Equality on Earth

It is easy to proclaim all souls equal in the sight of God. It is hard to make men equal on earth in the sight of men.

James Baldwin

This week’s featured post is “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rand Paul“.

This week everybody was talking about another police shooting

The initial report was very familiar: Sure, it was only a stop for a busted taillight, but the subject was a bad guy and he went for the policeman’s weapon. The cop had no choice but to shoot him, and he died in spite of everything the cops did to save him.

Then it turned out that somebody had a video. (Huffington Post imagines the news report we’d be reading otherwise: another justified shooting.) The policeman was in no danger, and after calmly gunning down the fleeing Walter Scott (“like he was trying to kill a deer” as Scott’s father put it), he makes no effort to revive him, but drops the taser Scott had supposedly grabbed next to the body.

So this time, it looks like justice is being done: the cop has been charged with murder. But doesn’t it make you wonder about all the other times a white cop killed a black suspect and there wasn’t a video? (In the last five years, police in South Carolina have fired at people 209 times, resulting in a handful of official charges and no convictions.)

ThinkProgress collects what the local police department said before they knew about the video: It’s eerily similar to what the police have said in a lot of other shootings that ultimately were judged to be justified. The Week concludes: Without the video “he probably would have gotten away with it.”

How many other cops have?

and 2016

After Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy on YouTube yesterday, it’s hard to remember that Rand Paul just announced on Tuesday. But Paul is an interesting candidate that some liberals are tempted to support, given his strong positions on civil liberties. However, Paul also carries a lot of baggage. I try to collect the good and the bad as I annotate his announcement speech.

One thing I will point out about Hillary’s video: Notice how deep into it you have to go before a straight white man shows up.

and the 150th anniversary of Appomattox

I’ve been pleased by how many historians have written anniversary articles agreeing with the point I laid out last summer in “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“: the Civil War didn’t end at Appomattox; the planter aristocracy continued fighting a guerrilla war until the North finally withdrew its troops and let white supremacy resume. See, for example, Gregory Downs’ NYT article “The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox“.

Other articles have supported “Not a Tea Party’s” other main point: that the right-wing surge we are seeing today is a continuation of the Confederate worldview. For example: “Why the Confederacy Lives” by Euan Hague in Politico. And WaPo’s Harold Meyerson writes:

Today’s Republican Party is not just far from being the party of Lincoln: It’s really the party of Jefferson Davis. It suppresses black voting; it opposes federal efforts to mitigate poverty; it objects to federal investment in infrastructure and education just as the antebellum South opposed internal improvements and rejected public education; it scorns compromise. It is nearly all white. It is the lineal descendant of Lee’s army, and the descendants of Grant’s have yet to subdue it.

In “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” I described the Confederacy as a worldview:

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries. … The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

For a contemporary example of the Confederate mindset at work, listen to a recent interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson:

I really believe if what the Supreme Court is about to do [i.e. legalize same-sex marriage nationwide] is carried through with, and it looks like it will be, then we’re going to see a general collapse in the next decade or two. I just am convinced of that. So we need to do everything we can to try to hold it back and to preserve the institution of marriage.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for nearly a dozen years, and for almost a decade in Canada, with no visible evidence of any ill effects on society. You’ve got to wonder when Dobson and his ilk will start seeing facts and reality rather than their own apocalyptic nightmares. Probably never. If Dobson is still around twenty years from now, I imagine he’ll have rolled his disaster prediction forward to “in the next century or two”.

And what does “do everything we can” mean? Get violent, apparently.

Talk about a Civil War, we could have another one over this.

Because accepting social change is impossible. All forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified.

but I was reading two unrelated books

In the past I’ve reviewed the books Merchants of Doubt and Doubt Is Their Product, which describe the tactics by which corporations keep selling a product long after people start dropping dead from it. I found those to be very radicalizing books, but I doubt that many of my readers managed to finish either one. They’re each a slog, and they’re depressing.

Well, sometimes fiction can get ideas across more effectively than factual reporting (i.e., Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Paolo Bacigalupi is a post-apocalyptic young-adult sci-fi writer, known for The Wind-Up Girl, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities. (They’re good.) His new novel The Doubt Factory is set in the present and covers a lot of the same ground as the factual doubt books, but does it with action and characters.

The main character of The Doubt Factory is a high-achieving senior at an exclusive prep school who knows her Dad runs a public relations firm, but has never paid much attention to the specifics. Then she is kidnapped by a skilled gang of teens who have been orphaned by products that her Dad helped keep on the market. They release her, believing they have turned her to their side. But have they?

The plot raises issues about how you know what’s true and where your loyalties should lie. In the background are broader issues of privilege: How much should it bother you if your lifestyle depends on a corrupt system?

As a young-adult novel with political content, The Doubt Factory in a class with Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Homeland, which center on surveillance and privacy. In order to follow the story, you need to learn some facts about product safety and the ways corporations manipulate science and the media. But the book is a page-turner; like Doctorow, Bacigalupi never sacrifices the integrity of the story for political polemic.

I finally got around to reading Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis. It’s a well-researched month-by-month political history of Dallas from January, 1960 to the day JFK was killed.

Not a Kennedy-assassination book per se, it’s more about the rising tide of anti-Kennedy feeling in Dallas that culminates in the assassination. In some ways it resembles the movie Crash, where a swirl of loosely-connected tension seems fated to result in something bad, even if none of the characters can predict what it will be or who will do it. In the end (unless you buy one of the conspiracy theories) it was a left-winger who killed Kennedy, but afterward “Distraught women from all over Dallas are on the phones lines [to police headquarters]. Each one is sobbing, confessing to police that she is certain that it must have been her husband who shot the president.”

The striking thing about Dallas during the Kennedy years is how closely it parallels America as a whole during the Obama years: Instead of Obama, there’s Kennedy. He’s not a “real American” because he’s Catholic rather than black. Where Obama is supposed to be a secret Muslim who’s betraying America with his Iranian nuclear deal, Kennedy is supposedly a secret Communist who is betraying America to the Soviet Union in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Instead of the billionaire Koch Brothers, 1963 has billionaire H. L. Hunt. Instead of ObamaCare, there’s Medicare, which a Hunt-funded radio program says “would literally make the President of the United States a medical czar with potential life-or-death power over every man, woman, and child in the country.” (It fails in the Senate by two votes; LBJ passes it after Kennedy’s death.)

Rather than Louis Gohmert, Texas of 1963 has Congressman Bruce Alger, who says more-or-less the same things: “Kennedy is operating as chief executive without regard to the rule of law and is, indeed, substituting his own judgment and will for the exercise of the constitutional powers by the Congress and the people.” And right-wing author Dan Smoot echoes: “Kennedy, by Executive Orders which bypass Congress, has already created a body of ‘laws’ to transform our Republic into a dictatorship.”

There’s even an imaginary secret-in-Kennedy’s-past parallel to the Birther theory: a failed secret marriage before Jackie.

I come away with the impression that today’s political controversies really have more to do with right-wing pathologies than with anything President Obama has done. The Right has projected its hate and fear onto Obama the same way it projected onto JFK half a century ago.

Let’s hope Obama lives to tell the tale.

You’ll never catch up: The Oyster Review has its list of the 100 best books of the decade so far. How many books do these people read? I’ve read just six of the 100; at this rate there are 16 more every year.

and you also might be interested in …

Michael Brown’s legacy: Voter turnout in Ferguson’s municipal elections more than doubled, from 12% to 30%. The City Council is now half black.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas says President Obama is exaggerating when he says that scrapping the nuclear deal with Iran risks another Iraq War (only worse, because Iran is three times bigger). An attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be simple.

It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox: several days’ air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior.

And then Iran will do what? This is the kind of logic we often hear from fans of military action: We’ll hit them, and then that will be the end of it. Cotton is like the guy who has no intention of starting a bar fight, he just wants to punch that other guy in the nose.

Imagine instead that Iran surveys the world, picks out an American vulnerability somewhere, and hits back hard. Won’t Cotton be the first to say that we can’t let this stand and have to hit back harder yet? How many rounds of attack-and-retaliation will have to happen before he decides that only boots-on-the-ground regime change will end this threat?

A tangential thought about the CNN reporter who interviewed rural Georgia florists about whether they’d sell flowers for a same-sex wedding: There’s a class issue the reporter doesn’t see. When you ask professional-class people an abstract question, they usually picture themselves being nicer than they actually are. But working-class people generally imagine they’d be more rule-abiding.

So the florists say they’d have nothing to do with a same-sex wedding, because that’s the set of rules they were brought up with. If an actual same-sex couple came through the door, though, things might turn out differently. “Normally I’m against this kind of thing, but you seem like nice folks.”

Thursday, a Unitarian Universalist woman led a pagan prayer to open a session of the Iowa legislature. Some Christian legislators boycotted, while others turned their back on her.

The invocation is given in full at the Progressive Secular Humanist blog; it’s pretty benign other than calling on “god, goddess, universe, that which is greater than ourselves” rather than just the Christian God.

