Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If Newt Loses It's Still Far From Over, But For The GOP It's Over Bar The Shouting

Vote for Newt. Annoy a liberal. ~ SARAH PALIN
When the sun comes up tomorrow in the Sunshine State, it is probable that Mitt Romney will have bounced back from his drubbing in South Carolina and defeated Newt Gingrich in the latest installment of the see-saw race for the Republican presidential nomination despite fellow serial adulterer Herman Cain's last-minute endorsement of the former House speaker.

A Florida victory, of course, is good news for Romney, but it also is great news for President Obama and his re-election team because Gingrich will make it clear that he's not going anywhere except back to Florida in August for the national convention in Tampa because his arch rival won't be able to get a majority of delegates.

Primary delegate selection rules would seem to back up this boast.

Rules instituted this year require primary states to distribute their delegates proportionally instead of by winner-take-all. This means that Gingrich can keep amassing a sizable number of delegates even if Romney keeps beating him. Same for Ron Paul, who is now tied with Rick Santorum for third in most polls, and although the number Paul brings may not be sizable, Romney may be unable to get a majority.

In another rule change, the name of any candidate who receives a plurality of delegates in five states will be placed in nomination. In addition to South Carolina, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Gingrich could get a plurality in Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.

Candidates feigning determination to fight on against long odds are a staple of campaigns, but Gingrich is different because of his visceral loathing of Romney and the Republican establishment.

"When you take all the non-Romney votes, it's very likely that at the convention there will be a non-Romney majority and maybe a very substantial one," the candidate said on Sunday. "My job is to convert that into a Gingrich majority."

Gingrich also has an ace in the hole of a sort because the opposition to Romney among the GOP's tail-wagging conservative base has not diminished and it is difficult to see Tea Party diehards capitulating to Romney in Tampa. But having noted that, Gingrich may not get to play his ace. This is because if no candidate has a majority of delegates after the first convention ballot, the job of selecting the nominee will fall on the Republican National Committee, which is comprised of state party chairs and other power brokers who will overwhelmingly favor Romney.

There has been a flurry of commentaries comparing Gingrich's refusal to accede to the law of gravity to Hillary Clinton in 2008, but the comparison is bogus because Clinton was able to hold on because she had a ton of money, which Gingrich does not have even with Sugar Daddy and Mommy Adelman, and a deep national campaign infrastructure, which Gingrich most definitely doesn't have.

Meanwhile, the idea of a White Knight galloping into the fray is ludicrous.

A late entrant would be unable to get on the ballot in many primary states where deadlines have passed, and the 11th hour entry of a draft candidate like Mitch Daniels at the convention is most unlikely. With the election a mere 10 weeks out at that point, this candidate would be screwed with no organization, no money and . . . oh, no platform. Besides which, fantasy candidates always look great because they haven't been subjected to the attacks real candidates have to face.

Beyond the big dance, a prolonged primary battle is more bad news for congressional Republicans.

They have been repeatedly upstaged by the president of late, most recently with the State of the Union speech, their message -- a Big Fat No to anything that would help jump start the economy and create jobs -- isn't playing well out on the hustings, the gulf between House Speaker John Boehner and renegade freshmen is growing, and more moderate Republican senators are increasingly at odds with their lower chamber peers.

But the biggest reason that the primary season has been a mess is because it is a reflection of what the Republican Party has become.

The party's myriad factions have more or less hung together in recent years not because they agree with each other; in fact, there are serious policy disagreements within several of the factions. They have hung together because of the intensity of their hatred for Barack Obama. And that, in the end, is not going to be nearly enough to win the White House is Romney survives or if, miracle of miracles for Democrats, Gingrich prevails.

Cartoon du Jour

Glenn McCoy/Universal Press Syndicate

Monday, January 30, 2012

Bella's Getting Better, No Hope For Dad

It's been a rough few days for the three-year-old daughter of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who remains in a hospital with pneumonia.

The longshot candidate described Bella Santorum's improvement on Sunday as "a miraculous turnaround" and it may indeed be a God job. But the top flight medical care she is getting at a Washington, D.C. area hospital may have something to do with her family having health insurance because of Santorum's lavish Senate retirement benefits and personal wealth. But in yet another of the hypocrisy-tinged ironies that abound in today's Republican Party, he is against the government helping provide health insurance to the families of all the other Bellas in America who become ill but cannot afford decent care.

In fact, doing a little extrapolating, of the 45 million Americans without health insurance, there probably are at least a million or so three-year-olds in that situation, while about 1,000 children die of pneumonia in the U.S. each year

Bella's pneumonia is complicated by the fact that she has a genetic condition known as Trisomy 18. The condition typically proves fatal and Santorum often says his daughter wasn't expected to live past 12 months. That she has survived and thrived also may indeed be a God job. But the top flight medical care she is getting may have something to do with her family having health insurance because of Santorum's lavish Senate retirement benefits and wealth. But in yet another of the hypocrisy-tinged ironies that abound in today's Republican Party . . . You know.

As recently as last Friday, Santorum excoriated fellow candidate Mitt Romney, who pushed through the nation's first comprehensive health-care reform as Massachusetts governor, and President Obama for "wanting to tell Americans that as a condition of breathing in America, you have to go out and buy private sector insurance so (sic) the government will fine you."

What Santorum was saying is that under ObamaCare, individuals at a certain income level could be fined beginning in 2014 if they don't get insurance to help fund a pool for insurance for people who cannot afford it. The fines will be small, and there is widespread agreement outside of the Republican fever swamp that the government will not be aggressive in pursuing fines.

This post will attract criticism because by some people's lights writing about a sick child to hammer home the point that her father is a hypocrite should be off limits. But then so would going after Newt Gingrich for his none-of-your-business private life, specifically the fact that as a married man he was having one of his serial affairs as he led the charge to impeach President Clinton for his affair with a White House intern.

In any event, we wish Bella a speedy and full recovery. As for her father, there is no hope.

Cartoon du Jour

Ben Sargent/Universal Press Syndicate

Friday, January 27, 2012

Who Is Saul Alinsky & Why Is Newt Gingrich Yammering About Him?

On the night of his triumph in the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich declared that "The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky."

That reference and subsequent references to Alinsky surely puzzled viewers of a certain age and probably many viewers of all ages. This is because Alinsky, a legendary community organizer, died in 1972.

Translated, Gingrich’s dog-whistle demagoguery is:

I am sure that a threateningly ethnic and Jew boy name like Saul Alinsky will resonate with Southern Republican voters. Oh, and Barack Obama was a community organizer in Chicago like Saul Alinsky, whose views are at the heart of all that is wrong with our great republic today, and like Saul Alinsky, the man whom I will oust from the White House is an anti-religious radical who demeans our great republic. Did I mention that ours is a great republic?

