Reporting on Politics and Policy.

April 15 2014 5:41 PM

What if Bundy Ranch Were Owned by a Bunch of Black People?

For 20 years the federal government has fined Cliven Bundy for grazing his cattle on protected land. And for 20 years Bundy has refused to pay. Last month this dance came to an end when the Bureau of Land Management sent Bundy a letter informing him that it intended to “impound his trespass cattle” that have been roaming on federal property. It closed off hundreds of thousands of acres, and earlier this month, moved to round up Bundy’s cows.

Protesters challenged the BLM, and Bundy’s son was arrested for “refusing to disperse” from the area in question. Bundy’s cause caught fire on right-wing blogs, egged on by Fox News and conservative outlets like the National Review, which have held the confiscation as a dangerous intrusion on private property rights, despite Bundy’s lawbreaking. Defending his decision, the rancher told one right-wing radio host that he’s ready to take drastic steps beyond refusing to pay:

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I told you that I did the legal thing and the political thing and the media thing and it seems like it's down to “we the people” if we're going to get it done. You know the things like militias. You know, I haven't called no militia or anything like that, but hey, it looks like that's where we're at.

To that end, hundreds of people from outside Nevada—including “militia” armed with rifles and ammunition—have joined his protests, going as far as to set up camp and confront federal officials with brandished weapons. The federal government blinked, and the Bureau of Land Management announced an abrupt end to its cattle roundup, hoping to avoid violence and further confrontations.

A few things.

First, this entire incident speaks to the continued power of right-wing mythology. For many of the protesters, this isn’t about a rogue rancher as much as it’s a stand against “tyranny” personified in Barack Obama and his administration.

Second, it won’t happen, but right-wing media ought to be condemned for their role in fanning the flames of this standoff. After years of decrying Obama’s “lawlessness” and hyperventilating over faux scandals, it’s galling to watch conservatives applaud actual lawbreaking and violent threats to federal officials.

Finally, I can’t help but wonder how conservatives would react if these were black farmers—or black anyone—defending “their” land against federal officials. Would Fox News applaud black militiamen aiming their guns at white bureaucrats?

Somehow, given the degree to which right-wing media traffic in racial paranoia, I think we’d be looking at a different situation if the Bundy Ranch belonged to a bunch of black people. And as someone who closely follows the regular incidents of lethal police violence against blacks and Latinos, I also wonder whether law enforcement would be as tepid against a group of armed African-Americans. Judging from past events, I’m not so sure.

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April 9 2014 5:32 PM

How Do I Get the AR-15 Ron Paul Is Offering Me? 

Should I accept a gun from Ron Paul? Few people have probably ever asked themselves that question. But an opportunity has arisen: Campaign for Liberty (C4L), a lobby group that purports to “promote and defend the great American principles” is giving away an AR-15 to one lucky patriot who signs up for a giveaway through this link. Ron Paul is the group’s chairman. Giving away the gun (according to his letter’s closing) is “for Liberty”. Of course, it’s also a fundraising ploy: entering to win directs you to a donations page.

April 8 2014 5:03 PM

No, Sam Yagan and OkCupid Aren’t Hypocrites

Last week’s furor over former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was sparked, in part, by OkCupid’s decision to blast Eich by way of its website. Users visiting the OkCupid homepage with Mozilla Firefox were greeted with a message asking them to use a different browser given Eich’s $1,000 donation to the Proposition 8 campaign to end same-sex marriage in California.

 "We've devoted the last ten years to bringing people—all people—together," read the message. "If individuals like Mr. Eich had their way, then roughly 8% of the relationships we've worked so hard to bring about would be illegal.” After Eich’s resignation, OkCupid released a statement announcing its support for the decision, "We are pleased that OkCupid's boycott has brought tremendous awareness to the critical matter of equal rights for all individuals and partnerships.”

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Judging from all of this, you’d think OkCupid and its leaders were incredibly friendly to LGBT Americans. Writing for Mother Jones, Hannah Levintova says this isn’t the case:

OkCupid's co-founder and CEO Sam Yagan once donated to an anti-gay candidate. (Yagan is also CEO of Match.com.) Specifically, Yagan donated $500 to Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) in 2004, reports Uncrunched. During his time as congressman from 1997 to 2009, Cannon voted for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, against a ban on sexual-orientation based job discrimination, and for prohibition of gay adoptions.

