Friday, November 30, 2007

Some thoughts on Mitt Romney, Mormons and abortion.

I've been watching the recent news involving Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the whole 'Mormon question' with a lot of interest.

For one thing, like Romney, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (colloquially known as the 'Mormon church.') I disagree with Romney about virtually everything in his political platform, and the one thing that he did that I could support if he proposed it nationally, his universal health coverage plan in Massachusetts, he hardly ever talks about as he campaigns for the Republican nomination.

But the news has shifted to more and more coverage of the problems that some members of the 'Christian Right' have voiced with Romney's faith. That matters because they represent a group of voters which Romney had been courting and hoping they would choose him because of a desire not to see the GOP nomination go to the most socially liberal Republican, Rudy Giuliani. Instead, they appear to have found their candidate in Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, who claimed last week that his most unique qualification for the job was a degree in Bible studies from Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Interviews with many individual voters in Iowa who have recently opted for Huckabee over Romney make it clear that faith is a major reason why.

So pressure has been mounting on Romney to give a 'Mormon' speech, similar to the one that John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 to put to rest concerns about his Catholicism.

One thing the media has gotten wrong though: Romney is NOT the first Mormon to be a major candidate for a Presidential nomination. That would be Morris Udall, who was the runner-up to Jimmy Carter for the 1976 Democratic nomination. The error is understandable though, as most rabid anti-Mormons reside in the Republican party and among Democrats Udall's religion was never an issue. For that matter, after Al Sharpton made some intemperate comments about Romney and Mormons earlier this year, he backtracked quickly and apologized to anyone who had gotten the misimpression that he was biased against Mormons. That is in contrast to the anti-Mormon stuff that you hear from some fundamentalists on the right, which is never retracted but instead reinforced.

I don't know honestly whether giving such a speech would help Mitt or not, but I will say a few things here, primarily about Mormons and politics, not specifically about Mitt.

First, before every election a letter is read from the First Presidency (which consists of the President of the Church and his counselors) in which they reiterate that the Church is a religious, not a political organization. Church buildings, lists, and other Church properties or resources are not to be used for political purposes, and the letter makes it clear that the Church does not endorse political parties or candidates. The Church does, however, push for involvement in civic affairs and encourages members to vote, run for office and otherwise be involved in their communities. Though the Church does not endorse parties or candidates, it does occasionally take a stand on issues, such as opposition to abortion and to casino gambling.

Probably about 80-90% or more of active Mormons are Republicans, however. I have a friend who once said that Mormon Democrats are 'like a recessive gene-- it tends to run in families (like the Udalls, where Morris succeeded his brother in Congress and since Morris have had other members of their extended family elected to Congress in other states), and it sometimes pops up where least expected. But that is still only about 10-20% of active church members. And whether because it is a matter of what the Church encourages or otherwise, they do get out and vote. Since 80-90% of active Mormons vote for Republicans in most elections, and as part of the 'civic involvement' ideal includes running for office it goes without saying that the Udalls (and Senate majority leader Harry Reid) are exceptions-- nearly all church members who hold public office are Republicans. I am a Democrat and a Precinct Committeeman (and soon-to-be-former County Vice-Chair) but that is relatively rare among members of the church.

It was not always this way though. Early in the history of the Church, almost all of the members were Democrats (since the Democrats in states like Missouri and Illinois had generally been more tolerant towards the church in its early days than had their opponents.) In fact, in the late 1880's and early 1890's as Utah prepared for statehood, Church leaders encouraged some families to become Republicans because the prospect of a state with only Democrats was causing some hesitiation among Republicans in Congress who would have had to approve the creation of a new state. This pattern was replicated in Idaho, Arizona and other areas where there were a lot of church members. As recently as 1948, Utah joined the rest of the west in providing the critical flood of late votes that elected Harry Truman in an election where Thomas Dewey had swept most of the Northeast and produced the now-famous headline in the Chicago Tribune. Of course in 1964 Utah and Idaho went with most of the rest of the country during the Johnson landslide.

So what happened since? Two things have caused most active LDS members to become Republicans.