I happen to think that Alinsky was not a radical although he considered himself one. His Rules For Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, was one of the most influential books that I read as a young man in educating myself on outside-the-mainstream politics and philosophies. Published shortly before Alinsky’s death, it is a handbook for community organizers.

Alinsky writes in the prologue that: "What I have to say in this book is not the arrogance of unsolicited advice. It is the experience and counsel that so many young people have questioned me about through all-night sessions on hundreds of campuses in America. It is for those young radicals who are committed to the fight, committed to life."

Now it so happens that Obama did once work in a Chicago community organizing project inspired by Alinsky, but there the similarities end, which Gingrich should well know if he is the student of history that he claims to be.

And if he was the student of history that he claims to be, he would recognize a couple of ironies: The religious fundamentalist of the 1980s and the Tea Partier of today emulated Alinsky's organizing methods, while Gingrich himself uses Alinsky's tactic of exploiting resentment.

Alinsky, it turns out, was a deep believer in grassroots democracy and institutional religion. He frequently quoted Jefferson and Madison and was disdainful of 1960s leftists who burned American flags. He did much of his work with the active support and resources of the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, the same religion that Gingrich converted to when he married Callista Bisek. (Three marriages and three religions, but so little time.)

In 1969, Alinsky received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, given annually by a coalition of Catholic groups in the Midwest to commemorate an encyclical about human rights and alternatives to war written by Pope John XXIII. Most honorees have been ardent reformers of one faith or another. They include Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Daniel Berrigan and Lech Walesa. Oh, and Mother Teresa.

That's our Newt. Terrific demagogue and lousy historian.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

A Great Calendar & A Worthy Cause

The capacity of the blogosphere to do good deeds is under appreciated and under utilized. Which makes the union between John Cole's Balloon Juice blog and Charlie's Angels, an animal rescue organization, so worthwhile.

John and his fellow bloggers have been tireless advocates of the rescue and adoption of homeless pets, especially those who might otherwise be euthanized. This has led to the creation of an annual Balloon Juice pet rescue calendar that is chockablock with owner-submitted photographs of their rescues and adoptions, mostly dogs and cats with the occasional wabbit.

The 2012 calendar is now available, and who cares if January is almost shot. The $22 bucks for each calendar goes to Charlie's Angels, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. All donations directly to Charlie's Angels are fully tax deductible.

The rescue effort resonates deeply for the Dear Friend & Conscience and myself. We currently have five rescue critters, three cats and chocolate Labrador sister-brother Nicky and Jack, who if you click on and enlarge the top image can be seen near the upper right-hand corner frolicking in the snow behind our mountain retreat.

Click here to order a calendar.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Florida Primary Was Once A Cakewalk For Mitt Romney But Is Now Pivotal

With five days to go before the Florida presidential primary, public-opinion polls in the Sunshine State are sending a mixed message. But one thing is for sure, a primary that once appeared to be a cakewalk for Mitt Romney may well turn out to be pivotal for the hapless candidate.

An averaging of the polls on Wednesday revealed a 4 percentage point lead for Gingrich. With a plus or minus 3 percent error margin, that is not much of a lead. A new poll out today puts Romney ahead by 7 percentage points, and there are indications that Gingrich might have hit a ceiling in support. As if it matters, Rick Santorum is a distant third and Ron Paul even further back.

Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight forecast model at The New York Times still projects Gingrich as the slight favorite, giving him a 2-point lead and a 60 percent chance of victory, a lead that has diminished considerably from two days ago when the model saw a potential double-digit win for him.

The Florida vote is pivotal because national polls also show likely voters trending toward Gingrich and that was happening before he wiped the floor with Romney in South Carolina.

The most reliable and time-tested of national polls is the Gallup national tracking poll, which shows Gingrich up by 4 percentage points over Romney and gaining by the day. The latest Rasmussen Reports national poll, which was taken after South Carolina, shows Gingrich up by 7 percentage points.

While Gingrich must be smiling about those numbers, they mask others.

The latest Fox News national poll of registered Democratic, Republican and independent voters found that 56 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Gingrich, while only 27 percent viewed him favorably. Only three other presidential wannabes have had negatives like that since 2000: Pat Buchanan, Al Sharpton and Sarah Palin.

Meanwhile, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that independent voters are turning off to Romney and they would be more likely to vote -- if they vote at all -- for Obama if Gingrich defies gravity and becomes the nominee.

Debates seem be having an outsized influence this primary season and so the debate tonight in Jacksonville might be crucial for Romney, who has underperformed in the face of red-meat attacks from Gingrich and Santorum.

Unfortunately, the outcome may come down to which candidate can better exploit the other's dirty laundry.

In a gaffe of monumental proportions, Romney released his 2010 tax return and estimated 2011 return on the morning of President Obama's State of the Union speech, which gave the president a perfect opportunity to offer a point-by-point refutation of Romney while not mentioning him by name.

With the tax return story still dominating the news cycle, this gives Gingrich a built-in opportunity to go after Romney -- and he is doing so with relish over Romney's Swiss bank accounts and a newly-aired accusation that Romney profited handsomely from the epidemic of home foreclosures in Florida.

Romney will hit Gingrich hard on his ties to Freddic Mac and ethical lapses as speaker of the House. He is intimating that Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker who was on the investigative committee that looked into Gingrich at the time, is holding back a secret dossier of damaging information that she would share if he becomes the nominee.

Given the overwhelming approval that Obama's speech has received, the Gingrich-Romney fisticuffs must be doubly satisfying for the White House. The Republicans brought this mess on themselves and only they can undo this mess themselves.

Unless, even at this relatively early date, it's already too late.

* * * * *
Meanwhile, conservative pundits and some of Gingrich's former House colleagues have turned on him with a panicked vengeance in labeling him, in effect, an anti-Reagan, Clintonian fraud:

* The Drudge Report ran a story today under the banner headline: "Insider: Gingrich repeatedly Insulted Reagan" that links to a devastating takedown by Elliott Abrams in the National Review, who wrote, among other things, that Gingrich had a long record of criticizing and undermining Reagan’s most transformative policies.

* Drudge also linked prominently to the American Spectator’s R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.’s similarly harsh takedown of Gingrich over character, calling him "William Jefferson Gingrich" in comparing him to Bill Clinton.

Ann Coulter warned: "Re-elect Obama, Vote Newt!" and lambasted Gingrich for a "hotheaded arrogance is neither conservative nor attractive to voters."

* Tom DeLay, a top Gingrich deputy during
the Republican revolution of the mid-1990s,said in a radio interview that "He’s not really a conservative. I mean, he'll tell you what you want to hear. He has an uncanny ability, sort of like Clinton, to feel your pain and know his audience and speak to his audience and fire them up. But when he was speaker, he was erratic, undisciplined."