Don’t be fooled by the Religious Right types who say they just want government to respect religion. They have no respect for anybody else’s religion. They want their religion to dominate.

If you’ve been curious about the Apple Watch, The Verge has it covered.

WaPo’s Dana Milbank collects a number of recent red-state efforts “to dehumanize and even criminalize the poor”. Kansas, for example, has specifically banned the poor from using their benefits on cruise ships. Because, I guess, that was a common problem, and it wasn’t already covered by bans against using benefits out of state.

and let’s close with Mary Poppins

or at least, with Kristen Bell’s version of Mary campaigning for a higher minimum wage.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rand Paul

[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]

Paul and his candidacy. Rand Paul is in many ways the most interesting of the potential Republican candidates, the one whose positions are most idiosyncratic and least in step with GOP groupthink. He usually tries to sound like an Ayn Rand libertarian — which already sets him apart on some issues — but occasionally a bit of Occupy Wall Street anarchy gets into his rhetoric as well.

Most other Republicans argue that the Republican Party just hasn’t been Republican enough. It needs to double down on its principles, not move to the center or compromise with Democrats to get things done. Good stuff will happen only after the last Democrat has been driven into the hills.

Paul, on the other hand, is arguing that both parties are the problem: Both are part of a culture of corruption that makes government spending and government power constantly increase.

If he could quit there, he’d have an attractive message. Paul’s “Stop the Washington Machine” slogan sounds really good to people with a wide range of views. Consequently, like Barack Obama in 2008, Paul has a chance to expand the electorate by attracting people otherwise too alienated to vote. But it leaves his campaign with two problems:

  1. He’s running for the nomination of one of the parties he’s attacking. So he somehow has to get Republicans to vote for a candidate who says that Republicans are part of what’s wrong with America. But Republicans view acknowledging mistakes as weakness; they don’t want their candidate to go on an apology tour for the sins of George W. Bush.
  2. Once he stops the Washington machine, what is he going to put in its place? Other candidates are in a position to be vague and hopeful, but Paul’s record includes a lot of white papers and proposed bills whose details (if they become common knowledge) will turn off a lot of the people his slogan attracts.

The speech’s theme. [All unattributed quotes are from Time‘s transcript of the speech Paul gave Tuesday in Louisville. Watch out for The Independent‘s “full transcript”; parts of the speech are missing.]

A typical announcement speech is a blend of autobiography and political vision. Sometimes (as in Ted Cruz’s speech), those are two separate segments. But Paul’s speech is organized by issue, and biographical details are sprinkled in as they seem relevant. That structure sends a message in itself: Who I am is not important compared to what I want to do. Where Cruz frames himself as a prophet raised up to do God’s work, Paul frames himself as Cincinnatus temporarily putting aside his farming (or, in Paul’s case, his practice as an eye doctor) to save the Republic.

Paul begins his speech saying: “We have come to take our country back.” This is a common trope for any party out of power, and (depending on your vision of what America used to be) can mean anything from restoring white Christian supremacy to redistributing wealth. To Paul it means:

The Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives must be stopped. … I want to be part of a return to prosperity, a true economic boom that lists all Americans, a return to a government restrained by the Constitution. A return to privacy, opportunity, liberty. [1]

Debt and spending. Paul’s primary symbol and symptom of too-big government is the $18 trillion federal debt.

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been able to enjoy the American Dream. I worry, though, that the opportunity and hope are slipping away for our sons and daughters. As I watch our once-great economy collapse under mounting spending and debt, I think, “What kind of America will our grandchildren see”?

It seems to me that both parties and the entire political system are to blame. Big government and debt doubled under a Republican administration. And it’s now tripling under Barack Obama’s watch. President Obama is on course to add more debt than all of the previous presidents combined. We borrow a million dollars a minute.

This mixes some truth with some falsehood: A million dollars a minute is a little high, but in the ballpark. George W. Bush did double the national debt, but Obama didn’t triple it, and isn’t on course to add more debt than all previous presidents combined. (Details in endnote [2].)

The more abstract idea that big government and debt are collapsing the American economy is less easily fact-checked, but shouldn’t be accepted as obvious. Other rich countries (Sweden and Germany, for example) have much higher per-capita government spending than we do, and Japan’s per-capita government debt is almost double ours. The fastest-growing of the world’s large economies is China, which has a far more intrusive government. [3]

Fixing the budget. Paul proposes that we balance the budget entirely with spending cuts.

Currently some $3 trillion comes into the U.S. Treasury. Couldn’t the country just survive on $3 trillion?

The way he wants to make that happen is through a constitutional amendment:

Congress will never balance the budget unless you force them to do so. Congress has an abysmal record with balancing anything. [4] Our only recourse is to force Congress to balance the budget with a constitutional amendment.

Usually, conservatives wave a balanced-budget amendment like a magic wand: It will balance the budget without forcing us to spell out the harsh spending cuts that are required once tax increases are off the table.

Paul can’t be criticized for that. In 2011 he put out a proposal to strip $500 billion out of the budget (almost exactly the current deficit). That proposal demonstrates how draconian a balanced-budget-with-no-new taxes is. As I observed at the time: it cut 28% from the Center for Disease Control, and made similar cuts in the agencies that monitor food safety. The National Park Service got cut 42%. And so on.

When people think “The government spends too much money”, I’ll bet they’re not thinking about Yellowstone, or planning to cut corners on the next Ebola outbreak. But Paul is.

This is the problem when you get specific: The American people dislike “big government” and “spending” in its trillion-dollar abstraction, but the big things that the government spends money on — defense, Social Security, Medicare — are popular. In the rest of the budget, nearly all the easy cuts were made long ago. And when you’re sitting on your rooftop in New Orleans wondering whether the helicopters or the flood waters will reach you first, “big government” sounds pretty good.

Inequality. For a long time, conservatives refused to recognize growing economic inequality as a problem. (Talented ambitious people are out-performing inept lazy people. What’s the problem?) But recently that has turned around. At least rhetorically, conservatives are now addressing inequality.

Trillion-dollar government stimulus packages has only widened the income gap. Politically connected cronies get taxpayer dollars by the hundreds of millions [5] and poor families across America continue to suffer. I have a different vision, … a vision that will offer opportunity to all Americans, especially those who have been left behind.

My plan includes economic freedom zones to allow impoverished areas like Detroit, West Louisville, Eastern Kentucky to prosper by leaving more money in the pockets of the people who live there.

This “economic freedom zone” idea has been kicking around for a while under various names. Jack Kemp first called them “enterprise zones” and later “opportunity zones of prosperity“. (I call them “hellholes”, for reasons that will become apparent. But I’ll try to be nice and use Paul’s terminology.)

The idea is that if you lower taxes and cut regulations in some impoverished region, businesses will sprout there like mushrooms, providing jobs for all the previously unemployed residents. If you just stop there, it sounds like it might work. But Paul put out a 6-page outline of his plan in 2013, so we know a lot more of the disturbing details.

Reducing taxes in economically depressed areas is a stimulus that will work because the money is returned to businesses and individuals who have already proven that they can succeed.

i.e., to rich people.

These “Economic Freedom Zones” allow blighted and bankrupt areas to remove the shackles of big government by reducing taxes, regulations, and burdensome union work requirements. These zones give parents and students the flexibility to find better schools, allow talented immigrants to pursue entrepreneurial and job-creating endeavors, and will provide additional incentives for philanthropy to help those in need.

So how does that work? Let’s start with the tax part. When an impoverished area like Detroit or West Louisville is declared a hellhole — sorry, an Economic Freedom Zone — both the individual and the corporate tax rates go down to 5%. Payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare) are reduced for both the employer and the employee. And the capital gains tax goes away for “stock or tangible assets that are located within the area”.

This is supposed to encourage new businesses. I know immediately the new business I would want to be in: turning abandoned buildings into tiny cheap condos that rich people could buy to establish residency, even though they would never be caught dead there. With all the zoning regulations suspended, I could probably build them for $20,000 each easy. Then I sell them for $100,000, and a guy with a billion-dollar income saves hundreds of millions in taxes by buying one. Everybody wins!

Mailboxes Etc would also do well, as corporations move their “headquarters” to mailboxes inside the Zone. Now they pay low taxes, and capital gains on their stock become tax free!

You think this kind of stuff wouldn’t happen? Again and again, we’ve been sold the idea that cutting taxes will give rich people lots of money to create jobs with. But why should they? Why not just pocket the extra money and do as little as possible to help anybody? And if you start writing rules to prevent this chicanery, not only would the tax-avoiders always be one step ahead of you, you’d end up creating yet another complex set of bureaucratic rules.

If actual people or businesses did move into the Zones, their enclaves would look like Israeli settlements on the West Bank. They’d be as isolated as possible from the impoverished residents. They wouldn’t, for example, lift a finger to improve the local public schools, because part of the program is that everybody gets private-school vouchers.