Cannon, notes Mother Jones, was also a reliable vote for laws to restrict abortion and related services:

Among other measures, Cannon voted for laws prohibiting government from denying funds to medical facilities that withhold abortion information, stopping minors from crossing state lines to obtain an abortion, and banning family planning funding in US aid abroad.

For Mother Jones, this is evidence of hypocrisy. I think it’s a nothingburger.

Yes, it’s entirely possible that Yagan’s donation was in support of Cannon’s anti-gay votes. But it’s also possible that Yagan—then, as now, a wealthy businessperson—was donating in support of Cannon’s conservative record on taxes and regulation. Indeed, Yagan also donated to Barack Obama in 2007, when the then-senator was a noted opponent of same-sex marriage. Is this evidence of Yagan’s anti-gay sympathies? Or was he giving in support of Obama’s other positions? 

Barring a statement from Yagan himself, it’s impossible to know. Support for a politician isn’t the same as support for an issue. It can be—odds are good that a Rand Paul donor has strong feelings on civil liberties—but it’s hard to know for sure. After all, most politicians have a wide array of interests and concerns, and a donation might be in support of any one of them. In the absence of any other information, a donation to Cannon in 2004 (or to Obama in 2008) says nothing about Yagan’s stance on a particular issue.

By contrast, Brendan Eich gave to a single-issue campaign. No one supports activists for the sake of supporting them—you do so to show your beliefs and priorities. Believe what you want about Yagan, but based on the evidence we have, there’s no comparing his donation to Eich’s. The former is ambiguous, the latter completely clear.

April 8 2014 11:47 AM

Democrats Are Doomed to Low Turnout

The biggest obstacle to Democratic control of the Senate this year isn’t the “six-year itch,” the economy, or President Obama’s approval ratings. It’s turnout. Yes, Republicans are projected to make gains this year, but they aren’t guaranteed a majority. That depends on the Democratic Party’s ability to muster its supporters in states like North Carolina and Louisiana, where Democrats can win, as long as they aren’t swamped by Republican voters.

Unfortunately for Democrats, a new poll—conducted by Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps for Women’s Voices Women Vote—finds that key members of their base are among those least likely to vote in 2014.

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According to Greenberg, only 64 percent of voters in the “Rising American Electorate” of 2012 (young people, unmarried women, and minorities) are “almost certain” to vote this November. That’s compared with 72 percent of all people who voted in 2012, and 79 percent of people outside the Rising American Electorate—older whites, married women, men—who lean Republican.

It’s game over for the Democratic Senate if this is the status quo in November; a world where older whites dominate the electorate is one where Democrats have lost across the board. If the party has a goal for the next six months, it’s to do everything in its power to bring its voters to the polls. Which, in practical terms, means an effort to give Democrats a material stake in the outcome. Hence today’s executive order on pay transparency—barring federal contractors from punishing employees who talk about pay—and Obama’s ongoing push for equal pay, unemployment benefits and a minimum wage increase. Obviously, there’s no chance these would reach the president’s desk. The point is to give Democrats a reason to care about the consequences of November.

If last year’s election in Virginia is any indication, there’s reason to believe this can work. Despite a huge drop in turnout—and an unappealing candidate in the form of Terry McAuliffe—Democrats won the governorship (and every other statewide office) by targeting their strongest supporters and running a sophisticated turnout operation, modeled on Obama’s 2012 effort. Then again, Democrats were helped by the unique circumstances of the Virginia race: In addition to its unpopular gubernatorial nominee, the state GOP was engulfed by a major scandal and discredited by its extreme nominee for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, who tarnished the entire ticket with his right-wing jeremiads against liberals, LGBT Americans, and others.

By contrast, Democrats this year are facing more competent candidates in an overall environment that favors the GOP. Raising turnout is possible—and Democrats aren’t doomed—but like making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs—the party faces an incredible challenge.

