The Words That Follow

We’re Americans. If something is wrong, we fix it. What, slavery is bad? We fixed that. What, women are fully functional beings? They can actually think in a rational way, and ought to be allowed to vote? We fixed that. They can even hold public office now, although the matter of equal pay for equal work is still a matter of contention. Alcohol is ruing America? We fixed that. We changed the Constitution. Prohibition fixed that problem, and when it really didn’t, we fixed that too. We changed the Constitution back. Then we took care of Hitler and the Japanese. We fixed that problem too, and then fixed the problem of Korea and then Vietnam and then Iraq. We didn’t fix those three? At least we tried – and we did end slavery, and when we discovered that didn’t fix everything, we passed the Fourteenth Amendment a few years after the war that ended slavery.

That fixed the lingering issues, as it defined citizenship more carefully and had that equal protection clause – everyone really was equal under the law, any law. Almost one hundred years later that fix – that one amendment – was used to justify the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hey, some fixes take longer than others. That amendment, establishing a guarantee of equal protection for everyone, and thus equal legal rights for everyone, also desegregated our public schools and legalized abortion and is now legalizing gay marriage. We fixed what the Founding Fathers hadn’t thought through. Everyone is endowed with those certain inalienable rights, or they’re not. There is no middle ground. There can be no exceptions. Exceptions fatally undermine the whole idea of America in the first place.

Okay, we fixed that, even if some never got over desegregation, and now the Republicans are in their fourth year of passing voting laws at the state level that make it hard for the people who don’t vote for them to ever vote again, and the current Supreme Court is fine with that, as that Voting Rights Act of 1965 is so old-fashioned now. Gays will always be an issue. Are they really people like the rest of us? And of course white cops keep shooting unarmed black kids quite dead, and walk away – no questions asked. The kid was mouthing off. He looked kind of dangerous. He gets shot dead. Shoot a pain-in-the-ass white kid dead and there’d be holy hell to pay. There an obvious equal protection issue here. Are pain-in-the-ass black kids really people like the rest of us? It doesn’t seem so at the moment.

Americans fix things, that’s who we are, but it seems there’s no fixing Ferguson:

Protests unfolded in major cities across the nation Tuesday night as more than 2,000 National Guard troops and hundreds of police officers converged in the St. Louis area to guard against the vandalism, arson and looting that erupted in suburban Ferguson a day earlier.

Elsewhere, the demonstrations responding to a grand jury’s refusal to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, were largely peaceful. But as night wore on in Ferguson, the mood turned ugly.

A crowd of about 200 had gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department headquarters, where some chanted, “No justice, no peace.” At times they moved into the street and blocked traffic, only to be pushed back by police and National Guardsmen holding riot shields.

Yeah, it was a second night of this:

Shortly before 10 p.m., protesters marched to City Hall nearby, where two men banged on the front door, screaming, “We want answers!”

People started throwing bricks through the windows. They surrounded an empty police car parked in front, rocking it back and forth, smashing all its windows and setting it afire. Gunfire sounded; several Red Cross officials nearby said the police ammunition in the car had ignited.

Police fired tear gas, and protesters started choking, screaming, crying and trying to find their friends.

St. Louis County police arrived in armored vehicles and ordered people to the sidewalk, threatening to arrest anyone in the street. A teenage girl knelt in front of an armored vehicle. Officers picked her up, and the situation remained tense.

A teenage girl knelt in front of an armored vehicle? What’s this, Tiananmen Square? It wasn’t supposed to be the one teenager facing off against the government’s tanks:

Before the grand jury’s decision was announced, the police had made tactical decisions aimed at de-escalating the situation, a sign that with the attention of the world focused on how they conducted themselves, lessons had been learned from their response in August. Unlike in recent days, for instance, the police allowed the protesters to assemble on the street and block traffic outside the police station. …

Earlier in the day, the police seemed to have a strategy of staying out of sight. There was no line of officers in riot gear and no uniformed officers visible in the area around the Police Department, dampening the anger of some protesters.

And then there was. The state and local police weren’t going to show up in massive armored vehicles, in full battle gear, as an invincible army ready to bring on the pain to the locals, who worship strange gods and don’t even speak their language. That effort to deal with these local insurgents, by bonding with them or something, is now slowly being abandoned. These are not “our” people, At least they didn’t call in targeted airstrikes, or send in the drones with the Hellfire missiles to take out a car or two that might be carrying the leaders of the bad guys, and they didn’t use those old B-52 things to carpet-bomb selected neighborhoods. The Pentagon didn’t give state and local police departments everything that they weren’t using at the moment – but this is starting to feel like a war against an insurgency in a foreign country we don’t want to fall, a country we like just as always has been.

This does seem like an insurgency that’s spreading:

In Washington, protesters lay down on a sidewalk outside police headquarters as if dead… Some had handwritten notes on their chests: “Black lives matter.”

There was a shocking moment at a demonstration in Minneapolis where a woman in a group blocking an intersection was run over by a car. The Star Tribune newspaper reported that the driver of the car honked at the protesters before knocking a few people onto the hood of the vehicle and apparently running over one of the woman’s legs. She was hospitalized with “very minor injuries.”

In Chicago, a few dozen protesters gathered Tuesday morning on a downtown street corner ahead of another protest at City Hall… About 200 members of the Black Youth Project staged a sit-in outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office Tuesday afternoon. They plan to be there for 28 hours.

Protesters in the New York area briefly blocked one of the entrances to the Lincoln Tunnel Tuesday evening but then headed off to the city’s West Side.

And at Union Square, about 400 people had gathered shortly after dark before breaking into groups of marchers. …

As of Tuesday evening, more than 130 protests had either occurred or were planned for Tuesday in more than 30 states, the District of Columbia and at least three other countries, according to information compiled by CNN from organizers, media reports, social media and a site set up to help organize protest efforts.

It was the same out here in Los Angeles:

Roving groups of protesters in downtown Los Angeles stopped traffic in multiple locations across downtown Los Angeles after rallying in large numbers to protest a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the death of an unarmed black man.

A group of about 100 protesters briefly crowded an overpass of the 101 Freeway off Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, hemmed in on both sides by police officers and police cruisers, according to Kerri Rivas, spokeswoman with the California Highway Patrol.