But one kind of business would be attracted to the Zones: businesses that pollute a lot. That’s because EPA non-attainment designations would be suspended. The Zones would also be exempted from regulations on municipal storm-sewer run-off, and they could waive land use restrictions like “Wilderness Areas, National Heritage Sites, or Wild & Scenic Rivers”. Also, construction permits under the National Environmental Policy Act would be “streamlined”.

So, if a real-estate corporation wanted to take over a Zone’s wilderness areas and heritage sites, the local government could sell to them. And it might be motivated to sell, because the program specifically forbids any government bailouts if the municipality gets into financial trouble. (But they would be authorized to renege on their pensions.)

So there you have it: Polluted districts populated mainly by phony residences and fake corporate headquarters, with abandoned public schools, pensionless local residents, and all the beautiful or historic areas privatized. Hellholes.

Meanwhile, enormous tax loopholes have been created that require even more massive spending cuts than the ones Paul has already laid out.

Infrastructure. But wait, there’s more:

I want to see millions of Americans back at work. In my vision for America, we’ll bring back manufacturing jobs that pay well. How? We’ll dramatically lower the tax on American companies that wish to bring their profits home.

More than $2 trillion in American profit currently sits overseas. In my vision for America, new highways and bridges will be built across the country, not by raising your taxes, but by lowering the tax to bring this American profit home.

This is the overseas profits tax holiday he co-sponsored with Democrat Barbara Boxer. Multinational corporations like Apple and Google (both headquartered in Boxer’s state) juggle their books to make most of their profits appear overseas, so that they can avoid the 35% corporate income tax. The Paul-Boxer bill would let them bring those profits home and pay just 6.5%. It would create an immediate one-time slug of revenue, but, as Bloomberg Business explains:

It’s not clear that the Paul-Boxer plan would actually raise revenue. The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, the official scorekeeper for tax bills, said last year that a similar proposal would raise money in the first few years and then cost the government a net total of $95.8 billion over a decade.

That’s because companies would interpret a repeat of a tax holiday enacted in 2004 as a sign that they should shift even more profits outside the U.S. in anticipation of another holiday.

Criminal justice reform. After Ferguson, Paul wrote an op-ed in Time calling for demilitarization of the police. He wrote:

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.

He mentioned the issue in Tuesday’s speech without elaborating:

I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.

Most other Republicans don’t believe that race is a factor in our criminal justice system, so in the debates I expect Paul to be challenged to name some law that should be repealed because of its unfairness to blacks. It will be interesting to see what he says.

Defense and foreign policy. Historically, Libertarians have been isolationists. For good reasons: War inevitably increases government power, both economically and in terms of civil liberties. In wartime, ordinary political dissent turns into disloyalty or even treason.

For years, this reluctance to involve the United States in foreign conflicts has distanced both Rand and Ron Paul from the Republican mainstream. (In the 2011 Republican debates, Ron Paul said about the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapon “What’s so terribly bad about this?” and opposed even trade sanctions. Just a year ago, Rand Paul told ABC’s Jonathan Karl “The people who say ‘by golly, we will never stand for that,’ they are voting for war.”)

Since he began moving towards his own presidential run, though, Rand has tried to walk that back and sound more bellicose, even supporting higher defense spending. In his announcement speech, he proclaimed “radical Islam” as “the enemy”.

And not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind.

And he tried to walk narrow line supporting negotiations with Iran without siding with President Obama.

I see an America strong enough to deter foreign aggression, yet wise enough to avoid unnecessary intervention.

which sounds a lot like what Obama sees. So what’s the difference?

The difference between President Obama and myself, he seems to think you can negotiate from a position of weakness. Yet everyone needs to realize that negotiations are not inherently bad.

But it’s not clear what would make a President Paul “stronger” than President Obama, other than simply being a Republican. I’m sure he’ll be pressed on this during the campaign.

Civil liberties. One place Paul is not backing down is on limiting government spying on American citizens who have committed no crime.

The president created this vast dragnet by executive order. And as president on day one, I will immediately end this unconstitutional surveillance. … We must defend ourselves, but we must never give up who we are as a people. We must never diminish the Bill of Rights as we fight this long war against evil. We must believe in our founding documents. We must protect economic and personal liberty again.

This is one issue where his difference with other Republican candidate might be popular even among the Republican electorate. I hope he’ll challenge other candidates to match his day-one pledge.

Summary. To appeal to the Republican primary electorate, Paul will be tempted to shift his positions towards the Republican mainstream and away from this Libertarian roots. To an extent he already has. But his hope of winning also has to depend on drawing alienated voters to the polls. To do that, he’ll have to maintain an image as a different kind of Republican.

That will require a lot of political skill, which Paul has never shown in the past. (He has a tendency to get testy when questioned, as he did this week.) There is a place in American politics waiting for the candidate who can run a pox-on-both-your-houses campaign. But I personally don’t believe Rand Paul is skillful enough to be that candidate.

More of a problem is his record of specific proposals. It’s hard to run an Obama-style hope-and-change campaign when your opponents can so easily pull you into unpopular details you have laid out in your own words.

Addendum. It’s been pointed out in the comments that I said nothing about Paul’s position on social issues like abortion. That’s because Paul said nothing. My take is that he wishes he could avoid talking about these issues. One of the times he got testy with a reporter was when he was asked whether an abortion ban should have a rape exception.

The fact that he doesn’t want to answer that question tells you where he is on abortion in general: He’s against it to the point that he’s willing to consider forcing a woman to have her rapist’s child. That’s where the question starts getting difficult for him.

He has also said that same-sex marriage “offends myself and a lot of other people“, but supports letting same-sex couples have “contracts” with each other, whatever that means.

[1] Paul puts forward a zero-sum view of government and the people: any expansion of government necessarily diminishes individuals. This clearly makes sense with regard to privacy: As the government snoops more, our sphere of privacy shrinks. But it’s less obvious with opportunity and liberty: Liberals would argue that programs like government-subsidized state universities and community colleges can increase opportunity for people born into poverty, and regulations that restrain the power of big business (net neutrality, for example) can increase liberty for individuals. Libertarians have arguments against these points, but Paul usually doesn’t go there: He frames these objections out of the discussion rather than address them.

[2] Kimberley Amadeo does the analysis of debt-added-per-president through Obama’s first five budgets. Paul’s statement about President He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (i.e., George W. Bush; the word “Bush” does not appear in the transcript) is accurate: The debt was $5.8 trillion at the end of Bill Clinton’s last budget, and (excluding the FY 2009 spending of Obama’s stimulus plan, which was added to the FY 2009 budget after Bush left office) he added another $5.849 trillion. So yeah: doubled.

In Amadeo’s analysis, President Obama added $6.167 trillion in his first five years, including the FY 2009 spending taken out of Bush’s total. The current CBO projection of the FY 2015 deficit is $486 billion. FY 2016 and FY 2017 come in at $455 billion each. Total: $7.563 trillion.

So “tripled” is only accurate if you mean that the debt has (more than) tripled since Bush took office, which is a generous way to read Paul’s statement — certainly not the way the typical voter hears it. Obama himself is nowhere near tripling the debt; he hasn’t even doubled it. (And if you want to spin the numbers Obama’s way, he inherited a $1.6 billion annual deficit and has whittled it down to under $500 billion.)

The bit about “more debt than all of the previous presidents combined” is simply false. If you add up just the last three Republican presidents — Bush II at $5.849, Bush I at $1.554, and Reagan at $1.86 trillion — you get $9.263 trillion of debt, which is considerably more than Obama is projected to add by the time he leaves office. (In inflation-adjusted numbers, the comparison is even worse for the Republicans.)

If you want try juggling numbers to make Paul’s statement accurate, you can charge Obama with the full FY 2009 deficit (including the part already run up before Inauguration Day), and give the next president credit for the FY 2017 projection. That adds $1.177 trillion and brings Obama up to $8.74 trillion, which is still less than half the projected national debt at the end of FY 2016. (Also, giving Obama the full blame for FY 2009 ruins Paul’s claim that Bush doubled the debt.) So no, you just can’t make Paul’s claim work no matter what you do. It’s a lie.

And a million dollars a minute? Close enough for this kind of analogy. There are 60 x 24 x 365 = 525,600 minutes in a year. Times a million is $525.6 billion. The projected deficit for this year is $486 billion.

[3] The major disagreement between the parties is over why the middle class is vanishing, and I hope the campaign centers on that debate. Republicans largely back Paul’s view, that the problem is the growth of government. Liberals blame the effects of the Reagan Revolution: By lowering taxes on the wealthy, freeing corporations from anti-trust regulations, and making it nearly impossible for workers to unionize — policies that Clinton and Obama never managed to reverse — government has allowed the 1% to squeeze all the juice out of the economy.

Liberals have timing in their favor: wage growth stopped tracking productivity growth with the jump in oil prices in 1973, but the gap really started opening up during the Reagan administration and has not closed since.