Cartoon du Jour

Tony Auth/The Philadelphia Inquirer

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A President With The Wind At His Back

For the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama was able to deliver a State of the Union address last night with the economic and political winds at his back as the lingering aftershocks of the recession ebb and Republican infighting diminishes the party's chances of taking back the White House.

Obama's approval ratings are identical to those of the Great Conservative God,
Ronald Reagan, at the same point in his first term and are rising, while the Tea Party militancy that has infected the core of the Republican Party has driven public support for Congress and Republicans in particular to record lows.

Absent the effects of a worsening economic crisis in Europe, it is the domestic economy and not Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich, let alone John Boehner and his hapless Housemates, that will be Obama's chief adversary in the run-up to the November election. The president hammered hard on a populist message, specifically the income inequality that it at the heart of the long-term American economic malaise and where coddle-the-rich Republicans are the most vulnerable.

The soaring language of Obama's State of the Union speeches was absent as he repeatedly presented himself during the address long on tactics as a champion for middle-class families struggling to get by and declared that "we've come too far to turn back now."

Summoning the power of incumbency, the president sprinkled his frequently sharp-elbowed remarks with anecdotes and shout-outs to key cities in election battlegrounds and hit back against GOP attacks on an array of foreign and domestic policy areas while taking credit for saving the domestic auto industry and taking the first steps toward health-care reform.

He also riffed on tax reform, including reductions in corporate rates; more spending and accountability on education and infrastructure investment; and streamlining of the regulatory environment, as well as a number of small-ball, feel-good initiatives that won't cost taxpayers and arm and a leg.

The infrastructure investment is particularly noteworthy.

The president would
use half of the savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for public-works projects could put hundreds of thousands of people back to work, although Republicans, who are allergic to anything that would create jobs, are sure to insist that the money be used for deficit reduction.

A discordant note: Obama declared that he would not allow Wall Street "to go back to the days when [it] was allowed to play by its own set of rules," a rather hollow promise considering that most of his economic team are Wall Street insiders and there have been few crackdowns on miscreant financial institutions on his watch.

The timing of the speech could not be worse for the struggling Romney, and although the president did not mention Romney by name, in some respects the speech was a point-by-point refutation of where the one-time front runner stands on key issues.

The president emphasized his support for the "Buffett rule," named for the billionaire investor who has criticized a tax system that allows him and other investors to pay a lower rate than their staffs. The rule would require people making more than $1 million a year to pay at least the same tax rates as middle-class Americans, which can be close to 30 percent. Buffett has said he paid an effective 17.4 percent rate last year.

Buffett’s secretary was sitting in the gallery, while voters learned earlier Tuesday that Romney, too, is a symbol of what the White House is portraying as a major inequity. In 2010, he paid an effective rate of 13.9 percent on $21.7 million in income, most of it from investments, some of them at tax-free offshore sites.

"Now, you can call this class warfare all you want," Obama said. "But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense."

Class warfare is exactly what Republicans are calling it. House Speaker Boehner, who sat behind the president during the speech along with Vice President Biden, suggested earlier in the day that the president's politics of "division and envy" are "almost un-American." Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who delivered the post-speech Republican rebuttal, said that "no feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others."

Meanwhile, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found independent voters quickly souring on Romney, whose strength with that group not long ago made him the opponent that many Democrats feared most, while overnight polls and a focus group with swing voters found that the president's populist pitch went over well.

Adding to the notion that the State of the Union address was, in effect, a campaign speech, Obama departed this morning on a three-day swing to five competitive states — Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan — where he will turn up the heat on Republicans.

* * * * *
A little more than two hours before delivering his address, Obama learned that Navy SEALs had conducted a successful helicopter rescue mission in Somalia to free a U.S. citizen and her Danish colleague, who had been taken hostage by pirates three months earlier. The SEALs were from the same commando unit that killed Osama bin Laden.

Microphones in the House chamber picked up Obama saying "Good job!", congratulating Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey as he greeted them in the audience. But the administration did not explain the remark because the special-forces operators were not yet safely on the ground.

Cartoon du Jour

Ted Rall

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Yet Again: No Accountability For Marines

Frank Wuterich arrives at court with lawyer Neal Puckett
In the end, only one of the eight Marines charged with participating in the Haditha Massacre may go to prison -- and possibly only three months at most.

The outcome of the longest-running criminal prosecution to emerge from the Iraq War, a case described as that war's version of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, was only slightly surprising.

The deck had been stacked in favor of the Marines because of their argument that the rules of engagement regarding when civilians could be fired upon was unclear. While this may have been true to an extent, that does not explain why a 76-year-old wheelchair-bound man and unarmed women and children were mowed down in a horrific incident that took 24 lives.

My surprise concerns the fact that the Frank Wuterich, the last Marine to be tried and who once faced possibly 152 years in prison, will do any time at all. The staff sergeant and squad leader had entered a not-guilty pleas to all charges but under a plea deal pleaded guilty yesterday to a single charge of dereliction of duty.

It is probable that prosecutors decided that a short time in the brig was a satisfactory trade-off for the possibility that the jury of battle-tested Irai veterans would agree with Wuterich and he would go free, so they cut a plea deal with him under which a three-month sentence may be imposed later today,
as well as two-thirds forfeiture of pay, and a rank demotion to private. The presiding judge may also decide that the plea itself will be the sole punishment.

Reaction to the plea agreement broke along predictable lines: Supporters of the Marines cheered it while Iraqis and human rights activists said it yet again proved that American soldiers were not accountable. Charges had previously been dropped against six others involved in the massacre. A seventh Marine was acquitted.

Bing West, a combat Marine in Vietnam and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, called the plea agreement "the right conclusion to a tragedy," while Gary Solis, a former Marine prosecutor who teaches the law of armed conflict at Georgetown University, said Haditha could become a case study in how not to prosecute suspected war crimes.

The killings still fuel anger in Iraq and were the primary reason behind demands that US troops not be given immunity from their court system.

My own view is that the deal further reinforces a belief in the international community that the U.S. military has not held its troops accountable nor met the standards of conduct it has attempted to impose far from home.

One Marine, who was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony, told of how he had urinated on a dead civilian's head, which s reminiscent of a video made public earlier this month in which four Marines are seen urinating on bloodstained corpses of Afghan militants.

"This [plea agreement] has contributed significantly to the cynicism of people in the region about America's rhetoric -- about America standing for principles," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "When push comes to shove, when it comes to looking at the misconduct of [U.S.] . . . soldiers, there is no accountability."

On a quiet morning in November 2005, Marines from Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment -- nicknamed the "Thundering Third"-- were running a supply convoy through Haditha, which was then an insurgent stronghold. A bomb erupted under one vehicle, killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas and injuring two others.

The surviving Marines turned their attention to a nearby residential area that some believed was the source of additional small-arms fire. While preparing their assault, five men pulled up in a white car. Wuterich shot them to death.