One woman had been detained on the overpass in a confrontation with police officers, Rivas said.

By about 9:45 p.m., the 101 Freeway had reopened, but traffic problems had migrated elsewhere. Motorists trying to escape the jam flooded onto side streets in downtown Los Angeles. As cars packed Cesar Chavez Boulevard, a small group of protesters lay down in an intersection and caused another traffic jam.

One man screamed at the police, who were directing traffic and trying to control the flow of the protesters.

“Want to kill someone? Kill me, not some innocent bystander!” screamed one protester.

Cesar Chavez Boulevard is the east end of Sunset Boulevard, down by Union Station and Chinatown. Maybe they shouldn’t have renamed it. Cesar Chavez thought migrant farm workers were people too. Bobby Kennedy met with him out here in a California, just before Bobby Kennedy was shot dead at the old Ambassador Hotel down on Wilshire Boulevard. That was in 1968, just after he won the California Democratic primary. Some things feel like war, a war against an insurgency, where the insurgents keep insisting it’s their country too.

This puts President Obama in an awkward position. Look at him. He looks like one of the insurgents. Hell, his middle name is Hussein. His elegant intelligence, and his unfailing calm and courtesy, and his Harvard law degree and all the rest, can’t change the color of his skin or the history that comes with that. Long ago James Baldwin said that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time” – and then he left for Paris and seldom returned. Obama is more than relatively conscious. Is he in a rage? He can’t be. He’s there president of all of us.

That’s why, on the second day of all of this, CNN noted this:

On Tuesday night in his hometown of Chicago, Obama tried to master a balancing act that has become all too familiar during his nearly six years in the White House, reflecting on the African-American experience while standing by the legal system. He offered comfort to those angered by the grand jury’s decision while identifying with the horror of looting and burning businesses in suburban St. Louis.

“If any part of the American community doesn’t feel welcomed or treated fairly, that’s something that puts all of us at risk,” Obama said.

But he added that “nothing of benefit results from destructive acts. For those who think that what happened in Ferguson is an excuse for violence, I do not have any sympathy for that.”

It was not quite the rhetoric of the transcendent political figure who spoke eloquently about race during his first campaign, nor was it the impassioned president who reacted so personally in the aftermath of Florida teenager Trayvon’s Martin’s death. Instead, Obama pledged to lead a national conversation on race and address the deep rooted belief in many communities of color “that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly.”

He came back to that Fourteenth Amendment thing again, that 1868 constitutional patch the fixed our system. He wants to fix things, and that does make him quite American. He does, however, know what doesn’t work:

His approach to Ferguson stands in contrast to remarks last year after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the 2012 shooting death of the 17-year-old Martin. At the time, Obama recounted his own experiences as a black man in deeply personal terms.

“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

He continued: “There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me – at least before I was a senator.”

He was more circumspect on Monday as the violence in Ferguson first heated up, saying the nation has made “enormous progress in race relations.”

“I’ve witnessed that in my own life, and to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change,” he said.

That was a nice thing to say, but Paul Waldman thinks that didn’t work either:

Seldom in Barack Obama’s presidency has he looked quite so impotent as he did last night, pleading from a podium in the White House for calm while the cable news split screens showed clouds of tear gas enveloping the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. He repeated the same themes as every time he has spoken about this subject – people have legitimate grievances but there’s no excuse for violence, we’ve come a long way but we have a ways to go, and so on. It never rang more hollow.

It’s just that there was no alternative:

What should he have said? Obama never actually promised to bind up the nation’s racial wounds – that was a hope others placed upon him, far too naively. Even before taking office, Obama found that no matter how hard he tried to be unthreatening, to incorporate different perspectives into his rhetoric, and to stress what Americans share, many of his opponents would never see him as anything but an agent of racial vengeance. No matter what he did, whether passing an economic stimulus or reforming health care, some would spin a story of race around it, one in which whites were under threat.

If anyone ever thought that with little more than the power of his example Obama could mitigate racial resentments, let alone fray the institutional ligaments of racism, they were quickly disabused of those ideas. His presidency has seen an extraordinary backlash against racial progress, from the Supreme Court to the statehouse, where affirmative action is dismantled, the Voting Rights Act is gutted, one Republican legislature after another passes laws to make it harder for people (mostly minorities) to vote, and conservatives are told again and again that they are the racial victims whose problems are the fault of the black president coming after them because of the color of their skin.

And when Obama even dipped a toe into the waters of racial controversy, it sparked an eruption of outrage – how dare he express solidarity with the black college professor accused of breaking into his own house – or with the parents of a black teen shot down by a vigilante wannabe? How dare he?

There’s no winning. He looks like one of the insurgents:

So there were no words that would have diffused people’s frustration, fear, and rage. There was nothing that could be said from the White House by this president or any other that would have made everything okay.

Healing is not going to come from words, and it won’t be delivered from above by the president. It will come from the creation of a system that produces justice, a system where police treat citizens with respect, where power is distributed equitably, where people can have a modicum of faith that their lives and those of their children are considered to have value.

Didn’t we take care of that back in 1868 or so? It seems not, or we’re still working on it, but Brian Beutler adds this:

The contrast between Obama’s approaches to the Brown and Martin cases has always been overstated. Bracket one poignant but contentious sentence – “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” – and his responses to the two killings no longer seem so dissimilar. Even without an explicit presidential statement of commiseration, the public dialogue surrounding Brown’s killing polarized along depressingly familiar lines. Obama’s most impassioned comments about Martin came only after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman, not before Zimmerman had been indicted.

We have now effectively reached the same point in the Michael Brown case. There is no verdict, because Darren Wilson – the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown – won’t be charged with a crime.

The Grand Jury’s decision has reignited protests in Ferguson, and political leaders of all levels, including Obama himself, are pleading for restraint – mostly from the protestors themselves, but also from those who’ve taken up arms in anticipation of looting and riots. At the same time, Obama says he’s “going to wait and see” how the public reacts to the news before deciding whether to visit Missouri.

But he should go regardless. This is Obama’s first opportunity (for lack of a better word) to use the bully pulpit to steer the national agenda in a positive direction since the slaughter at Newtown, Connecticut, and it’s the first time since he became a national figure that he’ll be able to address a racially charged issue without an election in his future to deter him.