Conservatives have to explain why the explosive growth of government that began with FDR went together with the growth of the economy and the middle class until the mid-1970s.

For a completely different view of the meaning of the national debt, see Warren Mosler’s Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy.

[4] In Republican circles, the Clinton surplus just never happened. What’s more, the way it happened — a combination of controlled spending and increased taxes — is a theoretical impossibility.

[5] This popular conservative talking point seems to refer to the sustainable-energy part of stimulus, which made the famous failed loan to Solyndra. But in spite of extension congressional investigations, no big corruption scandal ever emerged. According to The Hill, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s final report “does not provide specific evidence to back up GOP allegations aired over past months that administration officials provided the Solyndra loan as payback for campaign donations.”

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m still in Arizona, so everything is running a little later than usual. The featured post this week will continue the 2016 Stump Speeches series, focusing this week on Rand Paul’s announcement speech. (Yesterday, Hillary also said she’s running; maybe I’ll get to her next week.) Figure that to come out around 10 or 11 eastern time.

The weekly summary will include the Walter Scott shooting, some 150th-anniversary articles about the end of the Civil War that make similar points to my “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, and two mini book reviews, before closing with Mary Poppins’ plea for a higher minimum wage. Expect that around noon or so.

Sincere Beliefs

I have no doubt that Christian conservatives do feel limited by other people’s rights. There is that saying, “Your rights end where my nose begins.” Christian conservatives are arguing that they should be able to punch you in the nose if that desire to punch you in the nose is sincerely held.

— Amanda Marcotte, How Conservatives Hijacked ‘Religious Freedom’

This week’s featured posts are “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Introducing the Series“, “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Ted Cruz“, and “Religious Freedom: Colorado’s sensible middle way“.

This week everybody was still talking about “religious freedom”

Indiana passed a “clarification” of last week’s “religious freedom” law:

The fix provides that Indiana’s RFRA does not authorize businesses “to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodation, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public” on the basis of a list of protected traits that includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Another provision provides that the state’s RFRA law does not “establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution” brought against someone who engages in such discrimination.

So it rolls back the worst of the new law, but in no case does it do any more than restore the status quo. Arkansas likewise watered down the RFRA it passed last week, though I’m not clear on the details.

I started to do a short explanation of how I think First Amendment rights should balance against gay rights, but it got out of hand so I turned it into its own article.

Bigotry can be profitable! That Indiana pizza shop has collected over $800K in donations, while the Oregon florist that was fined $1K has gotten $85K to help pay it.

CNN’s conversation with several florists in rural Georgia implicitly pointed out one of the holes in conservative Christian theology: They treat homosexuality as a more serious sin than just about anything else, when there’s no Biblical justification for doing so. There are a handful of verses in the Bible against homosexuality, but the idea that it’s worse than other common sins — premarital sex, say — is not Biblical.

and a nuclear deal with Iran

Or at least the framework of a deal that both sides are committed to finishing by the end of June.

Salon’s Jim Newell suggests that any politician who wants to renounce the deal be asked what they’d do next. He lists the realistic options he sees:

(1) sitting around and hoping that some magical unicorns swoop into Iran, topple its regime, and put in place a United States puppet government or (2) bombing Iran.

Rachel Maddow did a good job of summarizing the technical details involved, and why they matter.

Steve Benen discusses the plans in Congress to sabotage the deal.

and a massacre in Kenya

The al-Shabab terrorist group killed 148 people in an attack on a university.

and you also might be interested in …

Thursday will be the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender, which effectively ended the Civil War. Brian Beutler makes a modest proposal, which I endorse:

to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.

The Bob Menendez corruption case demonstrates the kind of corruption that Justice Kennedy didn’t think would be an issue.

Who’re the oldest “people” in the United States? Corporate people. The oldest ones just turned 129.

11 Atlanta educators were convicted in a plot to raise test scores through cheating. 178 teachers and principals were involved, and 35 were indicted, with most negotiating guilty pleas to lesser charges.

This case exposes an important flaw in the high-stakes-testing approach to education, in which the futures of everyone from students and teachers to mayors and governors ride on test scores. Literally everyone in the system has a motive to cheat, and no one has a motive to catch cheaters. According to the NYT:

Evidence of systemic cheating has emerged in as many as a dozen places across the country, and protests in Chicago, New York City, Seattle, across Texas and elsewhere represent a growing backlash among educators and parents against high-stakes testing.

So if you’re going to do testing right, you need an independent testing bureaucracy, with its own employees and budget. And once you figure in the cost of that, I think the whole scheme might become impractical.

Here’s another Indiana law that should give people pause: After taking drugs to induce a miscarriage, a woman was convicted of “feticide” and sentenced to 20 years.

While we’re all waiting to see if the Supreme Court monkey-wrenches ObamaCare, it just did some serious damage to Medicaid.

and let’s close with a taste of things to come

Comedy Central has announced Jon Stewart’s successor as host of The Daily Show: South African comic Trevor Noah. In spite of some early problems, this could be good:

Religious Freedom: Colorado’s sensible middle way

There have been a lot of painful back-and-forths about what the proposed state “religious freedom” laws allow. Like this one, where ABC’s Jake Trapper tries to get the sponsor of Arkansas’ original RFRA bill (which has since been watered down a little) to admit that it allows “discrimination” against a same-sex couple getting married, while the legislator will admit only that it allows bakers, florists, et al to refuse to “participate in the message”.

There actually is a sensible in-between position, and I doubt a new law was necessary to allow it, because it was already embedded in the judge’s decision in the 2013 Colorado bakery case, as I noted last week.

There is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry. However, the finished product does not necessarily qualify as “speech,” as would saluting a flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto. … [The baker] was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage. [my emphasis]

Let me take this out of the gay-rights arena with a hypothetical example: Suppose I represent an atheist group that is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary. I go to a baker and ask for a cake. Suppose I want him to write “God is Dead” on the cake, and he refuses. If I sue, then I believe he should win the case, because his freedom of speech is violated if he’s forced to write something he doesn’t agree with.

But now suppose we didn’t get that far: As soon as I say why I want a cake, the baker responds, “I’m not going to make a cake for an atheist group.” All I want is a cake with a 10 on top of it, and he says no. Now if I sue, I believe I should win, because the baker is discriminating against atheists as a religious group. In other words, a business open to the public should be (and I believe is, without any new religious-freedom laws) free to refuse to endorse an idea, but it should not be free to refuse service to people merely because they practice or promote that idea.

Colorado followed that principle again this week when it upheld the right of a baker not to make an anti-gay cake:

The complaint against Marjorie Silva, owner of Azucar Bakery, was filed by Castle Rock, Colo., resident Bill Jack, who claimed Silva discriminated against his religious beliefs when she refused to decorate a cake showing two groomsmen with a red “x” over them and messages about homosexuality being a sin.

Silva said she would make the cake, but declined to write his suggested messages on the cake, telling him she would give him icing and a pastry bag so he could write the words himself. Silva said the customer didn’t want that.

If conservative Christian bakers would offer gay and lesbian couples a similar compromise — “I’ll make the cake and sell you two groom figures, but you’ll have to put them on the cake yourself.” — I suspect they’d have no problems with the courts. Certainly not in Colorado, and probably not anywhere.

The loophole the Arkansas legislator is trying to wiggle through is that the Supreme Court has extended First Amendment protection to “symbolic speech” — wordless actions that make a statement, like burning an American flag. He wants to claim that providing any of the services involved in a same-sex wedding can be construed as a symbolic statement that the provider approves of same-sex marriage. So a florist’s or photographer’s right to free speech is violated if s/he is forced to make such a statement.

That’s ridiculous. It’s the kind of passive aggression I’ve pointed out before: exaggerating your sensitivity in order to control others by claiming offense. Society could not function if we allowed everyone to claim this degree of moral sensitivity. (“If you force me to hire beef-eaters in my widget factory, then you’re making me say I approve of eating beef, which violates my Hindu faith.”) So it’s an implicit claim that conservative Christians have special rights that other people don’t have.

What this situation cries out for is a “reasonable person” interpretation: Would reasonable people look at the flowers at a same-sex wedding and see the florist making a political/religious statement? (“Those must come from Belle’s Flowers. I didn’t know Belle endorsed same-sex marriage. I thought she was a Christian.”) Or would they just think “nice flowers”?

This interpretation separates actual religious-freedom issues from the bogus ones that fundamentalists are putting forward. A reasonable person would assume that the officiating minister approves of the ceremony, so the minister’s presence makes a statement that the law can’t force. But florists? photographers? bakers? caterers? No.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Ted Cruz

On March 23 at Liberty University in Virginia, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas became the first major Republican to announce his presidential candidacy. As I explained in the introduction to this series, I don’t think the mainstream media takes candidate stump speeches seriously enough: In them, a candidate presents a vision of what leadership America needs at the present moment, and why he or she is the person to provide it. That vision is typically a combination of truth and fantasy, both about himself/herself and about America, but it is a telling and instructive combination all the same.

Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes below are from the Washington Post transcript. (I’ve left out the crowd reactions.)

Significance of the site. “To come to the world’s largest Christian university [1] is a statement in and of itself,” said student government president Quincy Thompson. “I think he was very clear in his commitment to Christ.”

Liberty University was founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell and is still headed by his son, Jerry Jr. It describes its mission as “training champions for Christ“. Falwell Sr. can be regarded as a founder of the Theocrat wing of the Republican Party — I discuss the four Republican factions here and here — so by announcing his candidacy at Liberty, Cruz is identifying himself as a Theocrat. (He has since doubled down on that with his first campaign ad.)

Cruz’ speech is one of Liberty’s three-times-a-week Convocations, and he is introduced by President Falwell. (I haven’t found what Falwell said.) Attendance at Convocations is mandatory for students, which explains why you can see a few Rand Paul t-shirts in the crowd. In general, the audience is respectful but not enthusiastic, except when Cruz pledges his support to Israel. (Christian Theocrats are major supporters of Israel, for reasons largely having to do with end times prophecies.)

Outline. The overall theme of Cruz’s 31-minute speech is “re-igniting the promise of America”. It falls into three parts: The first ten minutes are about Cruz and his family, the next 13 make a contrast between where he thinks America is and where he wants to take it, and the final eight explain why the difficult things he wants to do are possible: a combination of people power (“The power of the American people when we rise up and stand for liberty knows no bounds.”) and divine assistance (“God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet.”).

Family bio. Telling your story is a standard part of a stump speech, and if your theme is “re-igniting the promise of America”, it helps if your family’s story illustrates the promise of America. This isn’t a conservative or liberal thing: In many ways Cruz’ use of his father’s Cuban-immigrant struggle reminds me of Mike Dukakis’ use of his father’s Greek-immigrant struggle.

It’s particularly important for Cruz, though, because his father is going to be an issue in the campaign: Rafael Cruz is pastor of a Purifying Fire franchise in Carrollton, Texas. He is a popular religious-right speaker on his own, and regularly says the kinds of things that liberals imagine conservatives think but don’t say. That relationship will be a plus for Cruz as long as he’s only facing far-right audiences, but in a general election his Dad problem will dwarf Barack Obama’s Jeremiah Wright problem.

As Ted tells it, his parents’ story has two themes: How in America two people can start with nothing and put their son in the Senate, and how Jesus Christ can transform a family. He also tries to pick up some working-women cred through his mother’s success in a male-dominated field (computer programming). [2]

Rafael arrived from Cuba at 18, after rebelling against the corrupt dictator Batista and then getting disillusioned by Castro. He worked his way through the University of Texas washing dishes (something you could do back in the days when state universities were heavily subsidized). Ted conveniently skips Rafael’s failed first marriage, but does tell how he abandoned his second wife when Ted was three. That was when Rafael found Jesus.

And God transformed his heart. And he drove to the airport, he bought a plane ticket, and he flew back to be with my mother and me. There are people who wonder if faith is real. I can tell you, in my family there’s not a second of doubt, because were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ … I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household.

Ted’s wife was the child of white missionaries to Africa. In telling the story of her business success, he focuses on her childhood cake-baking business, and manages not to say the words “Goldman Sachs”.

Similarly, he leaves out some things when talking about himself

heading off to school over a thousand miles away from home, in a place where he knew nobody, where he was alone and scared, and his parents going through bankruptcy meant there was no financial support at home, so at the age of 17, he went to get two jobs to help pay his way through school. He took over $100,000 in school loans, loans I suspect a lot of ya’ll can relate to, loans that I’ll point out I just paid off a few years ago.

That’s got to be the strangest way I’ve ever heard someone say he went to Princeton and then got his law degree at Harvard. [3]

He draws this segment to a close by saying: “These are all of our stories.” In other words, the American dream is “to come to America with nothing, and to achieve anything.” We all share that dream, but the Cruz family embodies it.

The threat. Having shown us how the promise of America has been fulfilled for him and his family, Cruz transitions to the second part of the speech by introducing the idea that the promise of America is threatened, and may not be available for the students in the audience unless they fight for it.

For so many Americans the promise of America seems more and more distant. … So many fear that that promise is today unattainable.

The promise of America has to be “re-ignited” if it’s going to be available to this generation.

What’s interesting here is how Left and Right are telling the same story with different villains. In Cruz’ version, the promise of America has been corrupted by over-reaching government and the loss of the Christian values the country was founded on. In the liberal version, the promise of America has been stolen by the 1%; they have climbed the ladder of success and pulled it up behind them. A candidate who could combine these stories would really have something; but I don’t see that coming from the husband of a Goldman Sachs executive — or from Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton.

Cruz uses war imagery to imagine how this might turn around. He begins with Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.” [4]

Today millions of young people are scared, worried about the future, worried about what the future will hold. Imagine millions of young people coming together and standing together, saying “we will stand for liberty.”

and in the closing invites the students “to join a grassroots army”. His implicit message is that one way Liberty students can be “champions for Christ” is to be champions for Ted Cruz.

Imagine how things could be rather than how they are. The “imagine” in the previous quote is the start of a litany of the form “Instead of X, imagine Y.”

Imagine, instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth. … Instead of small businesses going out of business in record numbers, imagine small businesses growing and prospering.

Again, this kind of stuff will play well in the Republican primaries, but I can imagine an attack-dog Democratic VP candidate (Al Franken would deliver the line best) countering with: “Instead of the slow but steady growth we’ve had under a centrist Democratic president, imagine the economy falling completely off a cliff the way it did the last time we had a conservative Republican president.”

That’s going to be the general-election challenge of any Republican candidate: You can talk a good game about “booming economic growth”, but when the details come out, what are you proposing other than a return to Bushism? In large part, that is what sunk Romney. He wanted to project an image as an economic turn-around specialist, but he didn’t have any credible proposals to back it up. Lower taxes? Less regulation? How is that different from what failed so disastrously under Bush?

And “small businesses going out of business in record numbers”? False.

Sometimes there are policies behind Cruz’ litany, if you know how to interpret.

Imagine innovation thriving on the Internet as government regulators and tax collectors are kept at bay and more and more opportunity is created.

If wasn’t until the second time I listened to the speech that I realized he was talking about his opposition to net neutrality. The idea that the FCC’s endorsement of net neutrality will have a side-effect of raising taxes is speculative at best, but is accepted as gospel on the right. And the belief that letting Comcast and Verizon dominate the internet will make innovation “thrive” and create “opportunity” … well, that’s just crazy.

Cruz repeats several other baseless conservative fantasies:

Instead of a tax code that crushes innovation, that imposes burdens on families struggling to make ends met, imagine a simple flat tax that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a postcard. Imagine abolishing the IRS.

Every proposed flat tax that collects the same revenue as the current system does so by increasing taxes on “families struggling to make ends meet”. It has to, because the whole point of flattening the tax is so that rich people can pay less.

Similarly, the flatness of a tax has nothing to do with how complicated tax returns are. [5] The complicated part of the income tax is figuring out what your income is after deductions, not what tax rate you pay on it. Having a flat tax is not going to help you compute the basis price on your investments, or what part of your small-business revenue is actually income. (How are you going to do that on a postcard?) And if you want to simplify by getting rid of deductions, you can do that without flattening the tax. (If you want to make deduction-cutting revenue-neutral, lower all the tax rates by equal percentages.) The point of a flat tax is not simplicity or anything other than shifting the tax burden from the rich to the rest of us.

And “abolishing the IRS” means what exactly? That the government is just going to take our word for what our income is? The only way to abolish the IRS is to abolish the income tax, which would have to be replaced by something more regressive, like a national sales tax.

Instead of the lawlessness and the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty, imagine a president that finally, finally, finally secures the borders.

What kind of police state would we need to “secure the border”? Reagan couldn’t do it. Bush couldn’t do it. Even Nazi Germany never managed to secure its borders completely. Also: about half our undocumented immigrants come in legally, but overstay their visas. Nothing we can do on the border will fix that.

And imagine a legal immigration system that welcomes and celebrates those who come to achieve the American dream.

All of them? Isn’t that exactly what a lot of conservatives want to prevent? How many immigrants does Cruz imagine letting in each year? Won’t they “steal our jobs“?

And some Cruz’ proposals are just nonsense:

Imagine repealing every word of Common Core.

As many people have pointed out, Common Core is not a law, so it can’t be repealed. Pretty much everything Cruz says about Common Core is disconnected from reality. Vox explains:

If Cruz really wanted to get rid of Common Core, he could run the Obama administration’s play in reverse: create his own version of Race to the Top, with financial incentives for states to toss out the Common Core standards and develop their own based on what local authorities think students should learn. But that’s just another form of federal interference — and Cruz wants the federal government out of the education standards business entirely.

Cruz continues:

every single child, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of wealth or ZIP Code, every child in America has the right to a quality education.

