Pointless Commentary

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

More Orwellian Rhetoric on Filibusters

On CNN's partisan bickerfest Crossfire yesterday, the topic was the nuclear/constitutional (or is that nuke-the-Constitution?) option. Bob Novak showed himself to be the king of partisan hacks once again in the following exchange with Ralph Neas of People For the American Way, after a video clip of Senator Frist asserting that all judicial nominees for 214 years have received an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor:

NOVAK: Can you name one who has been denied an up or down vote.

RALPH NEAS, PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY: The most important filibuster of a judicial nomination in the history of the United States (INAUDIBLE)

NOVAK: He didn't have majority support.

NEAS: You are wrong, Bob.

NOVAK: Oh, come on. He didn't have majority support, you know that.

NEAS: The problem is you never -- you never...


NEAS: It was a four-day filibuster. Twice as long as any of the filibusters over the last four years. There were 51 votes. The problem is, you never went to the Senate Judiciary Committee report, where three of the unannounced senators voted for him, and the Senate Judiciary Committee voted him out. You didn't count the government and you didn't count how -- 51 votes.

NOVAK: Why -- They didn't have the votes. That is making up history, Ralph. I'm embarrassed and ashamed of you.

(Incidentally, the filibustered nomination they're discussing is that of Abe Fortas. Though CNN's transcribers couldn't make it out, I heard it clearly.)

The more I thought about Novak's assertion, the dumber it seemed. First there was the fact that Neas presented a detailed argument for his claim that Fortas had majority support in the Senate in spite of the "official" head counts, but Novak presented a veiled personal attack on Neas rather than any factual evidence. Then late last night, I realized there was a deeper flaw in Novak's argument: if Fortas didn't have majority support, why would anyone bother to filibuster his nomination? It wouldn't have mattered if his nomination went to the Senate floor if there weren't 51 votes in the full Senate to confirm it. The assertion is just silly on the face of it.

(Transcript available here)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

It's Raining Ballot Initiatives...

...At least by Ohio standards. The Dayton Daily News (registration required) reports that there may be as many as six voter initiatives may appear on this November's ballot. Ohio averages less than one ballot initiative per year. The Daily News attributes this increase largely to long-term one-party dominance of statewide elected offices and the legislature's preoccupation with debating the biennial budget. However, I think it's mostly the result of an unusual confluence of issues that the public feels are not being properly addressed. Looking at each of the proposed initiatives in turn:

1. School Funding: The state government never really tried to overhaul Ohio's school funding decision, despite a state Supreme Court decision ordering it to do so. Instead, it tinkered with the system until the Court got tired of dealing with the case and signed off on a marginal solution. Therefore, people who want Ohio's educational system to be fairer to the working class and the poor have no choice but to turn to the ballot box.

2. Limiting State Spending: You would think this would be an easy thing to get out of a Republican legislature, but legislators love pork and hate anything that might interfere with their ability to distribute it. Therefore, conservatives in a Republican-dominated state had to go to the ballot box.

3. Casinos: Ohio voters have already rejected a casino gambling proposal once, but gambling interests are trying again. It's difficult to get this kind of proposal through a legislature dominated by social conservatives, so obviously a ballot issue is the only way for it to ever be passed. Of course, unlike all the other proposals which might go to a popular vote this year, this one has no major public benefit.

4. Three Election Reforms: Three separate initiatives seek to reform Ohio's redistricting methods, lower campaign contribution limits, and replace the secretary of state with a nine-member state elections board. Obviously, no current officeholder is going to tinker with the election system. After all, the current system obviously works for him. Measures such as these must almost always be done through an initiative.

While the media tends to analyze these things strictly in terms of their benefits for certain parties or candidates, I think that approach is misguided. With the exception of the casino gambling initiative, all of this year's (potential) crop of ballot issues look like sincere efforts to improve public policy. Unfortunately, our current state government can't be counted on to do such things itself.

Ohio Republican Party Self-Destructing

Bring Ohio Home reprinted a story from The Other Paper, a Columbus alternative newspaper, about the increasing influence of Christian conservatives in Ohio's Republican Party. Unlike in previous elections, it looks like the religious right will be able to determine the Republican candidate for governor. This means that the nominee will most likely be either an evangelical conservative (like Ken Blackwell, the current secretary of state) or a moderate who has moved to the right on social issues.