According to one Marine's testimony, Wuterich told his comrades that they should tell investigators the men had been running away from the bomb; in fact, the Marine testified, the men were "just standing around," some with their hands raised and fingers interlocked over their heads.

Wuterich and the others then attacked two homes with M-16s and fragmentation grenades. The situation degenerated into chaos; the homes filled with smoke and debris, and one Marine acknowledged shooting at "silhouettes." Others said their only indication that the homes were "hostile" was that their fellow Marines were shooting.

A short time later, the Marine Corps released an official version of events: 15 Iraqis had been killed in the bombing, and the others had been killed in an ensuing firefight — none of which was true.

The staff sergeant said yesterday during a brief hearing on the plea agreement that he regretted telling his men to "shoot first, ask questions later."

Photograph by The Associated Press

Cartoon du Jour

Ted Rall

This Apple Rolled Far From The Tree

There is an old saying that the apple doesn't roll far from the tree, but in the case of George Romney's son Mitt it has rolled all the way into the next county.

I was 21 and voting for the first time when George Romney sought the Republican presidential nomination. He had gotten rich as chairman and CEO of American Motors while his son got rich as CEO of Bain Capital.

The father was ruggedly handsome and the son ain't bad looking either, but there the similarities end. This is because George Romney's greatest legacy was what one historian calls "his shocking authenticity" and courage in sticking to his positions "that was extraordinary", as well as admitting when he was wrong and being willing to change his mind.

Mitt Romney, of course, has no courage of convictions because he has changed his mind, sometimes several times, on every major policy issue, notably the health-care reform plan that was the hallmark of his only successful run for office as governor of Massachusetts.

In 1964, George Romney was in his second year as Michigan governor when he received a letter from a member of the top Mormon governing body reminding him of the teaching of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith that "the Lord had placed the curse upon the Negro" and urged him to drop his support for the 1964 Civil Rights Bill lest God strike him dead for his apostasy.

In response, Romney redoubled his commitment and led a march the following year in downtown Detroit in solidarity with Martin Luther King for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.

In 1966, the Republican Party staked its electoral fortunes on opposing open housing for blacks. Romney begged party leaders not to do so but they refused. Then in 1968, when race riots racked Detroit following King's assassination while he was still governor, he warned that too tough a crackdown on law and order would result in "our system would become little better than a police state."

But my most favorite George Romney moment concerned the Vietnam War.

He supported the war after returning from a trip there in 1965. Then, after a second trip in 1967, he courageously began to criticize it. When a television interviewer asked, "Isn’t your position a bit inconsistent with what it was, and what do you propose we do now?"

Romney thought about that for a moment and then calmly responded: "When I came back from Vietnam in 1965, I just had the greatest brainwashing anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam" and said prophetically staying in Vietnam would be a disaster.

The remark destroyed his political career but cemented him as a man of courage and conviction for all time.

Cartoon du Jour

Mike Thompson/Detroit Free Press

Monday, January 23, 2012

From Here To Eternity -- Er, November

Although the calendar says that the November 6 presidential election is nearly 300 days away, it seems more like an eternity. And Mitt Romney, no longer the putative favorite to win the Republican nomination after succumbing to voter antipathy and a fusillade of negative ads and attacks on his character from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in South Carolina, surely must hope that voters don't have long memories -- or memories long enough to reach back to January -- when it comes time to vote.

The problem here for Romney is less voters' memories than these realities:

* While it is a rare high-profile race when candidates don't attack each other, the attacks on Romney have substance.

* President Obama and his surrogates will attack Romney on the same grounds in the general election.

* The attacks go to the very core of who Romney is, not who he claims to be.

* The news media will be feasting on the substance of the attacks for some time to come.

Compare these attacks with those on Barack Obama in 2008 accusing him, in effect, of guilt by association for being a member of the Chicago church of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose outspoken views included his contention that the 9/11 attacks were proof that "America's chickens were coming home to roost."

Obama effectively silenced most of his critics with his "A More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia in which he renounced Wright while framing his overall response to the attacks in the broader context of race in America. Romney would seem to have no such option because it is impossible to imagine him renouncing the less savory aspects of free enterprise that made him wealthy and the private-sector experience that is the lynchpin of his campaign.

The core economic message of Romney's campaign is, as he has repeatedly said, "To create jobs it helps to have had a job" in arguing for less government regulation of private enterprise and the repeal of new regulations on financial companies as as result of the excesses that resulted, to a great extent, in the recession.

But unlike Obama, who was criticized for a personal association and Gingrich who is criticized for martial infidelities and ethical lapses, Romney is being criticized for his association with Bain Capital -- which his critics say destroyed jobs -- in an election in which job creation will be a major issue.

Cartoon du Jour

Jeff Danziger/New York Times News Syndicate

Etta James (1938-2012)


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Onward Ho As The Republican Party Continues To Dutifuly March Off The Cliff

The people of the great state of South Carolina have spoken: They prefer a serial adulterer and racist who lies shamelessly to a rapacious capitalist and ultimate insider who flip-flops shamelessly. And Barack Obama will be laughing all the way to a second term.

Newt Gingrich's "stunning" double-digit win over Mitt Romney on the third stop en route to the Republican National Convention was because of his "commanding" performances in the two Palmetto State debates, according to exit polls. Translation: Gingrich bullied anyone who dared question the fidelity and scruples of a man who led the impeachment charge again President Clinton for his own extra-marital affair and is the only House leader in history to be censured and fined by his colleagues, a majority of whom were members of his own party.

And how about that party? In the relatively short decade and a half since Gingrich made cynical personal attacks and a wanton recklessness the hallmarks of his style, the Republican Party has devolved into a smoking cow pie so odiferous that after the initial caucus and two primaries it is clear that while neither Gingrich nor Romney are electable, a more moderate Republican who might be will not ride to the GOP's rescue.

That Gingrich might wrest what was once a sure-thing nomination from Romney is now within the realm of possibilities, but most of the primaries to come, beginning with Florida on January 31 and the Super Tuesday slugfest on March 6, favor the former Massachusetts governor. Besides which, Gingrich's negatives are an astronomical 58 percent in a leading national poll and he would kill down-ticket candidates much like Christine O'Donnell and other Tea Party losers did in 2010.

Long story short, his seething anger, ability to pull red herrings out of his hat, news media bashing and rhetorical skills will only get him so far.

But barring an Obama administration scandal of major magnitude or an economy that shows increasing signs of recovering suddenly going south again, Romney will be unable to close the deal with voters in November any more than he was able to close the deal with South Carolina voters who only days ago overwhelmingly -- if tepidly -- supported him.

* * * * *
Gingrich brayed about fighting "the elites" in his victory speech last night, an irony that many Republicans beyond Romney's orbit will miss. The former House speaker, of course, has become wealthy playing the legislative system for those elites, while Romney is the wealthiest man to run for president since Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996.