The first is that (like in the rest of the west) people who had supported FDR and the New Deal began to see the Federal Government as less of a friend for ordinary people and more of a bottomless pit for taxes. I don't myself subscribe to this view, believing that Government can be productive and helpful for solving problems. But in the west, where the Federal Government owns over 90% of the land in many counties, and then various environmental laws (some of which were ironically authored by Morris Udall) blocked or limited access to most of it, the whole rhetoric of the so-called 'sagebrush rebellion' got through to a lot of people. It may have been a phony 'rebellion' spurred by advertising financed by logging, mining and other industries but it hit a very real nerve-- and it doesn't help that Washington is a speck way out on the other end of the country. So the whole 'anti-Federal government' rhetoric that Republicans made their living on in the 1980's (with Ronald Reagan the exemplar of it) did help turn a lot of people in the west to the right. Though land use issues have become less of the focal point over the years, guns have replaced it as a way to keep voters Republican in small towns in the west. If you don't live in one, you wouldn't understand it, but I do and I can tell you that if you tell someone out here you want to take their gun away you might as well be telling them you want to take their kids away. Recently though other issues have caused most of the west to begin swinging back to the left.

But not Utah, and not LDS voters. Which brings us to the second reason why Mormons have moved to the right since the days of Truman. Social conservatism. The 'Christian conservative' movement which is now refusing to support Romney because he is a Mormon may be strongest in the deep south and may have a southern flavor, but it plays well in Utah and in small LDS communities throughout the west, such as the Arizona town I live in. For people who pray daily, are opposed to abortion and try to live a life free from sin, rhetoric which castigates the ACLU for 'driving God out in favor of Satanic humanism,' attacks supporters of keeping abortion legal as 'murderers' and bashes 'wicked gays, teenage sex and booze,' if shallow and hateful rhetoric which aims for the lowest of human emotions, does hold an appeal for those who are already disposed to thinking that way. And LDS people are no different than people anywhere else, a deceptively simple sounding way to wrap hate has been good enough to justify all manner of human persecutions in the long and tortured course of human history, including the persecution that early members of the Church suffered at the hands of mobs in Missouri and Illinois. I don't suggest that the rhetoric we hear on talk radio or from Republican politicians is going to bring out mobs with pitchforks and torches, but it is certainly sufficient to stir up people to support all kinds of laws against other people who are in some way 'different' that might not be supported in the absence of such rhetoric.

It is possible to reason with people of course, starting with pointing out just how hateful some of the rhetoric is. The west is not the south, and the west has a history and a tradition of tolerance. That is especially true of the LDS; it is a fact that Brigham Young, as governor of the Utah territory (which at the time was pretty much synonymous with President of the Church,) made and signed a number of agreements with neighboring tribes and he and his successors are the only major American leaders to sign treaties with native American tribes who stood behind their words and made sure that none were ever violated. But that history of tolerance has to be appealed to directly, not defensively. Tolerance does not mean liking someone or something, or even approving of it, but rather of deciding not to punish or intentionally cause problems for people who are not like we are or like we want to be.

On the issue of abortion, instead of looking like a zero-sum game (either you win and I lose or my side wins and you lose) we are today in a unique position to move beyond the debate. Bill Clinton was on to something when he said he wanted to see abortion 'legal but rare.' As I alluded to once before, liberals have since Clinton took office reduced the number of abortions quietly but efficiently by about 30% since the early 1990's. This involved a combination of education and the availabilty of birth control. Being against something does not mean that the only way to be against it is to ban it. The fact is this:

The number of abortions that liberals have prevented by pushing sex ed, family planning and birth control: Hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions.

The number of abortions that conservatives have prevented by quixotic attempts to ban it: zero. (but they have made some lawyers very rich, at taxpayer expense.)

The obvious example of how to oppose something without banning it is smoking. Nobody has suggested that we make tobacco illegal, but a combination of education (especially in schools), aggressive support for smoking cessation programs (largely financed by taxing cigarettes, which taxes also discourage people from smoking) and reasonable restrictions on smoking have combined to 1. preserve the CHOICE people have to smoke, but 2. acknowlege that smoking is not good for society as a whole and therefore do what we can to encourage people to make the choice to not smoke.