This is bad news for Ohio Republicans. At first, there will be much rejoicing, since most Republicans in the Ohio legislature are conservatives. Most Republican moderates in the state government are in the executive branch serving under a governor who is almost as unpopular among conservative Republicans as he is with Democrats (which is why he has such low approval ratings [from daytondailynews.com; registration required]). As is often the case with extremists, though, Ohio's evangelicals appear to overestimate how representative they are of the general population. Abortion is as divisive an issue in Ohio as anywhere else, and as the people of the state begin to realize the possible consequences (DDN again) of last November's Issue 1, banning gay marriage will become a divisive issue as well.

Ohio's Republicans may well be ready to hand the governorship to an ineffective state Democratic Party that appears unable to come close to winning it on its own.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Folding Up Tents Along the Border

According to the LA Times, the Minutemen have decided to end their border patrols early. Despite the fact that the entire project went off without incident, local officials and the Border Patrol still insisted on taking parting shots at the group.

The Border Patrol claims that the 50% decrease in illegal immigrant traffic along the stretch of border patrolled by the volunteers was probably due to the increased Mexican military presence in that area. This could be true, but the Mexican army wouldn't have been there if not for the Minutemen. They also argue that the Minutemen only drove illegals to other, less watched, parts of the border. This is a plausible argument.

The mayor of Douglas, Arizona--which sits at one end of the Minutemen's target stretch of border--had this to say:

As soon as the media packed up and left, they left as well. All they accomplished was being a hindrance to the Border Patrol and creating international hard feelings. Their biggest accomplishment was getting the media's attention.

The problem with this statement is that this story was old news after about a week. If the Minutemen were only media whores, they probably wouldn't have stayed this long. The mayor also ignores the fact that drawing media attention to an issue is a worthwhile goal of public activism.

In any event, the Minutemen are now going to turn their attention to other ventures, including "protesting businesses that employ illegal immigrants." This may be a more effective tactic than border patrols, which only allow the White House to call their members vigilantes and otherwise demean their cause. Imagine what might happen if a bunch of businesses that support the current immigration system to get cheap labor were suddenly boycotted....

Second Thoughts About Benedict XVI

This AP story (via Yahoo) about Pope Benedict's actions yesterday reveal that the hasty judgments many (including myself) drew about his election may be false. Contrary to the often strident statements he made and documents he generated as the Vatican's chief enforcer of doctrine, he appears ready to continue John Paul II's dialogues with other faiths. He even invited Rome's chief Rabbi to the mass that will formally mark his installation as pope. While this may seem like an abrupt turnaround, I can think of a couple of possible explanations for it:

1. As Cardinal Ratzinger, the official in charge of docrtine enforcement, Pope Benedict had to emphasize his hard-line stances in doctrine over other, more pleasant personality traits. He may have even had a good-cop/bad-cop arrangement with the late John Paul II, under which Ratzinger said made all of the most controversial statements so that John Paul could remain the diplomat. Upon assuming the papacy himself, Benedict was free to express his entire personality.

2. It's possible that the pope had some sort of epiphany (perhaps even a revelation from God), that being the leader of a diverse church requires a different approach than the relatively narrow job of being essentially the Chief Inquisitor. Since it is safe to assume that the pope cares deeply about the Catholic Church, it makes sense that he would want to act as pope in the interest of the Church rather than in the interests of his own personal ideas about purity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The New Pope

The Moderate Liberal notes the one thing that doesn't seem to have been noticed in the news coverage of the accession of Pope Benedict XVI. I have a strange suspicion that the former Cardinal Ratzinger's age may have played a significant role in his election.

Conventional wisdom held that the Cardinals--even conservative ones--would be concerned about the issue of "collegiality," or devolving some power in the formation of doctrine to bishops. This was a sensible theory, since the collegiality issue affects the amount of authority cardinals have in their own dioceses. Assuming that all cardinals are power hungry and want to be pope someday, that would be a powerful motivator. So why would they elect the man who has been John Paul's iron fist for 24 years, pulling the choke chain on anyone who dared to disagree with the Vatican's take on doctrine?

I have a strange feeling the process went something like this (Note: This is all speculation without a shred of tangible evidence to back it up, but what the hell. This is, after all, the internet). Most of the cardinals wanted to elect a conservative, but one who would grant some degree of collegiality. However, Ratzinger had the Curial cardinals solidly behind him, which gave him enough votes to block any other candidate with only a little help. Once the other members of the conclave recognized this stranglehold, they thought to themselves, "Sure, he's an authoritarian, but he's old. He's not going to last more than a decade or so as pope." Then many of the younger cardinals could compete for their turn in St. Peter's chair.

