Compromising Positions

Reformers who are always compromising have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand on. — Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In This Week’s Sift:

Remind Me Why We Elected Democrats. Congressional Democrats agreed to two compromises with the Bush administration: They wrote another blank check for Iraq and gave Bush everything he wanted with regard to FISA. And in exchange they got … well, they must have gotten something.

Don’t Get Sick in Mississippi. Mississippi’s “moral refusal” law protects healthcare workers whose consciences keep them from saving your life. Creationism is back in Lousiana. And South Carolina offers Christian license plates.

Remember Iraq? Americans made up their minds about Iraq in 2007, and now they just don’t want to hear about it.

Short Notes. The usual collection of torture, racism, pollution, and dictators. Plus a detailed Republican plan for our economic future. Enjoy.

Next Week: You’ll have to sift for yourself. I’ll be blogging on the web site of the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly from Fort Lauderdale. I’ll post a link on my Free and Responsible Search blog. In the meantime, check out my latest column for UU World.

Remind Me Why We Elected Democrats

Two important bills got passed in the House this week. One provides $162 billion to keep fighting the war in Iraq, among other things. It’s yet another blank check, containing nothing that might cramp the style of our Warmaker in Chief. The other revises FISA to make legal a lot of the domestic spying and wiretapping that the administration was doing illegally — and by-the-way to make sure that the lawsuits against the telecom companies will be thrown out of court.

Described by the Democratic House leadership as “compromises,” both bills were backed by the White House and passed with almost unanimous Republican support, while Democrats were split. Republicans voted for the FISA bill 188-1, Democrats against 128-105. Republicans voted for the Iraq funding bill 188-4, Democrats against 151-80. Both votes fit the definition of “bipartisanship” offered by Glenn Greenwald in January:

On virtually every major controversial issue — particularly, though not only, ones involving national security and terrorism — the Republicans (including their vaunted mythical moderates and mavericks) vote in almost complete lockstep in favor of the President, the Democratic caucus splits, and the Republicans then get their way on every issue thanks to “bipartisan” support. That’s what “bipartisanship” in Washington means.

Sounding more like an innocent bystander than Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi said of the Iraq funding bill: “Let us hope this is the last time another dollar will be spent without constraint, without conditions.”

Time magazine buys the “compromise” spin on the FISA deal and asserts that it “has drawn attacks from both sides.” But the only attacks they mention come from the Left. By contrast the Right seems pretty happy. The New York Times quotes Republican Senator Kit Bond: “I think the White House got a better deal than even they had hoped to get.”

What did the Democrats get? According to Time:

In negotiations with Pelosi’s office, the telecoms offered a compromise: Let a judge decide if the letters they received from the Administration asking for their help show that the government was really after terrorist suspects and not innocent Americans.

But if the letters say “We want you to spy on ordinary Americans for us” — then we’ll really throw the book at them, I guess. Republican House Whip Roy Blunt says bluntly: “The lawsuits will be dismissed.” I’m sure the plaintiffs will appreciate what a compromise that is from the administration’s original position, which was that the lawsuits should be dismissed.

The problem with this I-had-a-note-from-my-president reasoning was summed up inadvertently by Kit Bond:

I’m not here to say that the government is always right, but when the government tells you to do something, I’m sure you would all agree that I think you all recognize that is something you need to do.

So, if that’s our operating principle, what should happen if Bush tells Blackwater to assassinate someone? (A terrorist, naturally. Or at least someone that the government says — in the letter that Blackwater will use to get court proceedings dropped — it suspected to be a terrorist. I mean, it was a suspected terrorist they were really after. Those other people were just in the line of fire.) Digby calls this what it is: the Nuremberg Defense. It’s OK that the telecoms broke the law, because they were only following orders.

So let me disagree with Senator Bond: When the government tells you to do something against the law, you say no. That’s what it means to live under the rule of law.

The Senate hasn’t voted on the FISA bill yet, but Barack Obama is not covering himself with glory. He says he’ll try to strip telecom immunity out of the bill — a symbolic effort likely to fail — but generally supports the “compromise.” He hasn’t endeared himself to the bloggers who have been fighting this issue from the beginning: Emptywheel, Glenn Greenwald, and others.

So, in short, it’s a complete, across-the-board Democratic cave-in. To an unpopular lame-duck president. Why? Time explains:

Pelosi wanted the issue off the table for the political campaign this fall. Despite anti-GOP sentiment in the country and record low popularity for President George W. Bush, Democrats still trail on national security and that could hurt them in Congress.

You may remember that this is exactly the reason the Democrats gave for passing the original Iraq War resolution in 2002: They were getting national security off the table, so that they could focus the fall campaign on issues where they felt stronger, like health care and the economy. In 2002 it worked so well that Democrats lost the Senate and didn’t get it back until they found some backbone in 2006.