Ah, Obama is finally free to fix this:

For the entirety of his presidency, and for much of his pre-presidency, Obama’s been too encumbered by a real but vague set of hindrances – his ambition, his temperament, an idealistic sense of a president’s significance to the country, and an acute awareness of his position in the country’s racial firmament – to speak about racial issues with the candor that his attorney general, Eric Holder, has exhibited.

Now has a chance to fix that:

Martin’s killing was in some ways more racially fraught, or straightforwardly racial, than Brown’s. Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, wasn’t a police officer; Martin wasn’t suspected of a crime; and he was walking alone, in a predominantly white neighborhood. His killing sparked a debate about controversial gun laws, but his altercation with Zimmerman, the way the case was handled, and the verdict all spoke to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and to an undercurrent of white vigilantism in conservative parts of the country. In the end, the story was about a zealot who killed an innocent black kid and got away with it.

Some of these factors apply to Brown’s killing and some don’t. But the very complexities that distinguish Brown’s case from Martin’s – that Wilson is a cop; that Brown was shot and killed at a distance with his hands in the air, according to some witnesses; that Ferguson police essentially turned on the residents they are paid to serve; that the overwhelmingly black community is governed by overwhelmingly white public officials – are what make Ferguson such a thorny issue. They’re also the things that make it so urgent for the president, but particularly this president, to give them proper context.

Brown’s killing isn’t just about race, or local police procedure, or the militarization of police, but civil rights, a vast array of racial disparities in America, and the cardinal importance of the franchise, all of which are connected to one another. Obama is uniquely suited to trace those connections.

In short, Obama should get his ass to Ferguson, right now. Ezra Klein isn’t so sure about that:

Obama’s language didn’t soar tonight, just as it didn’t soar in his first set of remarks on Ferguson. And that’s because Obama can manage polarization on immigration in a way he can’t manage polarization on race.

President Obama might still decide to give a major speech about events in Ferguson. But it probably won’t be the speech many of his supporters want. When Obama gave the first Race Speech he was a unifying figure trying to win the Democratic nomination. Today he’s a divisive figure who needs to govern the whole country. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.

Brian Beutler would be disappointed, and Jesse Walker argues that the whole thing is pointless:

I watched an Obama speech tonight. The cable channels aired it in a split screen with footage from Ferguson, so as the president urged calm I could see a live feed of the country ignoring him. His comments were predictable and bland, but even if he’d given us the most stirring rhetoric of his career I can’t imagine that it would have made much difference. This is the news, not The West Wing. Words are cheap.

Julia Azari agrees:

There are a number of perspectives on crisis rhetoric and on the purposes of presidential speech, but one idea that drives at many of the key points is communication scholar David Zarefsky’s argument that presidential rhetoric has the power to “define political reality.” To quickly synthesize Zarefsky’s point with other work on presidential communication… this kind of communication has a few main purposes. These include putting a political situation in the context of the past, particularly our Constitutional heritage, and applying a useful and resonant metaphor to the situation that allows us to understand what caused the problem and what kinds of solutions are available. In other words, presidential speech can provide a common text for all citizens to understand a situation, and provide a sense of what the policy alternatives are, even if agreement among them remains elusive.

This is a tremendously difficult task. When non-white human beings have been historically denied full citizenship, how does anyone begin to forge a common understanding of an event that rings true across racial and ethnic lines? How can anyone transcend the polarized state of American politics?

How can words fix that? How can any of this be fixed once and for all? We’re Americans. If something is wrong, we fix it. But we’ve been kidding ourselves.

Posted in Race and America, Riots in Ferguson, What Obama Cannot Say About Race | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Watching It Burn Again

Los Angeles was supposed to be nice – beaches and sunshine and the big stars up in Hollywood, and Malibu and the surfers just a few minutes up the coast. Everyone was tanned and pretty, and loose and relaxed and creative. The job in aerospace was cool too, even if it was just in Human Resources – others made the spy satellites and missile guidance systems and such. At least the office was just right, high up, with a wall of windows that looked out over the LAX runways and then all the way to downtown and beyond. Imperial Highway was right outside the door. Randy Newman, who grew up in Pacific Palisades and who had three uncles who were famous Hollywood film-score composers – Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman and Emil Newman – and who went on the win his own Oscars for his film scores – wrote his paean to Los Angeles back in 1983 – I Love LA – and it mentions Imperial Highway:

Rollin’ down the Imperial Highway
With a big nasty redhead at my side
Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the north
And we was born to ride…

It was supposed to be like that, and it was (she was blond, actually) but Randy Newman, being who he is, also added this:

Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothin’ like ‘em nowhere…

There were things you saw, but didn’t really see, and you moved on, but at that office window, on Thursday, April 30, 1992, we all stopped working and looked out over Imperial Highway and the runway and watched Los Angeles burning. The scattered columns of smoke rose in the distance, all over the city, out to the mountains.

That was the second day of the massive Los Angeles riots – the largest riots since the sixties, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the death toll was fifty-three, the worst death toll since the New York City draft riots way back in 1863, not that anyone remembers those. These lasted six days, with about a billion dollars of damage done to everything. Koreatown went up in flames. Even shops here on Hollywood Boulevard were looted and burned – many of them still have metal roll-up security doors than rattle down each night, in case something like that ever happens again.

We watched from the office window down at the airport. A young African-American computer programmer said she was ashamed for her people. A white guy said he was ashamed for the human race. Management sent us home early, if you could be home. That night, Bill Cosby spoke on the NBC affiliate out here, KNBC, and asked people to stop what the hell they were doing and watch the final episode of The Cosby Show instead. He’s a strange dude, and seems even stranger now as it may be that he was a serial rapist all along, but back then he was trying to be helpful – or he was worried about his ratings.

That didn’t help:

The third day was punctuated by live footage of Rodney King at an impromptu news conference in front of his lawyer’s Los Angeles offices on Wilshire & Doheny, tearfully saying, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” That morning, at 1:00 am, California Governor Pete Wilson had requested federal assistance, but it was not ready until Saturday, by which time the rioting and looting was under control. The 40th Infantry Division (doubled to 4,000 troops) continued to move into the city in Humvees, eventually seeing 10,000 Army National Guard troops activated. Additionally, a varied contingent of 1,700 federal law-enforcement officers from different agencies from across the state began to arrive, to protect federal facilities and assist local police. As darkness fell, the main riot area was further hit by a power cut.