April 7 2014 9:43 AM

Programming Note: Prog Spring II

For the past few months I've been expanding my 2012 Slate series Prog Spring into a book. Some common questions that arise about this:

"Do you have a publisher?" Yes.

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"Are you done?" No, and that's a dispiriting question to ask someone as he or she writes a book. Ask another way.

"How's it coming?" Pretty well. I've done almost all of the research and about a third of the writing. Most of that was done on two short breaks in 2013. I need to take a few more to finish the thing by the due date.

This is a meandering yet direct way of saying that I'm off this blog for the next few weeks. For the next five days, I'll actually be on a boat, covering the annual Cruise to the Edge—one of at least three luxury tours that are now run to attract progressive rock bands and fans. The whole story will appear in Slate, and the last interviews for the book will occur somewhere near a pool or conch shell. But that'll mean radio silence from me. While I'm gone some of my talented new colleagues may appear in this space, for which I will owe them dearly. 

And I'm off.

April 7 2014 8:27 AM

A Patriotic Double Feature of The Unknown Known and Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Dana Stevens and I just recorded a Spoiler Special for The Unknown Known, Erroll Morris' long-awaited, critic-confounding documentary about Donald Rumsfeld. Off the clock, I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest blockbuster in the Marvel movie universe, and the one most likely to incite anger on Fox News followed by anger-at-the-anger on The Daily Show. It wasn't planned this way, but the two films went together like a white wine and fish pairing.

The Unknown Known comes to the screen with heavier expectations, of course, and an aura of Importance. Eleven years ago, as Americans began to turn on the postwar occupation of Iraq, Morris released the definitive interview with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. It wasn't McNamara's first on-screen apology—he had, as the movie shows, been making them for years—but it was indeliable and perfectly timed. He even went on tour to promote the movie. Morris won an Oscar, and used his 2004 acceptance speech to worry that America had fallen into another "rabbit hole." 

Donald Rumsfeld was not paying attention. He watched The Fog of War only years later, after Morris approached him about sitting for a film of his own. Rumsfeld had retired under durress in 2006 and published his own memoirs five years later, accompanying them with online troves of old documents. Half a dozen other documentarians had approached him about telling his story, but Rumsfeld didn't want a hagiography. He wanted, and got, days of interviews (33 hours of tape) with a documentary-maker, and interviewer, respected as the absolute best at his craft. It quickly beccame evidence that Morris would not get another secretary of defense to apologize for what he'd done. Instead, he got a film about rhetoric and hubris, with a subject who is caught short only once, when he's presented with evidence that enhanced interrogation techniques did migrate from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib.

But that's it. Just one gotcha. Rumsfeld appears otherwise at ease. This left me with the impression I talked about in the podcast—singular as he is, Rumsfeld represents a confident, collected hubris that's shared by plenty who achieve real power. When Rumsfeld grappled with journalists, or when they covered his machinations, he was amused but unmoved. Like Dick Cheney, he's reminded the press just how little Bush administration policy the Obamaians have decided to reverse. Rumsfeld's brashness was unusually destructive. The brashness itself? Not unusual at all.

The Captain America sequel, naturally, makes its black hats and white hats more distinct. As I can probably [SPOIL] by now, the film substantially rewrites Marvel history by borrowing a conceit from conspiracy thrillers. In this reality, as in ours, Operation Paperclip brought Nazi scientists into the United States, where their brains could be applied to useful, beat-the-Soviets science. In this reality, one of the lucky green-carders was Armin Zola, chief scientist of the Hydra secret society. He did what S.H.I.E.LD. told him too, but also seeded it with sleeper agents (thousands of them) working toward the ultimate goal of a mass-murder algorithm, enforced by floating, armed helicarriers, that would enforce "stability" by eliminating Hydra's enemies. Along the way, he employed the Winter Soldier, who wears a mask to conceal (from the audience, for a while) his identity as Captain America's former best friend Bucky, thought dead but actually brainwashed and outfitted with a cybernetic arm.