I personally completely agree that abortion must remain legal (as Mitt Romney used to, not so many years ago) because let's face it-- if you don't own your own body, then do you own anything at all that somebody can't legislate away from you someday? Wasn't that what the Civil War was fought over? Now, there's a 'property rights' issue that might appeal to people in the rural west. That said, with the advent of the over-the-counter 'morning after pill,' I believe it will be less and less frequent anyway. We can, if we recognize that having another generation is beneficial to society, do as many countries in Europe have done and actively enhance social programs that promote childbirth (the French have been a model for this, and actually increased their birthrate, which had declined for decades.) For that matter, at one point, after reading a Guttmacher Institute study that made it clear that the cost of a hospital delivery, together with a lack of healthcare insurance and/or low income was a major reason why many women are forced to choose abortions that they don't even want, I've even proposed a program to pay for childbirth expenses for poor women, financed by a tax on abortions. This is pro-choice for two reasons: 1. it really does give all women a choice, while right now the study I linked to makes it clear that many poor and uninsured women are forced to have abortions by the financial realities of America's healthcare system (so there is effectively no choice), and 2. if you tax something, then you are acknowledging as a premise that it is legal (though conservatives have little choice, because in fact it is legal.) At the same time it is a measure which should appeal to the pro-life crowd because after all it does have the effect of reducing abortion by one of the same mechanisms that has helped reduce smoking.

But since that makes sense, I'm sure that everyone will be against it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The BEST CASE scenario in Iraq: A Pyrrhic victory.

In 281 B.C., king Pyrrhus of Epirus (an island off the coast of Greece) landed in Tarentum with an army of about 30,000 men and 20 elephants. He was trying to defeat Rome, which was then threatening to conquer the southeastern end of the Italian peninsula, which had been colonized by Greek settlers. In 280 B.C., he won the battle of Heroclea, but according to the historian Dionysus at the cost of about 13,000 men including many of his best soldiers. The next year, he invaded Apulia and defeated the Romans in the battle of Asculum. He lost another 3,500 soldiers, including many of his best officers, from his already depleted army. After winning the battle, Pyrrhus is reputed to have said, "One more such victory will undo me!" In fact, after an unsuccessful foray into Sicily, Pyrrhus' army was no longer strong enough to even administer what he had conquered in Italy and he was forced to return to Epirus. He had simply taken too many casualties to be worth the relatively small tactical victories they had produced.

A victory of this type, in which the costs outweigh the gains has ever since been known as a 'Pyrrhic victory.' It is not limited to military battles (though the Germans won one famously in the Second World War, when they sacrificed their most dangerous unit, their airborne unit, in return for capturing the island of Crete from the British and the Greeks.) Other examples of what might be considered a Pyrrhic victory could be a football team that wins a regular season game but does so at the cost of an injury to a star quarterback who will be sorely missed come playoff time, a businessman who irretrievably damages his reputation by lying in order to close a business deal or perhaps a bidder at an auction who outbids his or her rivals but soon finds that the article is not worth at all what has been paid for it.

Lately we've heard the right claiming that the recent downturn in violence in Iraq portends some great 'victory.'

First, I'm not a bit convinced that the downturn is more than a temporary lull. We've seen downturns in violence there several times in the past, such as after the early 2005 offensive that retook Fallujah, and in the end it has proven a fleeting moment of relief. Other than al-Qaeda (which has however proven resilient in the past) all the other major players in Iraq-- Iran, the Shiite and Sunni militias, are still present and armed, and the Iraqi government has done absolutely nothing during the present 'breather' to make a breakthrough that will prevent a future civil war.

But let's even entertain for a moment the possibility that the right is right (I know, I know, but even a broken clock is right twice a day.) Suppose that in fact, everything does work out, that the Shiites and Sunnis do figure out their problems and that Iraq becomes stable. Let's even imagine a situation in which the Iraqi government comes together exactly as the Bush administration hopes it will.

Then let's consider what in this best case scenario the U.S. will have gained and lost from the Iraq war:


* Saddam Hussein is gone. He would be seventy years old right now if we hadn't invaded.

* We inflict a military defeat on Al-Qaeda and reduce their numbers to maybe just a handful hiding out in a country where there only were a handful hiding out in 2003 anyway.

* American companies make a lot of money rebuilding Iraq and from exploiting Iraqi oil.

* We know for sure that there are no WMD in Iraq, and we didn't even need Hans Blix to finish looking for them to find that out.

* After a five year struggle, we can say that we won.


* About 4,000 American troops dead, tens of thousands injured.

* $1.6 - 2 trillion (depending on the estimate) in combined actual outlays for the war and the effect of the cost of the war on our economy.

* Iran has become the most influential power in the region, and they get rid of their archenemy Saddam without firing a shot; an Iraqi government with close ties to Tehran, something the Iranians fought for a decade to achieve in the 1980's without success.

* Iran has become increasingly belligerent and been able to make substantial progress towards developing real WMD (nukes) while our army is tied down in Iraq and unable to seriously threaten Iran (as it will be for the foreseeable future even if this is a 'win'.)