Friday evening, U.S. President George H. W. Bush addressed the country, denouncing “random terror and lawlessness”, summarizing his discussions with Mayor Bradley and Governor Wilson, and outlining the federal assistance he was making available to local authorities. Citing the “urgent need to restore order” he warned that the “brutality of a mob” would not be tolerated and he would “use whatever force is necessary.”

And then it was over. Not much force was really necessary. The riots had run their course. There wasn’t much more to burn, and there was no point in burning anything anyway. Nothing was going to change. The previous year, four or five white Los Angeles Police Department officers had beaten the crap out of Rodney King, who was black, after a car chase. King had given up and was on the ground, but they kept beating him with their nightsticks, and then they kicked him around, and then beat him a bit more. It happens, but someone had caught it all on videotape and had shopped that amateur videotape to the media. Everyone out here saw those white cops beating that helpless black guy on the ground, who was just lying there half-conscious, and beating him again and again. It seemed to go on for eight or ten minutes. It didn’t, but the LAPD was still in a fix. The officers were finally brought to trial.

Ah, but then there was that change-of-venue motion. That was successful. They couldn’t have the trial downtown, in the city – the people were too outraged. They couldn’t be fair. The trial was moved out to Simi Valley, at the far end of the San Fernando Valley, where, curiously, almost all the folks were white and where a whole lot of LAPD cops had retired. Ronald Reagan is buried at his ranch in the nearby hills. On April 29, 1992, the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury out there acquitted all four officers of assault, and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force. Maybe one of them had gone a bit overboard, but they were deadlocked on that last charge. All four officers walked. The riots followed.

African-Americans had had just about enough of this crap. Lincoln had freed the slaves. Martin Luther King had forced the country to change the law – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been signed, sealed and delivered – but even now white cops, in a pack, could beat a single black man, who had already surrendered to them, nearly to death – and walk. Do you think that’s okay, whitey? You’ll be sorry.

In the end everyone was sorry. Much was lost in those riots and little was gained, except for a few police reforms, not quite implemented yet. Whites did, however, become more fearful, and angry that they were more fearful. Blacks saw nothing much would change. They saw that their anger, while satisfying for a week or so, made them look like thugs – or like fools who burned down their own neighborhoods. They also saw that their anger alone changed nothing.

Los Angeles hasn’t changed much, except that the cops are a bit more careful, or circumspect, and America hasn’t changed much. This time it’s Missouri:

A St. Louis County grand jury has brought no criminal charges against Darren Wilson, a white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, more than three months ago in nearby Ferguson.

The decision by the grand jury of nine whites and three blacks was announced Monday night by the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, at a news conference packed with reporters from around the world. The killing, on a residential street in Ferguson, set off weeks of civil unrest – and a national debate – fueled by protesters’ outrage over what they called a pattern of police brutality against young black men. Mr. McCulloch said Officer Wilson had faced charges ranging from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

Darren Wilson walked, and this happened again:

Word of the decision set off a new wave of anger among hundreds who gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department. Police officers in riot gear stood in a line as demonstrators chanted and threw signs and other objects toward them as the news spread. “The system failed us again,” one woman said. In downtown Ferguson, the sound of breaking glass could be heard as crowds ran through the streets.

As the night went on, the situation grew more intense and chaotic. Bottles and rocks were thrown at police. At least one police car was burned; buildings, including a Walgreens, were on fire, and looting was reported in several businesses, including a beauty supply store and a liquor store. Law enforcement authorities deployed gas or smoke to control the crowds. Protesters blocked Interstate 44 in St. Louis in the neighborhood where another man was shot by police this fall.

Before midnight, St. Louis County police officers reported heavy automatic gunfire in the area where some of the largest protests were taking place. Flights to St. Louis Lambert International Airport were not permitted to land late Monday as a safety precaution, officials said.

Cue up George H. W. Bush in 1992:

Mayor James Knowles III of Ferguson, reached on his cellphone late Monday, said he was there and wanted to see National Guard troops, some of whom were stationed at a police command center, move to protect his city. “They’re here in the area,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re not deploying.”

Use whatever force is necessary, and cue up Rodney King:

Mr. Brown’s family issued a statement expressing sadness, but calling for peaceful protest and a campaign to require body cameras on police officers nationwide. “We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions,” the statement said. “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”

People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?

The White House also issued its statement:

President Barack Obama is seeking to calm the mood after a Missouri grand jury declined to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on any criminal charges stemming from the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9.

He recognized the events in Ferguson have revealed a deep distrust between law enforcement and communities of color. Obama expressed his hope that this will lead to a broader discussion of race in America.

“This is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America,” Obama said. “There are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making this up.”

Expect a few weeks of everyone on Fox News saying that communities of color certainly are just making this up, but the outrage was real enough:

Shops were looted and burned on Ferguson’s main street. There were smoke bombs, tear gas, thrown rocks and random gunshots. In Ferguson, the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown was almost as bitter and hollow as his killing itself.

Brien Redmon, 31, stood in the cold watching a burning police car and sporadic looting after the announcement that there would be no indictments for Mr. Brown’s death at 18.

“This is not about vandalizing,” he said. “This is about fighting a police organization that doesn’t care about the lives they serve.”

Thomas Perry, 30, was equally bitter. “I support my people who are out there doing it,” he said. “For years they’ve been taking from us. We don’t care.”

The outrage was also spreading:

In New York City, a rowdy group of hundreds of protesters made its way up Seventh Avenue through Times Square, halting traffic as police officers raced on foot to keep up. “No justice, no peace,” the group yelled as cars honked and tourists snapped photos from the sidewalks.

“Everybody is frustrated,” said Hugh Jackson, 28, who just moved to New York from Atlanta and wore an American-flag-print bandanna over his mouth as he passed Carnegie Hall. Referring to a young black man killed a few days ago in Brooklyn, Mr. Jackson added that “you’re kind of numb to it at a certain point. It’s so systematic.”

