic radicalization in prisons but offered no actual examples of terrorists converted behind bars.

In any case, practical inquiry into Al Shabaab’s efforts frequently devolved into nonsense. With a thick Southern drawl, Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina offered his advice for “eye-mams” in American mosques. “In my church, I’m Baptist, we sing patriotic hymns about America, we talk about American greatness, we talk about freedom of religion and separation of that and government, and our founding fathers’ creating of this land,” he said. “That’s what I would hope the imams in the mosque would begin to talk about.”

Later, Texas Democratic Representative Al Green engaged in a protracted exercise of asking the witnesses what they knew about the physical characteristics of Colleen LaRose, a Pennsylvania woman known as “Jihad Jane” for her amateur efforts to join an Islamic resistance movement. Hurried along by a frustrated King, Green cut to the chase and asked each witness to raise his hand if he knew Jihad Jane was white. (Even King hasn’t suggested that only dark-skinned people are subject to Islamic radicalization).

During the hearing, King’s staff released a report into Al Shabaab radicalization efforts, which is useful insofar as it goes. But with Al Shabaab out of the way, where will the committee turn next?

Given his tirade against the New York Times at the start of today’s hearing, perhaps King will aim directly at the liberal media. He does, after all, view them—and liberals “in general”—as complicit with Al Qaeda. In an April interview with National Review Online, King described a “liberal psychological disorder” that actively helps terrorists.

“There’s no doubt that radical Islamists in this country have become a protected force,” he said. “All of the radical Muslim groups such as CAIR, their allies in the media, and liberals in general have just rallied to their defense…. The New York Times trips over itself defending [radical Islamists].” Perhaps Jill Abramson should watch her mailbox for a subpoena.

Media Blows Debt Crisis Coverage With Balance Bias

Balance Bias (bal-ance bi-as)
1. The assumption that there is truth and legitimacy to both sides of every dispute.
2. The iron law in political journalism that one side in a debate can never be exclusively right, or have a monopoly on the facts.

This increasingly disorderly fight over raising the debt ceiling has not only exposed the petty dysfunctions of the US Congress, it has also revealed a core failure of American political journalism. The press has made the debt fight the top story for the last two weeks—even accounting for half of all stories on radio and cable news—but much of the coverage has failed to tell the very basics of what is happening.

I don’t mean how this deficit was created (by tax cuts, Medicare and recessions), or why the debt ceiling gets raised (in response to past decisions by Congress). That stuff matters, but at bottom, this is a story about politics, not the bond market.

This fight started with a partisan threat to sabotoge the economy in order to extract policy concessions, but then, when Democrats offered most of the concessions, it ricocheted and morphed into something else: a high-stakes lightning round of intramural GOP posturing. Right now, we are living through a Republican primary for economic policy. The results may hurt the nation—an externality that Republicans have widely acknowledged, lending bite to their bark—and no one seems to know what you do with an army that wants to keep fighting after there’s no land left to conquer.

One might quibble with some details and word choices, but that’s the basic story. It’s gripping, it’s scary, and it’s not anything close to the press’s story about this debt fight. Take this headline, running at the top of CNN a day after President Obama’s national address:

“They’re all talking, but no one is compromising, at least publicly. Democratic and GOP leaders appear unwilling to bend on proposals to raise the debt ceiling.”

Journalist Josh Marshall confronted that bizarro narrative with evidence of what’s actually happening. “By any reasonable measure, this [CNN headline] is simply false, even painfully so,” he notes, adding, “even the firebreathers on the Republican side" are not suggesting otherwise. Marshall reports that over $2 trillion in cuts is the current offer from Senator Reid, which is actually larger and more “Republican-leaning than what Speaker Boehner was demanding a few months ago.” And the Reid plan—which could just as accurately be called the Super Sized Boehner plan—does not include any revenues, which was “the primary demand of Republicans from the beginning.”

Whether you think it’s good or bad, we have just seen one party’s leadership embrace the platform of the opposing party, only to watch that party apparently back off its own original position. That’s news! Marshall continues:

It is not partisan or spin to say that the Democrats have repeatedly offered compromises. The real driver of the debate is that the fact that Republican majority in the House can’t agree to win... The real problem at the moment isn’t that neither side’s caucus can accept the other side’s ‘plan’ - [it's] that Speaker Boehner doesn’t have the votes in his caucus for his own ‘plan’.

That reality, however, is deeply uncomfortable for reporters nursing Balance Bias. Saying that “Washington is broken” or “both sides are squabbling” is easy. It is safe. And it’s often true, since structural problems hinder our democracy regardless of which party is in power, and politics is full of petty, meaningless bickering. But not on this one. New York magazine’s Jon Heilemann, an accomplished author and astute political analyst, fell into the habit this week, when he was asked why there’s still no debt deal. The “ideological convictions of two sides have proven to be unshakable,” he observed. It was as if Reid and Boehner were at opposite ends of the table, when Reid actually took Boehner’s seat. Over at The Times, Economist Paul Krugman observes that most news accounts portray this “as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent—because news reports always do that.” This conventional wisdom was sealed a few weeks ago by Jon Stewart, who gingerly knocked both parties, with false equivalency, for stoking their own equally horrific political endgames. (Never mind that only one party was making threats; the video is below.)

So why does this ur-text keep trumping the facts?

Let’s turn to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, a prolific media critic who has a theory, developed in a series of essays that are both elegant and reproachful, that today’s political reporters are on a futile “quest for innocence” when reporting political disputes. By innocence, Rosen means “a determination not to be implicated, enlisted or seen by the public as involved.” I asked him how that works on this debt story.

“Asymmetry in a highly contested situation fries the circuits of the press,” Rosen said via e-mail this week. “The bigger the stakes, the more dangerous it feels for reporters to reflect that asymmetry in their accounts,” he proposed. That makes sense, since often it’s “the big lie” that gets more traction than little fibs. So the political press rebuted Sarah Palin’s spin about opposing “The Bridge to Nowhere” in 2008, a low-stakes example, but they back down on a market-shaking feud like the debt fight. And Rosen suggests that while Democrats or Talking Points Memo or Eugene Robinson may call out the problem, that doesn’t actually do much.

“The people screaming about an asymmetrical situation that has been artificially balanced are likely to be on one side of the contested ground, right? This fries the circuits even more, adding to the danger [for innocent reporters],” he says. This is also your brain on Balance Bias.

Rosen believes that the worst offenders in media literally care more about maintaining their innocence than their first obligation of accuracy. “Our press has an unacknowledged agenda: to advertise itself as an innocent player in politics, to show off how even-handed it is always being,” he argues. “It will put that agenda before truthtelling. But since nothing can come before truthtelling, the agenda stays hidden, repressed.”

That’s a pretty compelling theory. Balance Bias is somewhat lower on the continuum, I think, because reporters can practice it without repressing anything. They may even oppose the concept but follow its rules, knowing that their editors or management will not accept a political story about one side being completely wrong. Or irrational. Or irresponsible. Because that “can’t be the whole story!”

And if you believe that, then your only response to the endgame of the debt crisis is total denial. That may be human, but it ain’t journalism.

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