Then there was Gingrich's racially-tinged invocation that he will run "an American campaign, not a Republican one," which surely had appeal to Republican voters, an unsurprising 99 percent of whom were white. Reveling in the moment, he did not even resort to a dog whistle in impunging the incumbent, who he continues to deride as "the food stamp president" (read black) with "extreme left-wing allies from San Francisco" (read gay), and as an America hater (read Muslim) who is unworthy of the Oval Office.

Sick, sick stuff.

* * * * *

With a Jeb Bush endorsement on hold for the time being while the punditocracy flails Romney for his spectacular crash-and-burn despite having more money and a more robust organization in South Carolina than anyone else, he and his handlers are asking themselves today: What did we do wrong?

The answer is that aside from the abjectly poor attempts at damage control over fallout from Bain Capital exposes and Romney's continuing refusal to release his income tax returns until whenever (chastened by the loss, he says it's now be Tuesday), they did nothing wrong. Oh, yeah, he also sucked at both debates. But the real problem is that Romney is an empty suit who might be able to pull off his myriad flip-flops if he had even a scintilla of charisma, but voters instead ratified long-standing doubts about him. Changing tactics or something won't work.

And while Romney's Mormon faith did not lose him this substantially conservative Christian state in and of itself, it will be causing him additional troubles in the weeks to come. Romney has wanted it both ways -- his religion is off-limits as a subject while he buses in Mormon students from as far away as Utah to put some zip into his otherwise lackluster rallies.

The fabulously wealthy Mormon Church's ties to Romney and companies that Bain Capital owns is worthy of scrutiny and will be getting it from Yours Truly, among others will be further cause for agita.

* * * * *
Nowhere was the apple cart more upset yesterday than with the evangelical vote.

Some 63 percent of voters identified themselves as being evangelical Christians or born again, and despite Gingrich'sh repeated marital lapses they gave him a robust 43 percent of the vote, the same share that Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister, got in the 2008 primary.

Romney, who has been married to the same woman for more than 40 years, got only 22 percent of the evangelical vote, which means that these voters didn't see Gingrich's tawdry past as a problem. Nor did women in general, who overall gave more votes to Gingrich than Romney and seemed to have sided with him and not his second wife, Marianne, who had been interviewed on Nightline on Thursday evening.

* * * * *
The wind is now in Romney's face and not at his back, and it is conceivable that Gingrich could win Florida.

But one thing is for sure: Romney's licking in South Carolina will rouse what passes for a mainstream Republican establishment from its torpor. Think things have been interesting so far? Well, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Cartoon du Jour

Jeff Danziger/New York Times News Syndicate

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mitt Caught In The Crossfire As Rick Drops Out & Newt's Ex Prepares To Blab

How does the Mitt Romney campaign defend itself against charges -- entirely accurate, in this case -- that the man who wants to replace President Obama got filthy rich on the backs of middle-class working stiffs, pays a tax rate substantially below those stiffs and hides some of his income in offshore tax havens?

The answer is that you portray your critics as "liberals."

That seems to be the emerging strategy as Romney and his surrogates push back against a groundswell of allegations that he has something to hide and criticism from his Republican competitors and the White House over how he amassed a fortune estimated to be as large as a quarter of a billion dollars, which makes Romney one of the wealthiest men ever to run for president.

The wealth of Nelson Rockefeller and Ross Perot was not an issue when those billionaires ran for president, but with an impeccable sense of timing for Romney's opponents, the gaping chasm between the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and the middle class has become a lightning rod issue first with the Occupy Wall Street protests and now with stories in the news media detailing how Romney, as CEO of Bain Capital, destroyed companies, which resulted in thousands of workers being laid off. That in itself is not necessary awful. Capitalism is not always a pretty sight, but what has Romney's opponents on the attack is that Bain and its CEO made obscenely high profits on many of the plant closures.

Romney's admission that he pay taxes at about a 15 percent rate and his refusal to release his tax returns, something that he has been consistent in doing even in 1994 when he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts and demanded that Teddy Kennedy make public his returns, has added fuel to the fire in highlighting the inherent unfairness of the tax code.

The candidate now says that he may release his 2011 returns in April, surely after an army of accountants has sliced and diced his wealth in an effort to mute criticism, and he has flip-flopped almost daily on whether he would support ending a carried-interest tax loophole that allows him to pay taxes at a rate far lower than President Obama and most other Americans. He has thus far refused to release returns for earlier years.

The controversy also is casting unwelcome attention on Romney's affiliation with the Mormon Church.

Romney practices tithing, donating at least 10 percent of his income to the church that he deducts from his income. While the practice is entirely legal, some voters are biased against Mormons and the church has reaped more than $13 million over the last 15 years by selling shares in companies that Bain invested in.

Whether the charge that Romney's critics are "liberals" will resonate with Republican voters, who on the whole have remained lukewarm to him, remains to be seen. And the controversy will eventually peak, possibly making it less of an issue when the election campaign shifts into high gear after Labor Day.

* * * * *
Meanwhile, polls are showing Newt Gingrich, closing the gap between he and Romney two days before the South Carolina primary, with one poll showing him in the lead. But the situation, as they say, is fluid.

The final Republican presidential debate in the state is tonight, while later in the evening ABC's Nightline will air an interview with Marianne Gingrich, who was the victim of her ex-husband's infidelities for six years.

Expect Gingrich to continue his attacks on Romney, which may gain additional traction with Rick Perry bowing out of the race, while excerpts from the Nightline interview seem like a rehash of what has long been known.

Marianne Gingrich says that her husband asked her to have an "open marriage" to continue an affair with a congressional aide, Callista Bisek, the woman who is his current wife.

"I said to him, 'We’ve been married a long time,' "Marianne Gingrich says in an excerpt from the interview released this morning. "And he said, 'Yes but you want me all to yourself. Callista doesn’t care what I do.' "

Gingrich is desperate to siphon off as much of the conservative vote from Rick Santorum, who it turns out actually won the Iowa caucuses, as he can. He also is hoping that the endorsement of Rick Perry, who is returning to Texas where he can declare war on Turkey, will help, as well as his statement that he will ask Sarah Palin, who also has endorsed him, "to play a major role" in his administration.

Thank dog that will never come to pass.

Book Review: 'Wars Of Afghanistan,' Imperial Fecklessness & Pakistani Evil

Pakistan bankrolled the Taliban, who destroyed the Buddhas of Banyan
There is an old Afghan folk tale that portrays a foreigner balancing two connected trays attached to the handheld weighing device used in South Asian bazaaars. The foreigner carefully loads one tray and then the other with frogs. Just as he puts the last few frogs on one tray and then the other, some frogs on the first tray hop off. As the foreigner returns those frogs to the tray, frogs on the second tray hop off or attempt to jump to the other tray. Before long, all of the frogs are in motion, moving in one direction or another, and the foreigner gives up.