In Philadelphia, a large but orderly crowd gathered downtown, singing, playing drums and chanting, “Justice for Mike Brown.”

In South Los Angeles, a crowd of protesters chanted, “From Ferguson to L.A., these killer cops have got to pay,” while about half a dozen police officers stood nearby. By 7:30 p.m., the crowd that gathered in a South Los Angeles park had dwindled to about 70 people. Chanting had given way to somber speeches.

“We’re not here to socialize. We’re here to demand justice,” said Melina Abdullah, a professor and chairwoman of the Pan-African studies department at California State University, Los Angeles.

That wasn’t much, but there are reports from other cities. At this point it’s the middle of the night just before the second day. Back in 1992, the second day was the worst day, but there is this:

Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson’s lawyers said Monday that a grand jury’s decision not to indict him in the shooting of Michael Brown showed that their client’s actions “followed the law.”

“From the onset, we have maintained and the grand jury agreed that Officer Wilson’s actions on August 9 were in accordance with the laws and regulations that govern the procedures of an officer,” Wilson’s attorneys said in a statement, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Law enforcement personnel must frequently make split-second and difficult decisions. Officer Wilson followed his training and followed the law,” they continued. “We recognize that many people will want to second-guess the grand jury’s decision. We would encourage anyone who wants to express an opinion do so in a respectful and peaceful manner.”

The man did what he was allowed to do, by law, and you have to respect that. Police work is hard, but there’s this:

Part of Michael Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden’s reaction to the news that a St. Louis County grand jury would not indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for shooting her son Michael Brown was caught on tape.

St. Louis alderman Antonio French, who has frequently been present on the ground in Ferguson since the Aug. 9 shooting, posted a brief video of Brown’s mother’s reaction after the announcement.

“They still don’t care,” McSpadden, identified by French in his post, said – “They ain’t never gonna care.”

And there’s this:

About 200 people stood in the cold in front of the Ferguson Police Department, listening on radios as the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, Robert P. McCulloch, read his statement on Monday, reality dawning that they were not going to hear what they wanted.

During Mr. McCulloch’s announcement, Mr. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and stepfather, Louis Head, stepped up onto a platform where protest leaders were standing.

“Defend himself from what!” Ms. McSpadden yelled, when Mr. McCulloch spoke of Officer Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Mr. Brown, defending himself.

She bowed her head and tears started streaming down her cheeks. …

“Everybody wants me to be calm,” she said, her eyes covered with sunglasses. “You know what them bullets did to my son!”…

Mr. Head then turned and began to yell.

“Burn this down!” he repeatedly shouted, inserting an expletive.

The crowd then began to roar. Some rushed toward the fence near where the police were lined up.

They’d had enough of this crap, and it certainly was crap, as Ben Casselman explains:

Former New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Wilson’s case was heard in state court, not federal, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable. Unlike in federal court, most states, including Missouri, allow prosecutors to bring charges via a preliminary hearing in front of a judge instead of through a grand jury indictment. That means many routine cases never go before a grand jury. Still, legal experts agree that, at any level, it is extremely rare for prosecutors to fail to win an indictment.

“If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong,” said Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Ah, but police shootings are different:

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn’t look at grand jury indictments specifically.

Something is going on here:

There are at least three possible explanations as to why grand juries are so much less likely to indict police officers. The first is juror bias: Perhaps jurors tend to trust police officer and believe their decisions to use violence are justified, even when the evidence says otherwise. The second is prosecutorial bias: Perhaps prosecutors, who depend on police as they work on criminal cases, tend to present a less compelling case against officers, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The third possible explanation is more benign. Ordinarily, prosecutors only bring a case if they think they can get an indictment. But in high-profile cases such as police shootings, they may feel public pressure to bring charges even if they think they have a weak case.

“The prosecutor in this case didn’t really have a choice about whether he would bring this to a grand jury,” Ben Trachtenberg, a University of Missouri law professor, said of the Brown case. “It’s almost impossible to imagine a prosecutor saying the evidence is so scanty that I’m not even going to bring this before a grand jury.”

The explanations aren’t mutually exclusive.

That’s not very helpful. But consider this:

Americans are sharply divided along racial lines as to whether Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson should be charged with murder in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a new CNN/ORC poll out Monday finds.

Fifty-four percent of nonwhites – including blacks, Latinos and Asians – say Wilson should be charged with murder, while just 23% of whites agree. And 38% of whites say Wilson should be charged with no crime at all, while just 15% of nonwhites hold that position. …

Most Americans agree that Wilson should at least face some form of criminal charges, the poll finds.

But it’s not that simple:

There is broad 63% agreement that peaceful protests are justified if a grand jury doesn’t indict Wilson for murder. But a racial divide exists over whether violent protests are justified in that case, with 22% of nonwhites saying yes while 10% of whites agree.

The differences underscored the broader perceptions of prejudice among police officers.

Only 19% of whites said some or most police officers in their areas are prejudiced against blacks, while 33% of nonwhites held that opinion.

Half of all whites say that “almost none” or “none” of the police in their areas are prejudiced against blacks. Only 35% of nonwhites agreed with that view.

Half of all whites seem to live in Simi Valley, in the shadow of the Reagan ranch. This is like 1992 all over again. Stand at the office window and watch it all burn, again. Six hours have passed since the announcement. The second day begins now.

Posted in Black Outrage in America, Ferguson Missouri | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Life in the Age of Infinite Outrage

People generally quarrel because they can’t argue. G. K. Chesterton is said to have said that, and he was onto something there. Imagine you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, quite lost, and everyone is trying to figure out what to do next – to try to head back and see if anything looks familiar, to take the road to the right, or the road to the left, or to just sit and wait to see if anyone comes along who can tell you where you actually are, so you can decide how to get to where you’re going. And then you hear a pretty good argument for one of those options, calm and well-reasoned, and the tension eases, until someone says about the source of the suggestion – “What does he know anyway?” Maybe he was born in Kenya.

You expected an argument about the options, and you got chin-out and chip-on-the-shoulder posturing intended to display dominance. That never helps, as argument is a process for working things out and quarreling is somewhat the opposite. This seems to be a power and domination thing. Quarreling is about ending up looking good, with everyone else looking foolish. But you still stay lost, as what was won and what was lost in the quarrel was quite irrelevant to the problem itself.