* The aura of American military invincibility has been cast to the wind, guaranteeing more future challenges from who knows where (but we will be tested, of that you can be sure).

* Al-Qaeda given time and a chance to regroup (together with the Taliban) in the country where they were present before, because we shifted our focus to Iraq before the job was done in Afghanistan.

* The unquestioned international support for America which existed after 9/11 long since gone.

* With torture and other rights abuses practiced, America no longer has the moral authority to lead the world.

* Except for the 2001 tax cuts and the medicare drug giveaway, virtually none of the Bush administration and GOP domestic agenda realized as the administration spent virtually its entire political capital on stampeding into Iraq; for that matter even the tax cuts are still due to expire on schedule after the Republican Congress was unable to make them permanent. Now, granted I am a Democrat and don't mind seeing Republicans fail, but with it having been three quarters of a century since the previous time when the GOP had a majority in both houses of Congress and the White House (the 1952-1954 Senate was 50-50 with the GOP nominally in control by virtue of the Vice Presidency) they clearly sacrificed a great deal for getting us fixated on Iraq. Are you a Republican who voted for the GOP because you wanted to see Republicans reduce the size of government, for example? Then Wait another LIFETIME, Buddy!

In other words, even if conservatives were for a change 100% right, and the reduction in violence we see right now in Iraq is a real 'victory' and not just another temporary lull in a continuing cycle, the best they can claim is a Pyrrhic victory.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

How much official outrage should we show?

There have been in the news recently two horrifying news stories involving rape that show how differently the rights of women are viewed in other parts of the world when compared with the United States.

In the first of these cases, a nineteen year old Saudi woman was brutally gang-raped. Initially, she was sentenced to ninety lashes and six months in prison; that's right, SHE was sentenced to this, for the crime of being in a vehicle with an unrelated male (a friend of hers). When she appealed her sentence, it was increased to 200 lashes, for daring to speak out (her lawyer, who spoke to Saudi media about the case, faces disbarment.) Her attackers, while they have been sentenced to prison, initially received sentences of between 10 months and five years; subsequently those have been increased but still they have received much shorters sentences than rapists typically get in the United States.

In the second case, a fifteen year old girl in Brazil who was arrested on suspicion of petty theft was placed in a jail cell with 20 adult male inmates, who raped and tortured her, while the local police ignored her screams for help and kept her there for three weeks, during which time she was burned as well as being raped multiple times. The police then pressured her father to falsify her birth certificate (presumably to claim her age was older than it was) and then threatened to have his paternity rights revoked when he refused to do so.

Both cases have provoked international outrage. The Brazilians have at least acknowleged that there is a problem (especially since the case has led to revelations of other women being put into male prison cells and raped) and they have appointed two commissions to investigate. The Saudis, in contrast, have proven particularly intransigent, justifying their sentencing by saying the woman in the case was involved in 'an illegal relationship.'

Of course, everyone including Presidential candidates have jumped on the cases and condemned them. Then again, it is easy for someone who is simply a candidate to do so, since there are no real consequences for whatever (s)he might say.

But what of the administration which does have to deal with the consequences?

If I were President, I'd be tempted to recall my ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as well as letting Brazil know I'd be keeping a real close eye on their investigation and would expect to see some heads roll. But then maybe it's a good thing I'm not the President.

On the other hand, I've been very, very disappointed at the complete lack of outrage expressed by the Bush administration. Other than some muted statements expressing disappointment they have said pretty much nothing.

First, let's make one thing clear-- there is public outrage (for public consumption) and there is actual outrage (behind the scenes). The textbook example of the difference came just after the Tianenmen Square massacre, when the first Bush administration publicaly expressed shock and anger at the massacre of unarmed demonstrators in the square by the Chinese army, while simultaneously dispatching Brent Scrowcroft to Beijing with a message that the statements were for American public consumption only, and should not be construed otherwise by the Chinese government.

And we well know that both Brazil and especially Saudi Arabia are very important to American foreign policy. We get nearly half of our oil from Saudi Arabia, and they also hold enormous amounts of American debt. So a real sudden and complete break with Saudi Arabia would be a severe, perhaps even deadly blow to the American economy. Like it or not, that is an unquestioned fact, as of today. Brazil doesn't send a lot of oil to the U.S., but with Latin America increasingly hostile to America, and with the most powerful politician in the region arguably Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, America needs Brazil as the dominant economic power in South America to provide a balance to Chavez.