Plenty of critics have called this one of the best, or the best, of the Marvel films. I think the conspiracy plot is (ironically) behind all that. The first Captain America was a loving, corny nostalgia trip, in which the Nazis—as if they weren't bad enough!—were revealed to be doing the work of a demonic, genocidal super-soldier. This sequel is aggressively contemporary, up to a montage in which the Winter Soldier's enemies include Julian Assange and the late (ah, get it?) Hugo Chávez. Director Joe Russo told Asawin Suebsaeng that the villains' plot was ripped from the headlines about the presidential "kill list."

It's played for darkness, for a while. The problem is that it doesn't make sense. Why three helicarriers instead of a fleet of drones? Why create only one Winter Soldier, when unlike the creator of Captain America's super-soldier serum, Zola remained alive for years, aware of how to build perfect assassins? The filmmakers paid great attention in building a realistic D.C. (to the extent that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s base is located on the Virginia side of the Potomac, immune to the city's height limit), but the allegory is actually quite comforting compared with its inspiration.

In a closing scene, Black Widow justifies the destruction of the program and leaking of every S.H.I.E.L.D. secret in front of a governent panel. To paraphrase, she argues that the world's become a dangerous place, and people like her were part of the reason; this is exactly why she can be trusted to keep it safe. It reminded me of a line Rumsfeld used in some of The Unknown Known's found footage, a fascinating post-Cold War panel of former defense secretaries. "Who do we want to provide leadership in the world? Somebody else?" The blockbuster, which is supposed to unsettle us, gives assurance that the most venal foreign policy was all the fault of a few identifiable villains. Nazis, no less. It can't happen again. The Unknown Known assures us that it will.

tl;dr: A documentary about Donald Rumsfeld turns out to be more realistic and powerful than a superhero movie, though the superhero movie has many more explosions and fistfights.

April 6 2014 9:07 PM

When Should I Get Upset at a Fake Story?

I'm about to take leave of this blog for a few short weeks—explanation in the morning*—but what I'd observed as a long Sunday of ignoring the Internet is now being seen as part of a cover-up. Patterico jabs my colleague, Mark Joseph Stern, for errantly including a hoax story in a piece attempting to rebut Ross Douthat's column about the gay left's victory in the culture war. As the correction states, Stern "originally linked the words 'far from fanciful' to a TopekasNews article​ that claimed a restaurant had ejected a gay man telling him 'no gay eating here,' " but that was a hoax. "Remember how Dave Weigel of Slate mocked Charles C. Johnson for falling for a hoax story from a satirical edition of The Daily Princetonian?" asks Patterico. The implication is that this blog (and the rest of the media) went soft on Stern, revealing a double standard, and possibly suggesting that I cover up stories that make the left look bad.

This is a good opportunity to explain why I cover what I cover. Items appear on this blog if they hit one of a few buttons. Do they cover something I'm interested in? Have I written about the topic before? Will people click on it if I write it now? My January item about Johnson's botched story passed all three tests. Johnson, a conservative reporter who'd been adept at finding fresh stories through intense research, had come across my radar for a couple of strange stories. In October, he teamed up with Joel Gilbert—a director best known for making a documentary that alleged Barack Obama was the illegitimate son of a communist poet, and then distributing millions of DVDs of that documentary—for a reason-defying story Cory Booker's Senate race in New Jersey. Anti-Booker activists claimed that the mayor did not really live in Newark. When BuzzFeed debunked the story, Johnson's publication insisted that "the sources quoted in the article, not its author, made the claim." It was very strange.

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Three months later New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick wrote a lengthy re-examination of the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. Johnson followed this with a story about how, at Princeton 24 years earlier, Kirkpatrick had "showed off his naked body" by posing nude in public for an art film, joining an annual streak across campus, and—ah, here was the problem. The first two stories were true (if not really relevant to Kirkpatrick's Benghazi story), but more accusations of nudity were sourced to an obvious parody edition of the Daily Princetonian. I talked to Johnson and the editor of this story, and the bogus facts were removed from a rewritten article. 

So, why didn't I show the same interest in Stern's piece? One: I didn't notice it. Perhaps I should read everything at Slate, but I don't. Not as closely as I was watching a conservative reporter who'd published an explosive-yet-wrong story.** Two: Embarassing as his error was, it wasn't as pivotal to the story as the parody piece was to Johnson's story about Kirkpatrick. When Stern took out the bogus link, he inserted a link to an actual news story about a man who claimed to have been ejected from Walmart because he was gay. Stern's point, that anti-gay discrimination still occurs, was bruised but alive.