* * * * *
In 53 B.C., marching through Syria toward Afghanistan, the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus found Parthian general Spahbodh Surena blocking his way. Their armies clashed at the Battle of Carrhae, which while little known was one of the decisive battles of world history.

The Persian-speaking Parthians were probably ancestors of today's Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and the 10,000 mounted archers under Surena's command annihilated the 35,000-man Roman army, the worst defeat since Hannibal crushed the Roman army at Cannae in 216 B.C. The West would not appear again at Afghanistan's doorstep until the 19th century when Britain launched two invasions from its bases in India.

The British would twice repeat the blunders of the Romans just as the Soviets would a century later, and in the wake of the 9/11 attacks a U.S.-led NATO coalition, as well. Each time the pattern was the same, as Peter Tomsen puts it: "Hubristic justifications, initial success, gradually widening Afghan resistance, stalemate, and withdrawal."

This story is told to powerful and powerfully detailed effect by Thomsen, U.S. ambassador and specially envoy to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, in The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers. Then there is the reality that virtually every Pakistani government in recent decades has worked to undermine efforts to build popular governments in Afghanistan while bankrolling the Taliban and giving Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda cadre safe haven, all the while receiving tens of billions of dollars in aid from a U.S. government aware of this evil dynamic but seemingly impotent to do anything about it.

* * * * *
A constant in the tumultuous history of Afghanistan is that while its peoples -- the frogs in the folk tale -- were ferocious warriors, they were as woefully inept at governing a thousand years ago as they are today, as well as willing victims of foreign intervention. Exacerbating this situation is the tribal nature of Afghanistan, which has made it difficult to centralize power despite the pride that Afghans feel for their country.

The British failure to twice conquer Afghanistan amidst the Great Game, the strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires for supremacy in Central Asia, has been an oft told tale in both history texts and fiction, including Rudyard Kipling's Kim.

Less well known is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which followed a communist coup a year earlier, and this takes up nearly 400 of the 912 pages of The Wars of Afghanistan.

Two post-World War II geopolitical developments made the invasion all but inevitable: Britain's withdrawal from the subcontinent in 1947, which removed the main deterrent to Soviet penetration, and the advent of the Cold War.

Stalin had ignored the Third World. But after the Soviet dictator died in 1953, U.S.-Soviet global competition expanded and Afghanistan, which had preferred American aid, became the first Third World country to accept large-scale Soviet aid because Washington was rapidly becoming a close ally of Pakistan. This would be the first of many American miscalculations in the years to come.

Soviet aid prior to the invasion totaled in the hundreds of millions of dollars and included construction of highways and a tunnel that years later would sustain the weight of heavy vehicles, including tanks, during Moscow's invasion.

By 1977, the Soviets were deeply disturbed that a liberalized Afghanistan was drifting from the Soviet orbit while receiving increasingly more U.S. infrastructure and educational aid. The final rupture came when Afghan President Daoud told Soviet Premier Brezhnev that their partnership "must remain the partnership of equals" and walked out of the Kremlin hall were they had been meeting.

Daoud was shot dead within hours of the start of the April 1978 coup led by pro-communist Afghan army forces, ushering in the catastrophic 14-year communist era.

The Soviet Union plunged into Afghanistan paying little attention to the disasters suffered by previous invaders.

"It was ignorant of Afghan society, overconfident in the ability of a mighty empire to impose its will on Afghanistan, and failed to appreciate the cost of capturing the strategic center square on the Eurasian chessboard," write Tomsen. "Soviet military power had compelled other neighbors in Eastern Europe and Mongolia to do Moscow's bidding. Certainly Afghanistan would not be a bigger challenge."

This situation was exacerbated because of the vastly different historical, cultural and religious legacies that separated Russians and Afghans, notably the Russian acquiescence to central rule and the Afghan opposition to it. Additionally, the Afghan communists had little grasp of Marxism and Leninism, which along with an uprising in western Afghanistan forced Moscow's hand and prompted an invasion in December 1979 and a military takeover.

* * * * *
The Soviet invasion occurred five weeks after a seminal event, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist dissidents. Among those later arrested was the half brother of Osama bin Laden, and many historians believe that the path to the 9/11 attacks began with this Islamic "awakening" in Saudi Arabia, which fanned growing resentment to the Western presence in the Muslim holy land.

Afghan Muslims revere the holy land, while Saudi Arabia had been a valuable partner in the nine-year effort to drive out the Soviet Army, having provided half of the funding for the CIA's covert weapons program.

The Saudi royal family and other donors contributed billions of dollars for the Afghan jihad and were firmly in bed with the ISI, the feared Pakistani intelligence agency that worked ceaselessly to undermine U.S.-led efforts to install a popularly backed, Mujahidin-led central government with a semblance of democracy. It was the Mujahidin, after all, who had thrown off the Soviet yoke.

Tomsen writes that the Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations blew hot and cold on the importance of Afghanistan, believing the situation there to be a leftover of the Cold War, and this combined with chronic infighting between the State Department and CIA meant that its barely articulated goals for the country would never be realized.

In fact, when the American embassy reopened in Kabul, the Afghani capital, in 1992 after being shuttered for three years, locating and repatriating Soviet POWs as part of the U.S.-Soviet rapprochement and not the growing threat of Muslim extremism and soaring narcotics production was the number one priority.

* * * * *

Tomsen returns time and again to the unholy alliance between Pakistan's ISI, Afghan extremists of all stripes, Al Qaeda and the Taliban that continues to this day.

He notes that in the years before the 9/11 attacks many thousands of international jihadists poured into Pakistan to be trained at ISI-managed paramilitary camps financed by Saudi Arabian interests, while the ISI handpicked Mullah Mohammed Omar to lead the Taliban, which had conquered most of Afghanistan by the late 1990s and welcomed Bin Laden back into the country with open arms.

Three months after arriving in the country, the Al Qaeda leader issued his first formal warnings about targeting Americans, a threat first made good on with the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in May 1998.

The Clinton administration ordered cruise missile attacks on Bin Laden's compound in Afghanistan, but Tomsen says the ISI tipped him off in advance and the only people to be killed were low-level Al Qaeda operatives. Subsequent CIA efforts to take out the terrorist leader in operations based in Pakistan required ISI assistance and went nowhere.

Only once in the years before 9/11 did the U.S. warn Pakistan that it could be designated as a state sponsoring terrorism -- in 1993 -- while in a follow-up action the State Department, at its delusional worst, meekly declared that Pakistan had taken a number of steps to respond to American concerns.

In the wake of the attacks, the U.S. repeatedly chided the Pakistani government while continuing to provide foreign aid despite credible proof that Islamabad had known of the attacks in advance but did nothing to warn Washington.