That said, there are two things that the Bush administration should be doing but are not:

1. they should publically, in the STRONGEST terms condemn both sets of rapes. They must make it clear that the way these women were treated by the judicial systems in those countries is repugnant and that as civilized Americans we reject it completely. This is necessary because inasfar as the President speaks for all Americans, we must make it clear as a nation that we won't accept this; if we are as a nation silent on this kind of treatment of victims, do we retain any moral authority at alL?

2. behind the scenes if it is necessary to offer the Saudis a way out of their quandry it should be this: offer to grant the woman, her husband (a man she was engaged to at the time of the rape and who she has since married) and her lawyer (unless they will reconsider the actions they took against him) political refugee status in the United States and suggest that the Saudis commute the sentence to exile (which should be good enough to placate some of the hotheaded fundamentalists at home).

I don't claim to have all the facts about what we should do privately, but publically, to not condemn these actions is to condone them, and I as an American demand that my government condemn them. Because such behavior should never be condoned.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Hate crimes up nationally, lowest in a surprising place.

The FBI released statistics showing that hate crimes rose nationally by 7% over the previous year.

Nationally, 7722 hate crimes were reported. Hate crimes are defined as crimes in which the motivation is the victim's race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

The majority of the hate crimes reported were racially motivated. Of these, 2/3 of them involved a black victim. 20% of them involved a white victim, and the remainder involved a victim who was targetted for being of some other race.

19% of hate crimes involved religion. Of these, nearly 2/3 involved attacks against Jews.

Approximately the same percentage as religion being the motivation were carried out against victims based on sexual orientation, with male homosexuals the most frequent targets.

There is one silver lining in all of this, and it is a most unexpected one. The states with the fewest reported hate crimes, in fact none in one and only one in the other for the whole year, were Mississippi with no hate crimes reported, and Alabama with one.

Yes, you read that right. Mississippi and Alabama.

Mississippi was the state whose racism was famously associated with the movie 'Mississippi Burning,' about the murders of three civil rights workers by the Klan in 1964. It was the home state of such notable racists as depression era Governor Theodore G. Bilbo, who liked to write books comparing blacks with monkeys.

Alabama has always been associated by most of us with racial intolerance, of the most violent and malignant variety. The home state of George Wallace was the state where marchers were brutally beaten at the Edmund Pettis bridge, the state where Bull Conner's police dogs attacked peaceful demonstrators, and the state where klansman murdered four black girls by bombing a Baptist church in 1964.

Mississippi and Alabama have always been considered backwards, racist and a hotbed of racial hatred. Hardly the kind of place you'd expect to see setting a national standard for tolerance.

But that's what we see. Let's recall the words of Dr. King in his 'I have a Dream' speech:

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice...

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I'm sure there are still some racists around in Mississippi and Alabama, as there are every place. I'm sure there are still a few klansmen there, just as for that matter there are some klansmen here in Arizona. But for whatever reason, they have become more tolerant, at least when it comes to resorting to violence, than the rest of the country.

And I call that a miracle. Maybe the rest of the country should see what has changed there.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bush doctrine: we support democracy-- except where we don't.

Today the Supreme Court of Pakistan threw out five of the six complaints that had been lodged against the election last month of General Pervez Musharrif as President of Pakistan.

Of course, the whole thing is a sham. The 'election' was carefully conducted only among three hundred or so assembly members, virtually assuring that Muharrif would be re-elected. However the opposition to Musharrif, who seized power in a coup nearly a decade ago and has steadfastly refused to give any of it up, complained to Pakistan's Supreme Court and asked that the election be declared illegal. On the eve of the ruling, which would have gone against Musharrif, he declared 'emergency law' and summarily dismissed all of the Supreme Court justices who refused to sign a loyalty oath to him. He then filled the vacancies with his hand-picked replacements, so that the decision rendered today might as well have been written by Musharrif personally.

President Bush has asked that Musharrif leave the army. So he will. That doesn't make him any less of a dictator, nor does it do any more to legitimize his 'election' than the rump Supreme Court decision we saw today. (I could add an acerbic comment here about Bush and elections and Supreme Court decisions, but you all know what I'd say, so I won't.)

What it does is point out in stark relief two things.

1, The support of 'democracy' everywhere that Bush pledged in his second inaugural speech is null and void in countries where the dictator kisses up to us.

2. Bush was a fool for fashioning our whole policy in Pakistan around Pervez Musharrif. There is no 'plan B,' and now State Department officials are feverishly trying to craft one in case someone other than Musharrif emerges from the present crisis as being in control in Pakistan. Sound familiar?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

FOX News owners sued by publisher who said they ordered her to lie.