Of course there is an alternate explanation. Maybe the Catholic Church just decided it was tired of dealing with all those free-thinking Westerners and that it's better off sticking with downtrodden Third World people who know how to knuckle under and take orders from their betters. This is certainly Pope Benedict's view, but I doubt the rest of the Cardinals are that strident.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Wrong Rhetoric of the Religious Right

Yesterday,the LA times ran this story about the recent Oregon Supreme Court decision nullifying gay marriage licenses issued in the Portland area. At the end of the article, one Robert Knight, director of something called the Culture and Family Institute, makes this bizarre statement about civil unions:

Such unions would "put the government's stamp of approval on homosexuality," Knight said. "It will then be imposed on everyone … and we will oppose it."

What will be imposed on everyone? If the government puts its "stamp of approval" on homosexual relationships, will everyone be forced to be gay? Will everyone have to approve of homosexual relationships? This kind of stupid, innacurate rhetoric that completely lacks respect for the English language and the meaning of words is the thing that offends me the most about the religious right.

Okay, George Orwell beat me to the analysis of this particular phenomenon in all political speech by at least 70 years, but I just had to use my obscure little corner of the web to vent. I feel much better now.

A New (or Old) Revolution?

Conventional wisdom among Republicans and much of the media has been that Howard Dean is completely the wrong person to lead the Democratic Party. Supposedly he's too much of a liberal firebrand to take the pragmatic measures necessary to gain the party more votes, and thus more members in public office. However, this USA Today story shows a different side of the former Vermont governor.

Of course, this isn't the first time Dean has said that the Democratic Party must win back red-state voters who are concerned about values issues. However, this little bit of rhetoric was particularly interesting:

Democrats get "caught" in defending abortion, he said. "Well, there's nobody who's pro-abortion, not Democratic or Republican. What we want to debate is who gets to choose: (House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay and the federal politicians? Or does a woman get to make up her own mind?"

This is obviously a clever echo of the language of the 1994 Republican Revolution. Some would argue that 1994 was different because then the issue was largely about the collection and dispersal of money, rather than about fundamental questions of life and death. But I believe that "Who decides?" is a question that resonates with most Americans on a wide variety of issues. After all, it speaks to the freedom that we hold dear. Appealing to this fundamental desire to control your own destiny worked for Republicans in 1994; let's see if it works for Democrats in 2006 and beyond.

Friday, April 15, 2005

DeLay vs. Nixon

The Bull Moose has written an interesting essay about Newt Gingrich's rhetoric against Tom DeLay. In the last paragraph, he has this to say about the failure of other conservatives to upbraid the corrupt majority leader:

What is most striking, however, is that more conservatives are not taking Newt's lead. Outside of Andy Ferguson in the Weekly Standard and David Brooks at the Times, most conservatives are putting their credibility on the line in standing with DeLay. He is their Nixon and their movement will long be tarred by the association.

There are, however, two distinctions between DeLay and Nixon:

1. Nixon had other people do his dirty work. It took a lot of effort to connect the Watergate burglary to Nixon personally, and even then the most anyone could pin on him was his involvement in the cover-up.

2. Nixon had the decency to resign when he realized that continuing in office could be the death of his party. It remains to be seen whether DeLay will do the same. I have the feeling he would rather bury the whole city of Washington than voluntarily resign from his powerful position.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Ohio's Less-than-compassionate Conservatives

The Montgomery County Democratic Party is shocked that Republicans in the General Assembly (what we call the state legislature) voted down a proposal to give a miniscule amount of funding to a program to help single mothers make the transition from welfare to work. I don't find this surprising at all. Ohio's Republican legislators never really bought into the "compassionate conservative" thing. They've spent the last several years trying to prove they can be both more short-sighted and more hard-hearted than the national Republicans.

For example, after the welfare reforms of the 90s were enacted, the Republican-dominated General Assembly set a lifetime limit of three years of welfare benefits per person--lower than the federally mandated five years. They gave no rational reason for believing that three years was long enough for a welfare recipient to get appropriate training and move into the work force. Rather, they just decided to give Ohio a leg up in the race to make each state's welfare numbers look good by creating a bunch of unemployed people who were no longer covered by welfare.