The facts of the matter should have settled the matter, but human nature is what it is – defensiveness and feigned certainty may be necessary evolutionary traits, necessary to perpetuate the species. Self-confidence attracts mates or something. Be sure of yourself – that’s the ticket. Believe in something, no matter how foolish, and believe in it sincerely. You’ll get the girl, or, if you’re a politician, you’ll get the votes. George W. Bush knew this. His father didn’t. His father didn’t win a second term as president. He was merely competent and reasonable. He told everyone to read his lips – no new taxes – and then he raised taxes, to keep the government functioning, which kind of had to be done. His son, who got us into two long and absurd wars, and who ruined the economy for a generation, was neither reasonable nor competent – but he was sure of himself. He was the one who won a second term, in spite of the disasters piling up right and left. He believed what he believed. Somehow that was enough, or enough for enough people. Both elections were close.

No one considered him wise – Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives only found him useful – and that was the problem for many voters. That eighteenth-century British fellow, William Shenstone, put it well – “Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it.”

That differentiation is useful. Zealous men do ask that you stand in awe of their sincerity, of the strength of their beliefs, which is supposed to be impressive, in spite of the facts at hand, which will do just fine – but this had led to political discourse where outrage is the most useful option, the default position for respect. It’s the business model for Fox News too – CNN and MSNBC never got it. That made Bill O’Reilly a rich man. The zeal on the right has a home. Judiciousness will have to find a home somewhere else.

The current outrages are obvious. Obama did no more than announce his administrative adjustments, which really don’t solve any major issues with our dysfunctional immigration system, but it was an outrage anyway. They won big in the midterm elections and all the Democrats ran away from him, and lost, so he’s being arrogant in adjusting the enforcement priorities – or downright uppity here. The House Republicans also finally filed their lawsuit, suing Obama for damages they cannot specify – but they are outraged that he is adjusting a few due dates in Obamacare, due dates that they had insisted he adjust – and then, late Friday afternoon, a Republican-controlled committee released the results of their two-year investigation into Benghazi, hoping no one would notice that they admitted that there was no scandal at all. There never was:

A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, intelligence about who carried it out and why was contradictory, the report found. That led Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to inaccurately assert that the attack had evolved from a protest, when in fact there had been no protest. But it was intelligence analysts, not political appointees, who made the wrong call, the committee found. The report did not conclude that Rice or any other government official acted in bad faith or intentionally misled the American people.

Ah, that’s settled. That matter will now disappear. Republicans had been looking foolish about this for a long time. Now they can quietly drop it and hope no one notices. Americans have short memories. The eighth Benghazi investigation being carried out by a House Select Committee appointed in May will probably mysteriously disappear. It already has. No one has talked about that for months.

That’s not how things work:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday blasted a House GOP-led investigation that recently debunked myths about the 2012 Benghazi attack.

“I think the report is full of crap,” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The House Intelligence Committee released a report on Friday evening, which took two years to compile, that found there was no outright intelligence failure during the attack, there was no delay in the rescue of U.S. personnel and there was no political cover-up by Obama administration officials.

After Graham was asked whether the report exonerates the administration, he initially ignored the question, and then eventually said “No.”

And if judicious men show you the grounds of their belief, there’s this:

Graham didn’t clearly pinpoint why he dismissed the report’s findings, but suggested its information was provided by people in the intelligence community who had previously lied to Congress about the attack.

“I don’t believe the report is accurate given the role [former CIA deputy director] Mike Morell played in misleading the Congress on two occasions,” Graham said.

Host Gloria Borger said the report found no one lied.

“That’s a bunch of garbage,” Graham replied.

This is zeal. Perhaps such zeal is admirable, in a George Bush kind of way, but at his site, The Dish, Andrew Sullivan isn’t feeling it:

Isn’t there something quite delicious in the House Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – scandalous about “Benghazi” apart from what we knew already: that the outpost was poorly protected and that the State Department had been complacent about consulate security?

And as for Graham:

His only basis for saying that is that the report relied on the testimony of Obama administration officials – even though it also sought testimony from a bunch of Republican conspiracy theorists, even though it was packed with Republican ideologues, even though it had enormous reach and subpoena power.

At the Dish, we tried long and hard to find something in the Benghazi story that could really stand the test of moderate scrutiny … and failed. I even jumped the gun and impugned the honesty of [National Security Advisor] Ben Rhodes at one point in trying to be as skeptical of administration assurances as any journalistic outfit should be. But after a while, we decided to ignore the issue unless something striking or new came up. In retrospect, that was the right call.

Sullivan wonders what’s going on here:

When you think of the staggering amount of time and resources devoted to chasing down this rabbit-hole, you have to wonder what is really fueling the GOP. I don’t think it’s a positive agenda to tackle some of our obviously pressing problems: eleven million undocumented immigrants, climate change, Iran’s nuclear potential, Jihadism in Iraq, soaring inequality. I think this is rabid hatred of a president who does not share their priorities and desperation to find some kind of quick and easy way of consigning him to a treasonous asterisk. They’ve failed on both counts.

Fox News reports that Graham doesn’t see it that way:

A leading Republican wants to expand the House investigation into the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack by adding a Senate probe….

Referring to the House Select committee Chairman, and the Democratic ranking member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said the current House investigation should be expanded.

“[Republican] Trey Gowdy and [Democrat] Elijah Cummings have done a good job,” he said. “I can’t imagine the U.S. Senate not wanting to be a part of a joint select committee. We’ll bootstrap to what you’ve done, but we want to be part of discussion,” Graham told Fox News. “What I would suggest to [incoming Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell is to call up Speaker Boehner and say ‘Listen, we want to be part of this’.”

Fox News will provide full on-going coverage, although this is curious:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday said Republicans are partially responsible for not passing comprehensive immigration reform.

“Shame on us as Republicans for having a body that cannot generate a solution to an issue that’s national security, that’s cultural, that’s economic” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The Senate has passed an immigration bill three times, Graham said, adding that he “loves” his GOP colleagues in the House.

That’s nice, but they may not love him back:

“I’m close to the people in the House, but I’m disappointed in my party. Are we still the party of self-deportation?” he asked. … “Is it the position of the Republican Party that the 11 million must be driven out? I have never been in that camp as being practical.”