In The Political Brain, Drew Westen offers this contrary advice:

The question of when to avoid certain issues because “the poll numbers look bad” has an unambiguous answer: never.

Getting an issue “off the table” just cedes it permanently to your opponents. They make their case and you change the subject — the voters are not going to be impressed. And by doing something against the fundamental principles of your party, you look untrustworthy. Because voters respond to candidates emotionally, and not by going down an issues checklist, the way to look strong is not to agree to positions that your opponents define as “strong,” but to defend your own principles forcefully.

Worst of all: What if your principles turn out to be right? Then, after the policies you capitulate to bring disaster, you can’t capitalize because you’re implicated. (Ask Kerry or Clinton about their 2002 Iraq votes.) Atrios makes this prediction:

Democrats will regret embracing the expansion of executive power because a President Obama will find his administration undone by an “abuse of power” scandal. All of those powers which were necessary to prevent the instant destruction of the country will instantly become impeachable offenses. If you can’t imagine how such a pivot can take place then you haven’t been paying attention.

Don’t Get Sick in Mississippi

If you don’t live in a state dominated by the Religious Right, you probably don’t realize just how bad things have gotten.

Wednesday, Dogemperor on DailyKos explained Mississippi’s “moral refusal” law paragraph-by-paragraph. The upshot: If the care you need violates the conscience of a healthcare worker — doctor, nurse, pharmacist, ambulance driver, anybody — that worker doesn’t have help you, not even by directing you to some other professional whose conscience is less picky. The worker cannot be punished or reprimanded in any way, even if you die from lack of treatment. Even an insurance company can refuse to cover a claim by asserting an issue of conscience. (Insurance companies have consciences?)

The purpose of all this is to make it as difficult as possible to get an abortion in Mississippi, even if it’s necessary to save your life. (And secondarily, to allow pharmacies not to fill prescriptions for birth-control pills.) But the provisions are general enough that you have to wonder about unintended consequences. What if I join one of those sects that objects to any medical intervention, and then I buy a Mississippi-based health insurance company and start refusing all claims on moral grounds? That’s a business model that really works.

In other theocratic news: Christians in South Carolina will soon be able to get a special “I Believe” license plate, complete with a crucifix and stained-glass window. Three ministers, a rabbi, and a Hindu organization are suing.

Students will soon be learning creationism in science classes in Louisiana’s public schools, if Governor (and rumored McCain VP) Bobby Jindal signs a new law, as expected. The Louisiana Science Education Act is part of the new “academic freedom” push creationists are making in the wake of the Dover decision against teaching intelligent design. The bill authorizes teachers to introduce “supplemental textbooks” that encourage “critical thinking” about “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” The anti-evolution Discovery Institute, which drafts models of laws like this, wants its own anti-evolution textbook, Explore Evolution, to be just such a supplement.

Morbo on the Carpetbagger Report considers moving this “academic freedom” argument from science to history classes: “Should we allow ‘criticism’ of the history of the Holocaust in the classroom? After all, some cranks write books saying it never happened. Shouldn’t our children hear both sides?” I think Morbo could pick an ever better set of cranks: the ones who claim Jesus never existed. How about helping our children learn “critical thinking” by “teaching the controversy” over that issue?

Remember Iraq?

Frank Rich has put his finger on an important point: The public and the media have increasingly tuned out of the argument about whether we’re succeeding or failing in Iraq, and tuned out of any news about Iraq at all. The American public decided in 2007 that the war was a mistake, and they only want to know when it will be over. The latest suicide bombing, the latest offensive, the latest claim that we’re winning or that we can’t win — not many people want to hear it. But in case you’re still interested, here are some recent articles:

The giant oil companies are about to sign a new agreement with the Iraqi government. They have had no role in Iraq since Saddam threw them out four decades ago. From their point of view, mission accomplished.

Violence is down, but the militias are still well armed and capable of renewing their fight at any time. Agreement on Iraq’s political future still seems far off.

Salon’s Tom Engelhardt looks at the colossal bases we’re building in Iraq, the ones the Bush administration wants to hang onto permanently. Since the permanence of our occupation is not something we like to talk about, the bases have largely gone uncovered by the media. Engelhardt finds this remarkable: “Imagine if just about no one knew that the pyramids had been built. Ditto the Great Wall of China. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Coliseum. The Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. Or any other architectural wonder of the world you’d care to mention.”

One reason that Iraqis are uncomfortable with a long-term American presence is that our Christian soldiers won’t stop prosyletizing.

And if Iraq has passed off the front pages, what about Afghanistan? Since the start of that war, 531 American troops have died in Afghanistan. 56 of those deaths have come in the first half of 2008. That’s about the same pace as 2007, our worst year so far, when 117 died.