Washington's misunderstanding of Pakistan's motives in Afghanistan and of the Afghan environment were staggering . . . ," Tomsen writes. "The attempts by American presidents, diplomats, and intelligence officers to convince Pakistan and the Taliban to turn over Bin Laden were naive and doomed from the start. Tethering Washington's Afghan policy to Pakistan was a mistake that reaped dire consequences."

* * * * *
By 2008, the last year of the Bush administration, the quick successes achieved when the U.S.-led NATO coalition broke the back of the Taliban following the 9/11 attacks were a distant memory. The Taliban were resurgent, there was a stalemate on the ever shifting battlefield because of continuing Pakistani aid to insurgents and interference with Afghan affairs, and minimal reconstruction of a ravaged nation was underway because U.S. policy was yet again adrift.

It is to Tomsen's credit that although he served several Republican administrations, he is unstintingly critical of the Bush administration for talking the talk but never walking the walk when it came to a decisive military victory and nation building, which Bush initially opposed and then supported, but in word only.

The primary reason, of course, was the Iraq war, which siphoned off troops, materiel and money with a commensurate loss of focus and interest, as well as a willful blindness in the White House to the duplicity and Pakistan and the ISI. A few lonely Republican voices in Congress knew better but they were ignored. It also did not help that the government of Afghan President Karzai was deeply corrupt.

Finally, the U.S. repeated the mistakes of the Soviets and British by fundamentally misunderstanding that the periods during which Afghanistan was comparatively tranquil were when the central government respected the community-based nature of Afghan society and as a result the communities did not turn against the center.

Pervez Musharraf, the duplicitous Pakistani prime minister, fell from power two months before Barack Obama was elected, and although the Bush administration never appeared to decipher his double game, there at last was an opening for a new direction in U.S. policy.

Tomsen notes that Obama has taken a tougher line as president and the administration's recent breakthrough with the Taliban, which has agreed to enter into talks to end the war, would seem to be promising.

But so long as Pakistan continues to conduct its proxy war while nurturing the radical Islamic infrastructure, there is little hope of change even after the death of Osama bin Laden absent a commitment by the U.S. to stop issuing blank checks or barring a regional shift of power way from Pakistan. And while the author of the most excellent Wars of Afghanistan stops short of saying so, the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops is overdue.

But The Swing Set Bothered Clinton

Perhaps the best opportunity to kill Osama bin Laden prior to the 9/11 attacks came in 1998 when credible intelligence placed the terrorist leader at Tarnak Farm (image above), a compound on the arid plains near Kandahar in Afghanistan.

With the aid of real-time video imagery transmitted by a Predator drone, U.S. intelligence agents half way around the world were able to watch Bin Laden as he walked through the primitive and undefended compound were he and his associates and their families then lived.

The imagery was so detailed that a lone child's swing hanging in the compound could be seen. Yet despite this irresistible target the swing haunted President Clinton, suggesting that innocent children lived there, so he refused to approve a missile strike.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Romney's The Gift That Keeps On Giving While Gingrich Is Just Plain Old Racist

For the Obama re-election campaign, Mitt Romney is the gift that keeps on giving. At least so far.

Never mind that the former Massachusetts governor is supposed to be the un-Obama, a man who has the expertise to turn around the economy by creating jobs while reducing the federal budget deficit.

Today, three days before the South Carolina primary, which will validate Romney as the Republican presidential nominee, he is under withering attack from his presidential wannabe opponents, the effects of which accrue to a delighted Obama re-election campaign, because not only has Romney gotten filthy rich on the backs of middle-class Americans whose businesses he pillaged for obscenely high profits, but he has now confirmed that he is a card-carrying member of the top tier of the 1 Percenters.

Let's be clear about a couple three things before we motor on: Romney had every right to get filthy rich. That, after all, is a part of the American Dream. But Romney got filthy rich by being a member of the Vampire Elite who destroyed the lives of ordinary working stiffs laboring to produce quality American goods. As a result he is worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars and because of a gaping private-equity loophole, he pays taxes at about a 15 percent rate, far lower than you and I and the workers whose lives he destroyed, and his sense of wealth seems distorted to the point that he claimed yesterday that the $360,000 he made last year giving speeches is "not very much."

Romney's responses to the twin crises of Bain Capital exposes and now his income taxes have further revealed him to be unfeeling and perhaps inept when not ensconced in a corporation chief executive's office.

I cannot find a single occasion on which he has expressed regret for what he did -- or might claim he had to do -- at Bain, while his campaign's attempts at damage control have been bumbling and reminiscent of Herman Cain laughable efforts to deal with sexual harassment allegations. For example, Romney's campaign refuses to clarify whether the 15 percent he referred to represents his overall tax burden or simply his federal income taxes. (President Obama reported paying an effective federal tax rate of 26 percent on his 2010 family income.)

Meanwhile, Romney has bobbed and weaved on whether he favors removing the private-equity loophole, most recently saying that he wants to eliminate the tax just for families earning less than $200,000 a year--presumably preserving the 15 percent tax on wealthy earners like himself. (By contrast, President Obama has long campaigned for closing the loophole entirely, something that is anathema to coddle-the-rich Republicans in Congress.)

Typical was Romney's response last night at the presidential debate in South Carolina when asked by moderators as to whether he would release his tax returns:

"I hadn’t planned on releasing tax records, because the law requires us to release all of our assets, all the things we own. That I have already released. It’s a pretty full disclosure,” he said. “But, you know, if that’s been the tradition, and I’m not opposed to doing that, time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period, and I’ll keep that open."

The guy doesn't exactly sound presidential, eh? And incidentally, it was Romney's father who in 1968 set the precedent of releasing returns that every major presidential candidate has since followed.

* * * * *
Meanwhile, the cheapening of the Republican brand continues apace in South Carolina with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum playing dog whistle duets that not so subtly riff on Barack Obama's blackness.

Gingrich's comments linking the president to the increase in food stamp use are particularly execrable.

Yet again claiming that Obama is "the greatest food-stamp president in American history," he bloviated during the presidential debate that "The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history." (Wild cheering.) "I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable." (More wild cheering.)

What Gingrich conveniently overlooks is that Obama didn't put a single person on food stamps. People apply for food stamps and have been doing so in increasing numbers since the Bush Recession began in 2007. And for the record, non-Hispanic whites -- surely some of them Gingrich's own constituents or members of their extended families -- far outnumber blacks receiving food stamps.
Caricature by Nick Jarvis

Cartoon du Jour

Rick Morin/Miami Herald

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

An Unhappy Result When Free Speech Meets The Roberts Court Meat Grinder

There was a time not long ago when free speech was guaranteed in America, and if someone had a problem with that the Supreme Court would weigh in with a reminder that the concept is a foundation on which our democracy is built.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the second decade of the new millennium. According to a new study, the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts is hearing fewer free speech cases and ruling in favor of free speech at a lower rate than any of the courts of the three previous chief justices, two of three of whom were the appointees of Republican presidents like himself.