They won’t like that, and then there’s this:

“I’m thinking of trying to fix illegal immigration and replacing sequestration. I will let you know if I think about running for president. It’s the hardest thing one could ever do. You go through personal hell. You have got to raise a ton of money. I’m nowhere near there,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Asked if his response could be labeled as a “maybe,” Graham nodded and said, “That’s what it was.”

He probably will run, although he may not survive the first primary. He will offer a mixture of outrage and reasonableness, trying to get the blend just right. That’s an ongoing challenge for Republicans in this age of outrage, but Sullivan is impressed by none of it:

One reason I’ve been somewhat forgiving of Obama’s executive action on immigration deportations is that I see it as a function not of his choice to be an “imperial” president, but as a result of unprecedented Republican obstructionism. It is, for example, jaw-dropping to hear the GOP declare its shock at the president’s refusal to take into account the results of the mid-terms as a democratic norm he should respect. These are the same people who, in January and February of 2009, responded to Obama’s landslide amid a catastrophic and accelerating depression by giving him zero votes on a desperately needed stimulus package.

We now know they decided as a conscious strategy to say no to anything and everything the new and young president, inheriting two failed wars and an imploding economy, wanted or needed. They were nihilist then as they are nihilist now with respect to the practical demands of actually governing the country. At some point, something had to give, and I can see why, after the GOP had again refused to allow immigration reform even to come to a vote in the House, that he might have decided to say fuck it.

Sullivan does note that the New York Times’ resident young conservative Ross Douthat sees things differently:

Obama never really looked for domestic issues where he might be willing to do a version of something the other party wanted – as Bush did with education spending and Medicare Part D, and Clinton did with welfare reform. (He’s had a self-admiring willingness to incorporate conservative ideas into essentially liberal proposals, but that’s not really the same thing.)


I just do not recognize this reality. What exactly did the GOP want in 2009? That’s hard to say. But on the issues on which Obama had campaigned – say, the stimulus, healthcare, climate change and immigration – he embraced conservative ideas, as Ross concedes. He packed the stimulus with tax cuts (and still got no GOP votes); he embraced Mitt Romney’s and the Heritage Foundation’s version of healthcare reform over his own party’s preference for single payer (and was treated as a commie because of it); he supported cap and trade on climate change – again a policy innovated on the right (and got nowhere); and on immigration, he backed George W Bush’s formula but sweetened it over six years with aggressive deportations and huge increases in funding for the Mexican border. So what on earth is Ross talking about?

The facts of the matter should have settled the matter:

Yes, Obama does have ambitions to be a transformational president, a liberal Reagan. And, after two thumping victories, he still has a solid shot at getting there. And if we had a reasonable or even feisty opposition party – as opposed to a foam-flecked insurrection against everything – that legacy would have been even more informed by conservative thought and ideas. And the idea that no executive action is allowed is just as silly. The executive branch has a key role in determining things like the level of permissible carbon emissions (via the EPA), or priorities in immigration enforcement (via ICE), or national security (via the Pentagon, NSA and CIA).

At some point, in other words, it was the GOP who made this president more executive-minded, by removing every other pathway for him to pursue what the country elected him to do. Because they never really accepted that he had won big majorities twice for a reason. And that reason was change.

That wasn’t the only reason – that’s far too glib an answer. There may be more going on here, something that goes far beyond politics. We do live in an age of unmitigated outrage. The mechanisms that mitigate foam-flecked insurrection against everything have disappeared in the general culture, as Jonah Goldberg notes:

We live in an age of diversity, defined not merely by gender and race, but by lifestyles and values. That’s mostly a good thing – mostly. Like all other good things in life, diversity comes at a cost. And a big part of the tab is a lost consensus about what constitutes good manners and propriety. So instead of knowing how to behave, we spend vast amounts of our time worrying and arguing about it, with combatants on every side insisting that it’s “Live and let live” for me but “Shut up! How dare you!” for thee.

In this age of unprecedented cultural liberty, we’ve lost sight of the fact that common standards of decency and decorum can be liberating. They inconvenience everyone – a little – but they also free us from worrying about who we might offend or why. School uniforms, remember, constrain the wealthy kids for the benefit of the poor ones.

For millennia, good manners were understood as the means by which strangers showed each other respect. Now, too many people demand respect but have lost the ability, or desire, to show it in return.

Sullivan goes one step further:

I wonder also if our digital life hasn’t made all this far worse. … When you sit in a room with a laptop and write about other people and their flaws, and you don’t have to look them in the eyes, you lose all incentive for manners.

You want to make a point. You may be full to the brim with righteous indignation or shock or anger. It is only human nature to flame at abstractions, just as the awkwardness of physical interaction is one of the few things constraining our rhetorical excess. When you combine this easy anonymity with the mass impulses of a Twitter-storm, you can see why manners have evaporated and civil conversations turned into culture war.

I’m as guilty of this as many. There have been times – far too many – when my passion for an idea or revulsion at a news story can, in its broadness of aim, impugn the integrity or good faith of other individuals. If I had to speak my words to the faces of those I am painting with too broad and crude a brush, my language would be far more temperate (and probably more persuasive). And so restoring manners to online discourse is a hard task – especially in an era of instant mass communication and anonymity. It’s hard for a blogger or writer not least because you don’t want to sink into torpor or dullness or vapidity. You want to keep the debate fresh and real.

In short, the internet has aided and abetted the default-outrage in our culture, or maybe even created it:

Our web silos – from the Jihadists to the left-blogosphere to the right-media complex – make it easy to thrive and succeed without manners, and even easier to fail in the marketplace by upholding them. But manners matter. They create the climate in which free debate is possible. They are the lubrication that can make a liberal polity actually work.

Outrage is, however, too easy and too rewarding to resist, and now it’s available to everyone. The Republicans have Fox News as a platform for their outrage, and an occasional spot on CNN when CNN needs ratings, but everyone else can blog or Twitter or rant on Facebook, or leave comments here – manners be damned. Of course Goldberg wrote that book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change – so he’s one to talk. When you live in the Age of Outrage resistance is futile.