But if there are no national standards, what does “quality education” mean? And if there’s no definition, what is Cruz’ assertion of every child’s rights worth?

And of course, no Ted Cruz speech would be complete without trashing ObamaCare.

Instead of the joblessness, instead of the millions forced into part-time work, instead of the millions who’ve lost their health insurance, lost their doctors, have faced skyrocketing health insurance premiums, imagine in 2017 a new president signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare.

It will be interesting to see how long the Right can stay in the alternate universe where ObamaCare is a horrible failure. An ever-larger percentage of the electorate either gets insurance through ObamaCare or knows someone who does, so the made-up horror stories can’t cut it forever, as Cathy McMorris Rodgers found out.

Imagine health care reform that keeps government out of the way between you and your doctor and that makes health insurance personal and portable and affordable.

You need imagination to see the Republican alternative to ObamaCare, because in the real world there isn’t one. I’ll bet Cruz will go as long as he can without offering any more details than what you see above.

But the portions of the Imagine litany aimed at the Religious Right ring true.

Instead of a federal government that wages an assault on our religious liberty, that goes after Hobby Lobby, that goes after the Little Sisters of the Poor, that goes after Liberty University, imagine a federal government that stands for the First Amendment rights of every American.

Instead of a federal government that works to undermine our values, imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage.

Instead of a government that works to undermine our Second Amendment rights, that seeks to ban our ammunition imagine a federal government that protects the right to keep and bear arms of all law-abiding Americans.

I’ve got nothing cynical to say about any of that. [6] He means it.

God’s help. One theme of Cruz’ career is that conservatives don’t need to compromise, they just need to fight. That principle and Cruz’ leadership was how we wound up with the government shutdown of 2013.

So he closes his speech by explaining why he believes — in spite of sad experience — that compromise is unnecessary and his vision is possible. He recalls a number of crisis points in American history [7], and then concludes:

From the dawn of this country, at every stage America has enjoyed God’s providential blessing. Over and over again, when we face impossible odds, the American people rose to the challenge.

So Theocrats shouldn’t seek a compromise candidate that might have a better chance of winning. Ted Cruz should be their first choice, and with their help and God’s he will become president.

Is it working? The first new poll out says it is: Cruz has gone from 5% support to 16%, within striking distance of the leaders Scott Walker (20%) and Jeb Bush (17%). God may not be throwing his weight into the scale, but the Theocrats are.

[1] Liberty has nearly 14,000 students on its campus and another 100,000 online. I’m not sure exactly how it justifies its claim to be “the largest Christian university in the world”, which Cruz repeats in his speech.

Just in the U.S., Catholic DePaul has over 30,000 students on campus. Maybe Liberty has more online students, or maybe they think Catholic universities are not really Christian. Certainly you don’t have to be Christian to attend DePaul, while Liberty’s application requires an essay on “How will your personal faith and beliefs allow you to contribute to Liberty’s mission to develop Christ-centered leaders?”

One good background source is the book The Unlikely Disciple, by a liberal Brown student who goes undercover at Liberty.

[2] Since Ted was born while the family was living in Canada, he gets his American citizenship and his right to run for president from his mother, who was born in Delaware. Some on the left want to make an issue out of this, since there is at least more substance to it than to the pure-fantasy Birther objections to President Obama’s legitimacy — which Rafael Cruz promoted. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Birthers tear down democracy by injecting bullshit into the public discourse. Those of us who want to uphold democracy can’t use their tactics.

[3] In context, this talking-about-himself-in-the-third person is not as weird as it sounds out of context. Rhetorically, he has set it up well.

[4] That choice of founding father is a dog whistle: To most of us, Patrick Henry is just another founder. But he was a Theocrat in the Virginia of his day, and clashed often with secularists like Jefferson and Madison. Liberty students probably know this.

[5] I just finished doing my own taxes. If we’d had only one tax rate in 2014, all that would have changed were the numbers in the Tax Tables. Everything else in my tax return (and yours too, I believe) would have been exactly the same.

[6] Well, one thing. The “ban our ammunition” line is about a proposal to ban armor-piercing bullets, whose main civilian application is in killing cops. The Obama administration dropped that proposal after the NRA threw a fit.

This shows how far you have to stretch if you want to claim that Obama is a threat to gun owners: You have to point to a moderate, sensible proposal that he didn’t follow through on anyway.

[7] Leaving out the Civil War, interestingly. I wonder if Cruz believes God’s side won that war.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Introducing the Series

One benefit of living in New Hampshire is the opportunity to listen to presidential candidates unfiltered by the national media. It wasn’t until I arrived here in 1996 that I realized just how distorting that filter can be: Early in each cycle, the press corps decides on a narrative for each candidate, and from there on it’s very hard for any other message to get through.

For example, in 2003 Howard Dean was the anti-war candidate. That’s what I expected to hear when I went to see him, and when he instead talked about a wide range of issues, I thought he must be making a real effort to broaden his appeal. But when I read the press coverage the next morning, it only mentioned the anti-war parts of his speech. If I hadn’t been there, I would have thought the anti-war candidate gave another anti-war speech. In fact, I eventually discovered, Dean had given his standard stump speech, which had always been about a wide range of issues. It just never got covered that way.

In the same campaign, I listened to John Kerry and blogged about his talk, not realizing that I had totally ignored what became the mainstream-media story: Kerry calling for “regime change in the United States“. If you were there, it was a throw-away line in an otherwise serious talk about where America was heading and where it needed to go. If you weren’t there, it was the only line you heard.

Ever since, I’ve tried to listen to as many candidates’ stump speeches as I can. Often they contain a lot of slanted statistics and mis-stated facts — which are instructive in their own way — but they also constitute a candidate’s best answer to the fundamental question of any presidential campaign: Where does America need to go and why am I the person to lead us there?

It’s important not to lose sight of that, or to get lost in all the clever remarks and wardrobe choices and inside-baseball strategizing. Where does this candidate think America needs to go and why is s/he the one to lead us there?

Fortunately, in the YouTube era you don’t have to live in New Hampshire or Iowa to hear a stump speech. So in this series I’m going to link to videos and/or transcripts of stump speeches of all the major candidates as they start campaigning, and I’m going to take them seriously. I’ll fact-check, pull out larger themes, compare to other candidate’s speeches, and think about the parts of the picture I think are being left out.

Watch the speeches with me and add your comments. I’m going to start later today with Ted Cruz’s Liberty University speech, and I plan to update this post throughout the year as more candidates announce and more stump speeches become available.

Speeches discussed so far: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Last week I finally had to recognize that the 2016 campaign had started. This week I begin covering it. I plan to do a series where I look at the stump speeches of all the major candidates, because I’ve learned in past campaigns that often they’re saying something different from what is being covered in the mainstream press.

So this week I need two featured posts: one to explain what the series is and the other to get it started by examining Ted Cruz announcement speech at Liberty University. They’re both more-or-less done, so they should be out shortly.

In the weekly summary, there’s still the “religious freedom” controversy, which I’ll catch up on and explain how I think the law ought to balance the competing values involved (as it seems to be doing in Colorado). But the more important development of the week was the announcement of the framework of a nuclear deal with Iran. And there was a massacre in Africa. I’ll close with a stand-up routine by Trevor Noah, who has been named as the next host of The Daily Show.

I’m writing from Arizona rather than my usual New Hampshire, so the usual schedule may slip a little. In the Eastern time zone, the weekly summary may not appear until afternoon.

Discriminating Tastes

The [university’s] policy with respect to intermarriage, the record also clearly establishes, was rooted from the beginning in a belief that is derived from scripture: not that races should not associate, but that races should not intermarry.

— William Ball, lawyer for Bob Jones University,
oral argument of Bob Jones University v. the United States (1982)

This week’s featured post is “2016: Understanding the Republican Process“.

This week everybody was talking about Indiana’s new right-to-discriminate law

I’m tempted to go into detail about what’s in it and why it’s wrong, but it’s basically the same thing Governor Brewer vetoed in Arizona last year, so I’d just be repeating what I wrote then. (If you want details, an Indiana lawyer has blogged a better analysis than I could do.)

What I find most discouraging is my own reaction: The bigots are wearing me down. When Arizona was about to do it, I was outraged. Now it’s just “Oh, not this shit again.” And how the heck am I going to boycott Indiana, when I was never planning to go there anyway?

I include the quote at the top to point out that we’ve heard all these points in favor of religiously-mandated discrimination before. Then it was discrimination against blacks rather than discrimination against gays, but the arguments are exactly the same.

And no, Michele Bachmann’s husband was not refused service at an Indianapolis dress shop because the owner thought he was gay. That clever satire went over the heads of many of its readers. They might have figured it out by looking at other articles on the National Report site, like “Obama’s Executive Amnesty Will Grant Illegals Marijuana Seller Permits“.

Georgia has a similar “religious freedom” bill pending. A few days ago, opponents thought they had it blocked by attaching an amendment that takes the bill’s supporters at their word.