Short Notes

A Senate report verifies the claims of the Vanity Fair article I told you about in April. The push for torture came from the top levels of the Bush administration and had to overcome resistance from the military. The idea that the administration just responded to the needs of interrogators in the field is the usual propaganda: Blame the guys at the bottom.

Another new report: Physicians for Human Rights examined 11 ex-detainees who claimed to have been tortured. The physical evidence PHR found supported the claims. Broken Laws, Broken Lives summarizes their findings. The preface is written by retired Major General Antonio Taguba, who is famous for overseeing the Army’s internal investigation of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. He writes: “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”


The poll-reading geeks at 538 see a trend toward Obama. Their current electoral map predicts a 339-199 Obama victory. They calculate the odds of an Obama victory at 75%.

Meanwhile, Brave New Films documents more McCain doubletalk in video. In These Times covers the same ground in print.

23/6 presents both the latest anti-McCain MoveOn ad and a humorous parody of it.


In Sunday’s New York Times, Donovan Hohn tags along on a mission to clean up Gore Point, Alaska. Gore Point is uninhabited and almost inaccessible, but when Hohn’s team arrives, the beach is full of plastic crap. Think about that. Apparently the ocean currents have “convergence zones” where floating trash collects. Somewhere north of Hawaii, there’s growing accumulation of floating trash that’s currently about the size of Texas.


The Saudis are promising to increase oil production. This will be an interesting test of the Peak Oil theory, because there’s been a lot of speculation that the giant Saudi oil fields are closer to exhaustion than the Saudis let on.

Thomas Friedman characterizes the Bush-McCain push for more drilling in America as: “Get more addicted to oil.” Cartoonist Ann Telnaes makes the same point visually.


Jezebel is keeping a racism watch on the presidential campaign. If you haven’t seen the Obama/CuriousGeorge monkey or the “If Obama is President … will we still call it The White House” button — well, here they are.

dday on Hullabaloo calls attention to Rush Limbaugh’s spin of the Midwestern floods. Rush contrasts the midwestern response to “all the stuff that happened in New Orleans.” It’s an interesting look at how race prejudice creates its own evidence.

Thanks to all the people who have asked about my hometown Quincy, Illinois. Other than a narrow strip along the riverfront, the town sits on a bluff over the Mississippi, so my parents are high and dry. In response to Limbaugh I’ll say this: Anybody who is a veteran of these midwestern river floods sees an immediate difference between them and post-Katrina New Orleans. When the water rises in Illinois, you retreat a few hundred yards to higher ground. You may lose your property, but you don’t get encircled and cut off from food and drinkable water.


President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is holding onto power the old-fashioned way, by using violence to intimidate his opponent into withdrawing from a run-off election. “We will not ask people to sacrifice their lives by voting,” said an opposition party spokesman. The run-off became necessary when Mugabe’s election commission refused to admit that he had lost the first election.


Conservative columnist Robert Novak calls attention to the “Roadmap for America’s Future” laid out by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. If you want to know the real meaning of those vague phrases entitlement reform and tax reform, it’s all spelled out here in the kind of detail McCain and the other Republicans don’t dare to go into.

  • Social Security is made “permanently solvent” through “a more realistic measure of growth in Social Security’s initial benefits and an eventual modernization of the retirement age.” Translation: lower benefits beginning later. (There’s a subtle class issue in “modernizing” the retirement age. Working beyond age 65 is easier for pencil-pushers and keyboarders than for bricklayers.)
  • Medicare is turned into a private insurance system, with government contributing “up to $9,500” annually to your personal medical savings account after you turn 65 (or whatever the “modernized” retirement age turns out to be). Medicare spending becomes predictable because all subsequent medical inflation is your problem, not the government’s. And what you do if $9,500 isn’t enough to buy coverage for your pre-existing conditions is a mystery.
  • A “simplified” tax system eliminates taxes on the non-working wealthy and on corporations: Interest, capital gains, dividends, and inheritances are untaxed. The alternate minimum tax (whose original purpose was to make sure the very wealthy didn’t use loopholes to avoid taxes entirely) goes away. A national sales tax replaces the corporate income tax.

Novak’s prediction: “After what is expected to be another bad GOP defeat in the 2008 congressional elections, Ryan [and like-minded youngsters] McCarthy and Cantor could constitute the party’s new House leadership.” He’s looking forward to it.

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Trackbacks

  • By No Argument | The Weekly Sift on April 8, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    […] Religious conservatives have been moving in this direction for several years, with bills that allow medical service providers to refuse to provide services that violate their conscience (i.e., druggists can refuse to fill prescriptions for an abortion-inducing drug like RU-486), and with the court case challenging whether health insurance provided by private employers has to provide the contraception coverage mandated by ObamaCare. (As far as I know, no EMT has become a Jehovah’s Witness and refused to give blood transfusions, but I believe he would have that right in Mississippi.) […]

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