We already know that Rudy Giuliani wants to keep as much distance as he can from Bernard Kerik. We already know that in 2000 he was briefed on Kerik's ties to known mobsters and chose to hire him as police commissioner anyway.

We also well know that Rupert Murdoch's 'fair and balanced' FOX News network tilts strongly to the right.

But we learned today about just how far they are willing to go to keep the Giuliani-Kerik link out of the news.

A publisher was ordered by network executives to lie to Federal investigators to protect him. Of course, lying to Federal investigators is a felony, as we recently saw in the case of Olympic sprinter Marion Jones who is facing prison time for lying to investigators during a steroid investigation.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Senior executives at News Corp. urged publisher Judith Regan to lie to investigators about ex-New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik in order to protect Rudy Giuliani's presidential ambitions, Regan alleges in a lawsuit filed this week.

The lawsuit does not name the executives or cite any documents to back up her allegation. News Corp., which is led by Rupert Murdoch and is the parent company of the Fox television network and cable news channel, called the suit's claims "preposterous" Wednesday.

But Regan says she was the victim of a smear campaign "to save the reputation of Kerik and, by association, Rudy Giuliani."

Regan says she had an affair with Kerik that began in 2001.

The 70-page lawsuit was filed in a state court in New York just days after Kerik's indictment on federal corruption charges in a case that has fueled criticism of Giuliani, his longtime patron.

We will see how this plays out. But we've already seen multiple instances of FOX being willing to lie or stretch the truth on a story on the air in order to help Republicans. So this is hardly a surprise, unfortunately.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Turns out that there may be something real about the 'Da Vinci Code.'

In the book and the movie "The Da Vinci Code," a secret code is hidden within paintings created by the Renaissance master which hold the keys to deadly secrets that are protected by a fanatical secret society.

There may be no such deep and dark secret at work here, but an Italian musician named Giovanni Maria Pala appears to have uncovered a musical code within one of Da Vinci's most famous paintings, "The Last Supper" (pictured above). The painting depicts the last Passover meal shared by Christ and the twelve disciples before his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve.

Pala discovered that if he put five parallel lines in the mode of a musical staff across the picture and looked at the positions of the hands of the people in the picure and the bread on the table, and replaced them with musical notes, they fit exactly into the scale. When he tried to play it, it did not make any sense, until he remembered that Da Vinci, a lefthander, wrote sometimes from right to left instead of left to right. When he read it backwards, the music formed a tune remiscent of requiems played at the time. In other words, Da Vinci, if he put it in there on purpose, must have figured that someday someone would figure out the code, and play the music with the picture.

It is perhaps most amazing that after waiting for four hundred years to be discovered, this would be discovered within a couple of years after a movie came out speculating on the possibility of Da Vinci hiding clues in his paintings.

Sometimes reality does mirror fiction, more than we think.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The first brick in the wall.

Last night Democrats took control of the Virginia State Senate for the first time in twelve years.

The victory is significant because it is the first elected individual or group who will help redistrict Congress after the 2010 census (Republicans though their majority was cut in half retained control of Virginia's House of Delegates, but unlike the Senate members of that body serve two year terms so Democrats will have another crack at that one in 2009 along with trying to win re-election for Governor Tim Kaine.)

After the 2000 census, Republicans controlled redistricting in most large states (including Virginia.) How districts are drawn is of critical importance.

To give you an idea of how much the control of Congress is dictated by gerrymandering, consider what happened last year in the twenty districts which are not gerrymandered (eight in Arizona and five in Iowa drawn by citizens redistricting commissions and seven at-large districts that cover entire states.) In those twenty districts, four changed partisan hands (actually five, since Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont was replaced by a Democrat, but I'm not even counting that as a party change since Sanders caucused with the Democrats anyway.) If this rate is projected to the entire house, last year Democrats would have picked up 87 seats instead of thirty. So clearly gerrymandering, based on this admittedly small sample (and we have our issues with redistricting here in Arizona too) limited the turnover in Congress.

And the truth is, Tom Delay and the Republicans built themselves a pretty effective wall during the early part of the decade. That wall is now crumbling for a variety of reasons, but it underscores how important it is for Democrats to control the redistricting process in as many states as possible (or at least prevent Republicans from having total control).