Three: Had I noticed Stern's link to the fake piece, what would I have written? Shame on my colleague for linking to a bogus story about discrimination, but good for him for finding a real story about it? This blog has taken a firm stand against phony viral stories, but Stern's moment of bogosity was only part of a longer piece. Had he written an entire item how discrimination was "far from fanciful," based entirely on a fake story, I'd have attached the stone of shame

*Spoiler: book leave.

**The "Booker doesn't live in Newark" piece went viral, with the candidate's opponent calling a press conference to draw attention to it.

April 4 2014 5:56 PM

Democratic Panic Watch: The Post-Filibuster, Still-Horrible Nominee Process

So: Nearly half a year had passed since Democrats ended filibusters on nominees for executive branch jobs or federal court seats. They initially got through a bunch of blocked nominees, but they stalled out with picks for the Civil Rights Division of DOJ and surgeon general who were controversialized in conservative media and bailed on by Democrats. The defeat of Debo Agelibe ranked, especially, as seven Democrats turned on him over his work representing Mumia Abu-Jamal. As Juliet Eilperin reported last week, a fear factor that had been stoked for years, and arguably peaked in 2011, was back: Potential nominees did not want to wreck their lives to sit in statis for years.

Why? The filibuster reform took away one of the tools Republicans used to stall nominees. It did not take away the toolbox. The party has kept on filing holds on nominees to extract concessions—or even just to freeze up regulations they oppose. It's not an accident that the Council on Environmental Quality lacks a head, or that the nominee to run the EPA's water office, Kenneth Kopicis, has been stuck for close to three years.

Spite plays a role, too. Earlier this year, Senate Republicans were habitually denying unanimous consent to allow votes on judicial nominees. The reason that Sen. Lamar Alexander gave Jennifer Bendery was "until I understand better how a United States senator is supposed to operate in a Senate without rules, I object."

From 2009 to 2012, the Democratic base (the very small portion of it that pays close attention to an issue as obscure as this) put some blame on the White House. It simply wasn't prioritizing nominations; there was a night-day difference between the work George W. Bush did to shame the Senate over stalled nominees and the indifference Barack Obama showed in public. That changed when the White House chief of staff and counsel, in Obama's new term, focused on confirmations. Obama has now nominated 301 judges, of which all but 64 have been confirmed. Part of that success has meant the arrival of nominees who can make it out of the Republican gauntlet, because Republicans suggested them.

The left wants more, as Edward-Isaac Dovere explains nice and concisely.

The nomination of Michael Boggs has become a rallying point for liberal groups and Democratic officials. Boggs was part of a nomination package the White House negotiated with Georgia’s two Republican senators to get their blue slip approval, but his history as a state legislator backing issues such as abortion rights restrictions and the Confederate flag as part of the state flag has prompted pushback from NARAL, MoveOn and just about every liberal interest group, and people like civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) calling for a review of the process that produced him.

Basically, the left has eight more months to play with a Senate that's got enough progressives to confirm nominees. Best case scenario, in 2014: They lose at least two seats, making the small group of Democratic moderates more pivotal. Worst case: They lose the Senate, by a lot, and get absolutely none of the nominees they want.

"People are becoming controversial over things they shouldn't become controversial over," says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. "Who you represented as a lawyer? Under that standard it's going to be hard to confirm a lot of people. There are unsavory people on both sides of the aisle. So it's important for progressives to make their case more affirmatively. I would agree with President Clinton that it's hard to fight when you're in a defensive crouch. It's easy to get hit. I'm not a Democrat running in a red state, but I'd say if you telegraph that you're scared about a nominee or about Obamacare, you're saying there's something to be scared about?"