As in Indiana, proponents of Georgia’s bill have tried to argue that it has nothing to do with discrimination. Rep. Mike Jacobs, an LGBT-friendly Republican, decided to test this theory by introducing an amendment that would not allow claims of religious liberty to be used to circumvent state and local nondiscrimination protections. Supporters of the bill, like Rep. Barry Fleming (R), countered that the amendment “will gut the bill.”

So it’s not about discrimination, but taking discrimination out of the law “guts” it.

It’s still possible that the unamended version will be restored and passed.

Big Atlanta-based corporations like Delta and Coke have spoken out against similar Georgia laws in the past, but aren’t making a big deal about this one. ThinkProgress speculates:

Some speculate that lawmakers have intimidated these companies into silence with bills that threaten their business — with Delta serving as the example for others. Still pending in the legislature is a bill (HB 175) that would eliminate Georgia’s tax subsidy on jet fuel, which would primarily hurt Delta. Its sponsor, Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R), makes no secret of the fact that the bill is retribution for Delta CEO Richard Anderson’s recent history of weighing in on public affairs, including last year’s version of RFRA.

It’s fascinating to watch the sleight-of-hand involved in defending so-called “religious freedom” laws, particularly when defenders try to make a parallel to liberal freedom issues, either to point out our obliviousness or our hypocrisy. For example:

Shoebat.com decided to call some 13 prominent pro-gay bakers in a row. Each one denied us the right to have “Gay Marriage Is Wrong” on a cake

But this is explicitly not what the bakery court case was about. As the judge wrote:

There is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry. However, the finished product does not necessarily qualify as “speech,” as would saluting a flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto. … [The baker] was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage. [my emphasis]

Or consider this cartoon:

In what sense are Klansmen analogous to gays, or right-wing Christians analogous to blacks? Have gays been lynching right-wing Christians or burning their churches? Does a fundamentalist baker feel physically threatened when lesbians come into his shop?

And finally, Bob the Baker’s reluctance to make a KKK cake is political, not religious. A religious freedom law doesn’t help.

and a plane crash

Once again, CNN has turned into the Air Disaster Network. Every time I checked CNN this week, they were talking about Germanwings Flight 9525. Somehow, they managed to spend 24 hours a day repeating: It crashed, everybody died, and we think one of the pilots might have crashed it intentionally.

Plane crashes are the junk food of news. They seem important — and they are important to the friends and families of the people who die — but otherwise they don’t affect your life and there’s nothing you can do about them. Beyond the simple announcement that a crash has happened, it’s literally News You Can’t Use.

Zak Cheney-Rice points out that CNN could also speculate about terrorism, if the suspect weren’t white. If he were a brown-skinned Muslim, they’d be talking about little else.

This is not an argument for jumping to conclusions. Nor is it meant to accuse Lubitz of terrorism. On the contrary, it is an argument for holding people who commit mass murder to similar standards, regardless of their race or religion. If one gets to be portrayed as a complex human being, they all should be portrayed as such.

and Bowe Bergdahl

But whenever I scanned through Fox News, they were talking about Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier that President Obama got back from the Taliban in a prisoner exchange last May.

The new development this week was that the Army decided to charge Bergdahl with desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy”. For some reason, this makes the prisoner swap a “fiasco” in the conservative mind. I guess they think we should have let the Taliban keep torturing him.

and Yemen

Iran-backed rebels have taken over the capital, and the Saudis have launched air strikes against them. There’s talk of Saudi or Egyptian troops invading. The Christian Science Monitor has a good summary of the situation, which is complicated to say the least.

It’s tempting to frame this as part of the brewing regional Sunni/Shia war — Iran vs. ISIS in Tikrit is another part — but (as in Syria/Iraq) there are more than two sides. The Sunni government was helping us fight the local branch of Al Qaeda, which is also Sunni. The Shia rebels recently overran the air base we had been using for drone strikes against their enemies.

For those of you who can’t find Yemen on a map (don’t be ashamed, just learn), here’s a map.

You actually know more about Yemen than you think. Historically, it might be where the Biblical Queen of Sheba came from. More recently, its Aden harbor is where the U.S.S. Cole was attacked.

Yemen has been an oil producer, but its fields are near exhaustion. (In 2008, the World Bank predicted Yemen’s oil reserves would run out by 2017. How any government will replace that revenue is a mystery.) It’s a poor country that has been badly governed for a long time, and has a scary water problem that climate change is making worse. (Thomas Friedman went there to film Episode 8 of Years of Living Dangerously.)

In short, it’s one of those tragic situations where people are squabbling over crumbs. The victor in the civil war will just win responsibility for solving intractable problems.

and 2016

Presidential candidates are starting to show up in New Hampshire, but it’s surprisingly hard to track them down. (Ted Cruz’ visit this week didn’t show up on WMUR’s candidate tracker.) We’re at a stage in the campaign where candidates want to talk to groups they expect to support them, and don’t want possibly hostile voters showing up to ask embarrassing questions. (Not that I do that.)

Cruz officially announced his candidacy at Liberty University, the school Jerry Falwell founded. WaPo has the transcript of his speech. Next week I plan to start an intermittent series where I look at candidate stump speeches in detail, starting with that one.

and you also might be interested in …

Most of the opposition to the administration’s negotiations with Iran have hidden behind the fig leaf of the “better deal” Obama could get if he took a firmer stand. So it’s kind of refreshing to see a NeoCon honestly admit that he wants war, as former Bush UN Ambassador John Bolton did in Thursday’s NYT.

Bolton thinks bombing “should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran.” Because that would totally work, just like Dick Cheney’s plan to have the Iraqis greet us as liberators.

In reality, Iranians would react to an attack the way we reacted to 9-11: 90% of them would rally behind the government, while the other 10% would either shut up or get ostracized as unpatriotic. If you want to completely destroy any chance of democratic change in Iraq, do what Bolton wants.

Happy Birthday, ObamaCare. Steve Benen lists ten false predictions its critics made.

Happy trails, Harry Reid.

Two weeks ago I talked about a racist song sung on a fraternity bus. I remarked at the time that the song couldn’t be new, because the brothers in the video know the words. Now we know where they learned them: at an SAE national leadership school four years ago.

SAE also turned up in “The Hunting Ground” as a particularly dangerous frat for a woman to attend a party at. On some campuses, SAE is said to stand for “Sexual Assault Expected”.

In New York City, a crime is more likely to get on TV if the suspect is black.

As a Michigan State alum, I can’t not mention our most unlikely Final Four run ever. No one can strategize against us, because no one can figure out how we’re winning.

and let’s close with a cautionary tale

If you take your girlfriend to the game, keep your eye on the KissCam.

2016: Understanding the Republican Process

Four years ago, Jonathan Chait made the kind of prognosticating mistake people don’t let you forget: He picked Tim Pawlenty as the 2012 Republican nominee.

To be fair, Pawlenty wasn’t as ridiculous a choice as hindsight makes him look, and Chait wasn’t the only one forecasting great things for him: Pawlenty was Mitt Romney without the baggage of Mormonism and RomneyCare. He was conservative enough to be acceptable to the Party’s various factions, while sounding moderate enough not to scare off the national electorate.

In other words: If this were still the GOP of 1920, Pawlenty was exactly the kind of Warren-Harding-ish compromise candidate the smoke-filled room above the convention hall would have settled on after ten or twenty ballots. But since Pawlenty was nobody’s first choice in 2012, he never broke out of single digits in the polls and was out of the race before a single vote was cast.

The lesson of Chait/Pawlenty is that the modern Republican presidential process has two distinct phases: First a qualifying phase, where a few candidates break out of the pack to eliminate everyone else, and then a decision phase, where the party picks one of the qualifiers to unify around. Pawlenty is an example of a good decision-phase candidate who never made it out of the qualifying round.

To make it out of the qualifying phase, you need to be the first choice of one of the Party’s factions. But what are those factions?

The Four Factions. I still believe in the model from “The Four Flavors of Republican“, which boils down to this diagram:

GOPstructureThe four groups overlap, which is how the GOP stays together. But each speaks a subtly different language and focuses on a different set of issues. In 2012, each faction had a favorite son: Mitt Romney (Corporatist), Newt Gingrich (NeoCon), Rick Santorum (Theocrat), and Ron Paul (Libertarian). Those candidates made it through the qualifying phase, with Romney substantially in the lead. The decision-phase question was then whether Romney could convince the NeoCons, Theocrats, and Libertarians not to divide the party — and so insure Obama’s re-election — by rejecting him.

That model, I believe, will hold again in 2016. To make in through the qualifying phase, a candidate will need to convince one of the four factions that he is their guy. To survive the decision phase and get the nomination, a qualifier has to convince each of the other three factions not to veto him.