But at least for right now, one thing is certain. And that is that Democrats will control the Virginia state Senate in three and a half years.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Thompson can tell the difference between a crook and a former crook; Rudy can't.

It's very rare that I am complimentary towards a Republican. It's even rarer that I would be complimentary towards a Republican running for President. It's most vanishingly rare that I would be complimentary towards a rabid right-wing Republican running for President like Fred Thompson. In fact in my only post specifically devoted to Thompson, back when he was higher in the polls as a not-yet-announced candidate than he has been since he announced, I poked some fun at him while pointing out his deficiencies.

But I'm going to say he is doing the right thing today. And it's not about any laughing matter. Specifically, he is standing by Philip Martin, who is the co-chair of his campaign. It was reported over the weekend by the Washington Post that Martin has a criminal past, which between 1979 and 1983 included convictions or guilty pleas for selling marijuana and cocaine.

In today's 'gotcha' environment, many politicians would immediately sever all ties with Martin. But I'm glad that Thompson is taking a stand and not severing them, especially now that the campaign is entering a critical stage. We will see how intense the heat is and whether he continues to stay with Martin, but it does speak well that at least Thompson's initial reaction was to stand behind Martin.

So why am I applauding Thompson for standing by Martin, especially when I've been very critical of Rudy Giuliani's decisions to hire mob associate Bernard Kerik, coke dealer Thomas Ravenel or child molester Alan Placa?

First and foremost, it's a matter of time. I wrote a post once, called the prison that follows prison that dealt with how hard it is for a convicted felon in America to become a productive member of society, or for that matter to be anything other than a convicted felon in the eyes of most people. For that matter, unless he's had his rights restored, Philip Martin would not be allowed to vote in most states. But look, his last conviction was TWENTY-FOUR years ago! TWENTY-FOUR bloody years ago! Do we EVER forgive anybody, or let them move ahead with their lives? The man has kept out of trouble for nearly a quarter of a century, and some people want to haul up what he did in 1979 or 1983. Guess what? Besides it being a long time ago, he was also a lot younger then. Sometimes younger people do foolish things, and then they learn from them. All the evidence is that Philip Martin did learn from his mistakes. I'd expect that the Thompson campaign probably did a background check on him (or maybe he's known Thompson for some time) so what this says is that Fred Thompson actually can recognize that people can change if they have the opportunity (now if only that would give rise to a progressive social policy when it comes to prison reform and rehab programs.)

In stark contrast, as was reported in the March 30 New York Times, Giuliani hired Kerik as police commissioner in 2000, shortly after he was advised that Kerik was very closely associated with known mobsters (and as we now know he was getting 'free' work done by them for him while he was police commissioner.) It is true that Rudy may not have known about Ravenel (who resigned from Rudy's campaign after being busted for dealing coke), but Placa, whose association with Rudy goes back to high school, was hired by Rudy's law firm after he was suspended by the Catholic Church from continuing to practice as a priest following the 2002-2003 investigation by the Suffolk County Grand Jury into child molestation in the Diocese of Rockville Center, in which Placa figured prominently. Unfortunately the statute of limitations has run out on many of the crimes which Placa was tied to in the investigation (you can read more in the link I provided above if your stomach is strong enough) but that is hardly the same thing as Martin having plead guilty on the cocaine charge and paid his debt to society.

With the recency of the crimes, and in particular Rudy's being willing to hire a guy with known mob ties as police commissioner, it seems as if Rudy Giuliani just doesn't care about whether he hired criminals or not, and it raises some serious judgement issues.

And that's where it is also an issue. Giuliani has demonstrated poor judgement by continuing to hire criminals who have committed crimes in the very recent past (or are under suspicion at the time of continuing to commit them, as the March 30 Times article made clear in the case of Kerik) while Thompson is giving a second chance to a guy who has kept his nose clean for 24 years. I call that compassionate, and that's very, very rarely a word I'd ever put in a sentence with Fred Thompson.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

New GOP strategy is to attack Congress for inaction-- but how accurate is it?

Recently the Republicans have begun claiming that this Congress is a 'do-nothing' Congress, in an attempt to undermine the Congressmen and Congresswomen that we have worked very hard to elect.

That is however, absolutely false.

This Congress has passed and the President has signed at least three major pieces of legislation, all on issues that had been languishing and unattended to since the beginning of his administration:

1. Minimum wage increase. This represented the first increase in the minimum wage since 1998. Previous attempts in the GOP Congress had failed every single year.