In its first six terms, from 2005 to 2011, the Roberts court issued 29 free speech decisions in argued cases, and it ruled for the free speech claim in 10 of them, or 34.5 percent of the time. The three prior courts issued 506 such decisions and ruled for the free speech side an average 54 percent of the time.

Much of the difference can be explained by the decisions of the court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, from 1953 to 1969, that ruled in favor of free speech 69 percent of the time. The court led by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, from 1969 to 1986, ruled in favor of free speech 46 percent of the time, and the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, from 1986 to 2005, ruled that way 49 percent of the time.

This begs a question: Why is the Roberts court ruling in favor of free speech only half the time compared to the Warren court and takes many fewer free speech cases?

The answer is that court was famously liberal and this court is famously conservative. This court not only grants rights to corporations that were once the purview of individuals, but routinely rules against individuals in favor of corporations such as the infamous 2007 Ledbetter ruling in which a court majority declared that employers cannot be sued under the Civil Rights act for race or gender pay discrimination in virtually all cases.

The Roberts court has ruled for free speech in only a handful of high-visibility cases, "all of them slam dunks" in the words of one legal scholar. These included protecting protesters at funerals, the makers of violent video games and the distributors of material showing the torture of animals.

Then there is the lollapalooza of all free speech cases -- Citizens United -- which hands down is the most twisted high court interpretation of the law since the Dred Scott decision in 1857 found Africans imported as slaves could not enjoy constitutional protections. In 2009, the court ruled by a 5-4 majority in Citizens United that the First Amendment prohibited government from placing limits on independent spending for political purposes by corporations (and by unions, as is less well known) and bestowed on both the free speech rights of individuals.

Case in point is the recent $5 million donation by billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson to Newt Gingrich's cash-starved campaign. The donation through a super PAC is 1,000 times the $5,000 he could legally give directly to Gingrich before Citizens United, and could have an outsized influence on how the primary season plays out.

The Politico identifies two other billionaires would at the least could drag out the Republican primary: Foster Friess, a mutual fund mogol, and John Huntsman Sr., the father of the longshot for the nomination.

That is the greatest fear of Citizens United opponents like myself: That one or more filthy rich people can not only influence but tip a national election by sending a check from the comfy confines of his mansion. Then again, if that person can't tip an election the Supreme Court always can.

Image from Vallyist

Cartoon du Jour

Ben Sargent/Universal Press Syndicate

Monday, January 16, 2012

Remembering Dr. King & The Never Ending Struggle For Civil Rights

When I was first cutting my teeth in the newspaper business, my editors sent me out on "house ends," visits to homes where I would interview families of interest because something very bad of interest had happened to them.

It was the late 1960s and many of these house ends were the result of the death of a young man, usually an Army or Marine Corps infantryman who had been drafted and sent to Vietnam. Most were African-Americans and most were from families whom one could describe as being from "the wrong side of the tracks."

After a while, these visits took on a certain sameness.

Although I once found myself in the horribly awkward position of having arrived at a house before the uniformed bearer of the bad news telegram, I always was welcomed into these humble homes.

I always was treated with respect because these were good people and they knew that I would give their now departed son or brother a respectful sendoff in the next day's newspaper.

The living rooms always were modest and always had a photograph of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a place of honor, often the same color rotogravure portrait scissored from an old magazine.

I have no idea how many times I sat on a lumpy couch, pen and reporter's notebook in one hand, a snapshot of the victim in the other, with the wizened Dr. King looking down on me as I listened to the story of a young life snuffed out by a war that none of us understood and few supported. I do know that too many of these young men perished because of a lethal one-two punch -- their skin color and economic status. They were not white and did not have have college deferments, as did Dick Cheney, or a daddy with friends in high places, as did George Bush.

* * * * *
It was the spring of 1968 and I had taken a week off to join college friends in Daytona Beach, Florida. Our sunburns had not yet turned to tans and we had barely finished the first of several cases of Old Milwaukee beer (with pull tops, a recent innovation) when President Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not seek another term. The Vietnam War had worn him down -- and out.

And then four evenings later there was a commotion.

"They killed the nigger! The nigger's dead!" cried a group of drunken college students as they danced and whooped in the parking lot of the motel adjacent to ours. "They killed the nigger!"

My Old Milwaukee high evaporated in a flash. We turned on the television. Dr. King had been gunned down at a Memphis motel. I wanted to hurt those students. I wanted to throw up.

We drove north the next morning. As we approached Washington, there were huge black clouds of smoke over the city. We overtook a convoy of troop carriers filled with National Guardsmen, rifles slung over their shoulders. The riots following Dr. King's murder were well underway, and the New York Avenue corridor of tenements, flophouses, liquor stores and churches in Northwest Washington was in flames. It was hard to drive around the city in those days, but we found a detour.

The rioting spread, and the next night. I was again in newspaper reporter's mufti and took my Daytona tan down to The Valley, a poor neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware where young blacks were skirmishing with the city police and National Guard. There were fires and intermittent gunfire from snipers atop the row houses. At one point a bullet whizzed over my head. Yes, just like in the movies.

I was still shaking when I got back to my apartment the next morning. I cried over the inhumanity of my fellow man, for my black friends and for Dr. King.

* * * * *
My tears came honestly.

My mother's father was a German Jewish immigrant who worked tirelessly for civil rights and went out of his way to hire blacks at his department store before he lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash. He took his oath of citizenship so seriously that he paid a printer to publish a pocket-sized booklet with the Bill of Rights, an American flag on the cover, which he distributed to high school civics classes.

My grandfather started a more modest business and devoted his energies to bringing together the leaders of various Wilmington churches to raise money to get Jewish refugees out of the Reichland and into welcoming homes in Wilmington before Hitler slammed the door. Several of our relatives died in the death camps; it wasn't until three years ago that I learned that a cousin had survived and was living in New Zealand.

My parents took up the civil-rights mantle. To use the parlance of the time, some of their best friends were Negroes. My father was the campaign manager for the first black elected to the local school board. That and my parents' habit of inviting black friends to swim in our pool alienated them from some of their white "friends;" one neighbor forbade her children from playing with my brother and sister and I.

My parents went on bus trips to Washington for the big antiwar protest marches of the late 1960s. My father, never a religious man, found the experience of bearing witness on the Mall with several hundred thousand other people to be deeply spiritual.

Like me, they were heartened by the sea change in civil rights in the 1960s and 70s that Dr. King and his acolytes worked for so tirelessly. But they believed until the day they drew their last breaths that America remained a deeply racist society, just not as overtly so, and that much work remained to be done.

If Dr. King were to look beyond the grave today he would be cheered by the accomplishments of his brothers and sisters and minorities in general, but he also would agree with my mother and father.