April 4 2014 12:39 PM

Republicans Poll to Expand the Senate Map

Earlier this week, the Koch-allied group American Encore released a poll of Minnesota that found Sen. Al Franken with a wan 40 percent approval rating. No credible candidate has jumped into the race against Franken, but the poll suggested to anyone looking that, hey, maybe, this is the year to go for it. Today, Harper Polling released a study of Oregon that found Gov. John Kitzhaber struggling against an opponent and Sen. Jeff Merkley up only 7 points on a conservative state legislator. If you've been paying attention, you may be reminded of the poll the NRSC commissioned after Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner thought he might run for Senate. The poll gave him a shot—he jumped in.

The pollsters are all taking advantage of something known as the "incumbent rule," a trope that Nate Silver really should deal with at some point. As the theory goes, an incumbent "polling under 50 percent" is in danger because potentially 50.1 percent (or more) of the electorate is ready to make a switch. The theory's not crazy, but it doesn't take into account different sorts of polling, question ordering, name recognition, or other factors.

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That means it's often wrong. Here are just some of the senators who polled below 50 percent at this point in 2012: Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester, Bob Casey, Dean Heller, Debbie Stabenow, Bob Menendez, Claire McCaskill. The last of them got a famously awful opponent (Todd Akin), but Brown, Tester, and Heller all got the opponents that the national parties wanted, and Menendez and Stabenow ran against credible current or former legislators.

The "incumbent rule" is broken far too frequently to be a "rule." But that's not quite the point of the pollsters or the conservatives talking about their numbers. The point is to urge as many serious candidates and—failing or allowing for that—as much big money into safe Democratic races as possible. This is why some third-party groups went on the air in Minnesota and Pennsylvania in 2012, attempting to scare Democrats into spending their own money there, sucking it out of their plans for Ohio or Florida. Few Republican consultants think Ed Gillespie or Scott Brown will win Senate seats this year,* even if they're too nice to say so. That's not the point. Every dollar Mark Warner spends to put away Gillespie is a dollar he can't move from his campaign fund to an endangered colleague's.

*I'm earmarking this for my annual prediction audit.

April 4 2014 10:52 AM

Who Will Be America’s Greatest-Ever Free Speech Hero?

A smart WSJ follow-up story about McCutcheon suggests that Republicans—no names yet—want a plaintiff—no name yet—to take the case for money in campaigns even further.

Because the recent plaintiffs hadn't challenged the base limits on political contributions, "we see no need in this case to revisit Buckley's distinction between contributions and expenditures," Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
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Republican and conservative lawyers interpreted those remarks to mean the court would be ripe to strike down other campaign-finance restrictions. The decision "seems to crack the door open" to a legal challenge aimed at allowing political parties to raise unlimited contributions, said William McGinley, a Republican campaign-finance lawyer with the Washington law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs.

Now, as the paper points out, Shaun McCutcheon was one of fewer than a thousand donors who had previously felt compelled to donate to more than nine candidates in a cycle. (My favorite genre of post-McCutcheon story is the one that asks rich people if they really want to blow through the checkbooks like this. "We were joking around with the partners today: Guess my kids are going to community college," said one lobbyist to Nick Confessore. "There is going to be no end in sight.") McCutcheon's an affable guy; his lawyer, Dan Backer, is an ambitious operative. They were ready for whatever opprobrium they got.

So who's going to test the limits with a lawsuit? Surely the current PR campaign to defend the Kochs and other donors from liberal mobs are going to make it easier to find someone. In Commentary, Seth Mandel dings me for criticizing Charles Koch's WSJ column about the attacks on his free-speech rights and his company. "Koch is speaking up because he has been the target of constant attacks from the United States Senate majority leader from the chamber floor," writes Mandel. "Harry Reid actually worked an attack on the Kochs into his reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, as he does for almost anything."

This comes from a growing sentiment on the right that private citizens should not be singled out and criticized by politicians—by the people who theoretically control the means to prosecute them or investigate them. Mitch McConnell conveyed that even as he snapped at Reid by criticizing the donations given by Tom Steyer. "It strikes me as curious that if we are going to demonize people for exercising their constitutional rights to go out and speak and participate in the political process," he said, "we would just pick out the people that are opposed to us and leave out the people who are in favor of us." Donors can fund ads that attack politicians; to criticize them is to privilege the politician at the expense of free speech. That's the argument, and the one that will encourage a donor to test, with the hope of obliterating, all caps on donations.

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