2. College financial aid bill. With skyrocketing tuition costs and students leaving school tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they even have their first full-time job, this bill cuts interest rates in half and helps school boards with limited budgets recruit qualified teachers by giving college graduates a way to be forgiven of some or all of their debt if they step into the classroom for a few years, and it will cost the local school boards nothing.

3. Ethics reform bill. We saw the 'culture of corruption' last year in Washington, and as we've seen this year some of it still has to be rooted out. So Congress passed the most sweeping ethics reform bill since the Watergate era. Critics like to point out the loopholes that still remain. Sure, but those which remain also remained when the GOP Congress did absolutely nothing about ethics reform (other than DeLay's attempts to 'fix' the problem by packing the ethics oversight committee with his cronies).

There are also three other important pieces of legislation that haven't gotten passed mainly due to the President's veto and/or Republican-led filibusters and opposition in the Senate:

1. An Iraq bill which mandates withdrawal deadlines. The American people are quite bluntly put sick and tired of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars down this rat-hole when there are crying needs to pay for here. And on top of that, we are borrowing money to pay for it, but the GOP members of Congress won't even consider a supplemental tax to pay for Iraq, preferring instead to pass the debt on to future generations (with interest, of course.)

2. A stem-cell funding bill. Our policy restricting research in this area is just one of many examples of the administration's disdain for science and scientific research. Other examples include cuts to alternative fuel programs and backing the teaching of creationism in public schools. The result is that the pace of progress for American science, which had effectively lapped the rest of field by the end of the Cold War, has slowed down considerably so that we are now living on 'borrowed time' until the rest of the world catches up (and they are not so far back anymore.) The stem-cell bill was of course only a piece of this whole but it is the piece where the battleground was drawn with Congress. In fact, even last year's Republican Congress realized how important this was and passed a stem-cell funding bill, but the President, who seems to live in a world of his own where science plays second fiddle to dogma, vetoed it.

3. SCHIP. The GOP has been misleading about this from the get go. SCHIP is not a Federal program except for residents of the District of Columbia, but rather a bunch of 'block grants' to states (recall that is something that the Republican Congress did with many Federal programs in the 1990's). Congress must give some guidelines to make sure the money is being spent appropriately, but it sets intentionally broad parameters as to what those limits are in order to allow the states the flexibility to tailor their programs to the specific needs within their state. Keep in mind this is a Republican reform. But opponents of SCHIP renewal are now implying that it is the federal government that would be paying for it (i.e. 'national' healthcare) and quote the maximum allowable limits for any state (intentionally set high to allow states to cover high-cost of living cities like NY and SF if they exist within the state) and imply that would be the limit for everybody. Of course if you live in most places, $81 thousand for a family of four sounds like a ridiculously high limit and in most places it is, but it would not be in, for example, downtown San Francisco where even small economy apartments can run upwards of $2500 per month plus utilities. In a place like where I live that would be two or three times the typical mortgage, so there is little comparison. But count on Republicans to take a good idea like flexibility to the states which they should be taking credit for and twist it into a way to deny funding for kids health insurance (at current levels, Maine and several other states will soon begin running out of funds as health care costs have continued to accelerate rapidly).

4. Comprehensive mmigration reform. We can't get a handle on the problem without including a market based solution that addresses the reason why illegal border crossers keep coming-- our own job market (unemployment is at historic lows, so the idea that they are taking jobs from Americans is just not true.) This was one bill that the President would have signed, but it was blocked primarily by Republicans in the Senate (though with the misguided defections of a handful of Democrats.)

So on these bills, the Democratic Congress passed six out of seven, and three of those were signed. Not good enough, but certainly not the 'do-nothing' title that GOP strategists are claiming (that title would belong to the previous GOP Congress which failed even to pass nine out of eleven spending bills in 2006, virtually guaranteeing that this Congress would get off to a slow start as they had to finish last year's work.*)

What needs to be done now? Well, getting larger Democratic majorities in Congress would be a very good start, especially in the Senate where the balance of power hangs by a thread. A veto-proof majority would be nice but probably a very high hill to climb (but not absolutely impossible-- on SCHIP 44 Republicans voted to override, leaving about fifteen short.) And this should make it absolutely clear that we will need a Democratic President next year, someone who will sign these bills if Congress passes them.

*-- the more conspiratorially minded among us might even wonder, given the current assault on Congress in the right-wing media, whether this was actually part of a grand strategy that began last year to gum up the works and lay the foundation for the kinds of charges we are now seeing.
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