So let’s look at the factions one-by-one. Each faction has its favorite sons, and a second category I call “fluent speakers” — candidates who aren’t necessarily identified with the faction, but who can go into a room of activists and speak their language. If a faction comes to believe that its favorite sons can’t be nominated, its members might throw their early support to a fluent speaker. On the flip side, a faction might identify some candidate as an enemy: somebody whose nomination could be a reason to bolt the party. In 2012, for example, many Theocrats had a hard time stomaching the Mormon Romney.

Theocrats. If a candidate denounces gay marriage, compares abortion to the Holocaust, talks about the Constitution as if it were a scripture God revealed to the Founders, and takes seriously the idea that Christians are persecuted in this country, he’s trying to win over the Theocrats.

The favorite sons are Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. (Sarah Palin could be favorite daughter if she actually ran and wasn’t looking increasingly loony. But I don’t think she has any interest in the hard work necessary to run a serious campaign. She floats her name to stay in the headlines, and she’ll tease her supporters as long she can. But she won’t run.) Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal are fluent speakers of the Theocrat language. Scott Walker has the background and record to be a fluent speaker, but after watching his Iowa Freedom Summit speech, I’m still not sure he can really preach in Theocrat. (Questions like that are why we have campaigns.) Chris Christie might be an enemy.

Jeb Bush can speak the language, but fails key litmus tests. Theocrats worry about government-imposed secularism, and so are suspicious of any federal role in education. Bush was an early proponent of the Common Core standard, not realizing it would turn into a “vast network of conspiracy theories“. (To a Corporatist, Common Core is not a liberal conspiracy, it’s a corporate plan to skim more profits off of public education. That kind of conspiracy is OK.) A lot of Theocrats are also Nativists, so Bush’s sympathy for Hispanic immigrants also makes him suspect. One of the key issues of the decision phase will be whether Huckabee/Santorum can paint Bush as an enemy, or whether Bush can use his mastery of the language to convince Theocrats (who liked his brother in spite of No Child Left Behind) that he’s harmless.

In recent years, Iowa has picked the Theocrat qualifier: Santorum in 2012, Huckabee in 2008. Both are interested this year. Ted Cruz’ decision to announce his candidacy at Liberty University says that he’s pitching for the Theocrat vote as well.

NeoCons. This is the John McCain/Dick Cheney wing of the party. A candidate who identifies with Israel, denounces Islam by name, hates Obama’s move to end the Cuba embargo, and views war with Iran as more-or-less inevitable is appealing to the NeoCons.

The purest NeoCon candidates are John Bolton and Lindsay Graham, but it’s not clear that either of them is ever going to be taken seriously. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, and a lot of other people are fluent speakers. Rand Paul is an enemy, while Scott Walker’s complete lack of military or foreign-policy experience makes him suspect.

The early primary with the strongest NeoCon flavor is South Carolina, and the kingmaker of the NeoCons is billionaire Sheldon Adelson; when he starts writing big checks, we’ll know who the NeoCon candidate is.

Corporatists. Articles about the “donor class” or the “Republican establishment” focus on the Corporatists. Corporatists value managerial experience, so they favor business executives and governors. They hate unions, want to privatize anything government does,  and dislike government interference (but aren’t above taking a special tax break or a bail-out). They want to cut the taxes that affect rich people and corporations, but they also worry about “the 47%” who don’t pay federal income tax. So raising taxes on poor people is a winning issue here, if you come up with some euphemism (“broaden the tax base“) that doesn’t sound like “raising taxes”.

Moral issues are just tactical for the Corporatists; they used gay marriage to boost Republican turn-out in 2004, but are just as happy to drop it now that the wind has changed. However immigration reform works out, they don’t want to lose access to cheap labor.

Corporatists are well-connected in the media, so their candidates usually appear to be stronger than they actually are. (That’s why Romney seemed “inevitable” in the 2012 cycle, but had so much trouble nailing the nomination down.) As candidates from other factions emerge, the media will be shocked and say that they “came from nowhere”.

Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker are the Corporatist favorite sons. Corporatists don’t usually have to accept a fluent speaker, but Rick Perry might be acceptable and most candidates speak pretty good Corporatist. Mike Huckabee is an enemy, and many Corporatists find Ted Cruz’ populist side scary.

The Koch Brothers are an interesting case. They present themselves as Libertarians, but much of their money goes to Corporatists. Koch-Corporate may just be a rival branch of the Corporatist faction, one that wants to support its own candidates rather than established ones like Bush. If so, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker might be its favorite son.

Libertarians. Libertarian Republicans are already united behind Rand Paul, just as they were behind Ron Paul in 2012. But they are probably the smallest faction of the party, and the question is whether Paul can pull support from other factions, or whether some fluent speaker might get their support if Paul embarrasses himself in the debates. (I think that’s a real possibility; Rand is just not as sharp as his Dad was.)

The key event to look for is whether Paul can get support from the Kochs. (I don’t think he will.) Paul was invited to the Koch Brothers’ candidate forum (where he clashed with Cruz and Rubio over foreign policy), but Rubio came out ahead in the straw poll.

What the numbers say. 538’s Harry Enten looked at recent nominees and came up with this theory about early polls: At this stage of the campaign, you can be on your way to the nomination if you’re known and liked by your party (as Bush was in 1999), or if you’re not liked because you’re still unknown (like Dukakis in 1987). But it’s death to be known and not liked. No recent nominee has had both high name recognition and low net favorability at this stage of the process.

If you buy that theory, then Christie and Palin are hopeless, while Perry and Bush have work to do, and Jindal is on life support. Huckabee, Paul, Carson, and Walker are about where they ought to be, with Cruz and Rubio doing OK.

Other factors. A lot of unpredictable or hard-to-measure factors will turn out to be important, including:

The Money Primary. Whoever wins the first primary gets a boost, but the first primary isn’t Iowa or New Hampshire: It’s the Money Primary, where the “electorate” are the big donors. A Corporatist almost always wins: Bush in 2000, Romney in 2012.

In a few days we’ll start hearing fund-raising totals from the first quarter, and they will make it clear that Jeb Bush is decisively winning the Money Primary. That will shape the race in three ways:

  • It anoints Bush as the Corporatist qualifier, unless and until he screws up. It all but sinks Chris Christie, and tells Scott Walker he needs a more Theocratic image.
  • It will ignite the Jeb-is-inevitable talk, which will continue until a Theocrat “comes from nowhere” and wins Iowa. (If Jeb wins Iowa, then he probably is inevitable.) That will open up the possibility of a Libertarian or NeoCon winning New Hampshire and a NeoCon winning South Carolina.
  • Money gives a candidate resilience. If you have a lot of it banked, you can absorb a loss and regroup in the next state. In 2012, Romney lost South Carolina to Gingrich, then outspent him 4-to-1 to win Florida.

Identity politics. There’s a strong I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I aspect to Republican politics. In the Obama years, that helped non-white candidates like Herman Cain, Ben Carson, and Bobby Jindal, who let Republicans say, “See, we’re not racists; you’re the racists.” But as the Democratic mantle shifts from Obama to (presumably) Hillary, I expect Republicans to lose interest in non-whites. If there were a viable woman in the race — Palin isn’t, and Carly Fiorina has yet to emerge from obscurity — she might get a similar boost. Another female VP candidate is a real possibility.

Performance. The hardest factor to predict is how well candidates will perform on the campaign trail. In 2007, who knew Obama would be that good a campaigner or a strategist? And you can never guess when somebody is going to self-destruct in a debate, like Rick Perry did in 2011. (His excuse is that he was recovering from back pain and was over-medicated then, but he’s better now. I thought his Iowa Freedom Summit performance was impressive, but we won’t know until the debates start. Certainly any little flub he makes will get a lot of coverage.)

I expect Cruz and Christie to perform well, and Jindal and Paul to perform badly. (Watch Paul’s interview with Rachel Maddow.) The big wild card is Bush, who has never campaigned for national office, or for anything at all since 2002.

I don’t think we give Mitt Romney enough credit for how good a primary campaign he ran in 2012. He was the target in every debate, and nobody wounded him. Can Bush walk that gauntlet? It’s harder than Romney made it look.

Luck. If 2008’s October surprise had been an Iranian nuclear test rather than a financial crisis, John McCain might be president. You never know when Fate will serve up some issue that lets a candidate say, “I’ve been right about this all along.” Conversely, you have to wonder if the story Rick Perry wants to tell about the Texas economy will fall apart now that oil is under $50 a barrel. All the governors are tied to the events in their states. More bond downgrades for New Jersey could sink Christie, and the sluggish economy of Wisconsin could be trouble for Walker. The outbreak of an unpopular war could turn Rand Paul into the peace candidate.

What I Expect. Paul is the only Libertarian running; unless he self-destructs, he’s a qualifier. Similarly, unless some gaffe makes him a laughing stock, Bush will be the Corporatist qualifier. Iowa will anoint the Theocrat qualfier (or eliminate Theocrats if none of them can win it). Ditto for South Carolina and the NeoCons. Then the two qualifiers who are polling best against the Democrat — Hillary unless somebody else emerges soon — will have a shot at putting a coalition together.


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