Kevin Drum continues the thread:

I have not, personally, ever noticed that human beings tend to rein in their worst impulses when they’re face to face with other human beings. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Most often, they don’t. Arguments with real people end up with red faces and lots of shouting constantly. I just flatly don’t believe that the real problem with internet discourse is the fact that you’re not usually directly addressing the object of your scorn.

So what is the problem? I think it’s mostly one of visibility. In the past, the kinds of lapses that provoke internet pile-ons mostly stayed local. There just wasn’t a mechanism for the wider world to find out about them, so most of us never even heard about them. It became a big deal within the confines of a town or a university campus or whatnot, but that was it.

Occasionally, these things broke out, and the wider world did find out about them. But even then, there was a limit to how the world could respond. You could organize a protest, but that’s a lot of work. You could go to a city council meeting and complain. You could write a letter to the editor. But given the limitations of technology, it was fairly rare for something to break out and become a true feeding frenzy.

Needless to say, that’s no longer the case. In fact, we have just the opposite problem: things can become feeding frenzies even if no one really wants them to be. That’s because they can go viral with no central organization at all. Each individual who tweets or blogs or Facebooks their outrage thinks of this as a purely personal response – just a quick way to kill a few idle minutes. But put them all together, and you have tens of thousands of people simultaneously responding in a way that seems like a huge pile-on. And that in turn triggers the more mainstream media to cover these things as if they were genuinely big deals.

The funny thing is that in a lot of cases, they aren’t.

That’s where the confusion begins:

The problem is that our lizard brains haven’t caught up to this. We still think that 10,000 outraged people are a lot of people, and 30 or 40 years ago it would have been. What’s more, it almost certainly would have represented a far greater number of people who actually cared. Today, though, it’s so easy to express outrage that 10,000 people is a pretty small number – and most likely represents nearly everyone who actually gives a damn.

This calls for same statistical realism:

We need to recalibrate our cultural baselines for the social media era. People can respond so quickly and easily to minor events that the resulting feeding frenzies can seem far more important than anyone ever intended them to be. A snarky/nasty tweet, after all, is the work of a few seconds. A few thousand of them represent a grand total of a few hours of work. The end result may seem like an unbelievable avalanche of contempt and derision to the target of the attack, but in real terms, it represents virtually nothing.

The culture wars are not nastier because people on the internet don’t have to face their adversaries. They’re nastier because even minor blowups seem huge. But that’s just Econ 101. When the cost of expressing outrage goes down, the amount of outrage expressed goes up. That doesn’t mean there’s more outrage. It just means outrage is a lot more visible than it used to be.

And that makes this the Age of Outrage. It’s been fully enabled. Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it, and judicious men are pathetic losers. How many “followers” do they have, after all? Republicans get it. Democrats don’t.

Posted in Political Outrage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Something Shifted

Anyone who watches sports knows all about momentum. The play-by-play folks talk about it endlessly, telling everyone what is obvious. Suddenly everything is going right for one team and everything is going wrong for the other. No one knows why it happens, and the football or basketball players have no idea what’s going on either, but one side is now demoralized and can’t do one thing right, no matter how hard they try, and the other side isn’t trying at all – one thing after another just falls in place. This doesn’t apply to baseball of course – baseball moves at a glacial pace, with periodic moments of interest, which precludes anything like momentum. That’s watching grown men try to outthink each other before they actually throw that pitch or swing that bat. Baseball is oddly cerebral, but other sports aren’t. In those, everyone knows when something just shifted, and then they know who’s going to win, unless the momentum shifts again.

What happened? In football it’s usually a minor thing, an unexpected fumble when things are going just fine, or in basketball one more turnover than usual, which shouldn’t make a difference but suddenly does – and there’s no recovery. Try harder – play far more aggressively – and it all falls apart. It must be maddening, and in frustration, the team that’s lost momentum ramps up the aggressive play even more, which makes things even worse. Be too aggressive and you make really dumb mistakes, over and over. It’s a trap, but there’s no alternative. The post-game interview with that pretty woman from ESPN is going to be painful. Be humble.

That’s hard to pull off. Athletes generally aren’t humble – that’s not how they got good at whatever it is they do, which is to physically dominate pathetic losers, which is how they see the other guys over there. Humility gets in the way of that, and it’s the same in politics too. Politics may or may not be a game – some feel that good policy matters more than who wins or loses each news cycle and then each election – but it is about dominance, and often about humiliating the others guys. They’re pathetic losers, after all. Republicans talk about Democrats that way. Democrats talk about Republicans that way. Trash-talk isn’t confined to sports.

Then something shifts. This week it was an address from President Obama, not carried on network television, where he explained that he was going to adjust a few immigration enforcement activities, to concentrate on sending dangerous folks back home to wherever they came from, and getting to everyone else, who really shouldn’t be here, later. That was the outrage that had everyone on the right seething, which was probably an overreaction. They said that Obama was taking unilateral action to change immigration policy, changing the law all on his own without Congress – the folks who create and pass all our laws – when he was, of course, making minor adjustments to the enforcement of current immigration law, such as it is. And now they’re even angrier because Obama has dared them to do what they have taken pride in not doing for six years, he’s dared them to pass some actual immigration legislation instead of bitching about him and whining that it’s just not fair that no one respects them. Given the rifts in their party maybe they can’t pass anything any longer – Ted Cruz wants one thing, shutting everything down to get Obama to stop doing whatever he’s done, and John Boehner wants another, a legacy of some sort of meaningful legislation. That’s their internal gridlock, so their situation may be hopeless, and they know it, which makes them even angrier, and anger leads to more aggressive action. They can’t help themselves.

That’s why, the day after President Obama announced how he would handle resource allocation regarding immigration, which every legal scholar in the world sees as his job, as actually established by specific statutes – here’s a good rundown of that – Republicans got really aggressive and did this:

House Republicans filed a long-threatened lawsuit Friday against the Obama administration over unilateral actions on the health care law that they say are abuses of the president’s executive authority.

The lawsuit – filed against the secretaries of Health and Human Services and the Treasury – focuses on two crucial aspects of the way the administration has put the Affordable Care Act into effect.

The suit accuses the Obama administration of unlawfully postponing a requirement that larger employers offer health coverage to their full-time employees or pay penalties. (Larger companies are defined as those with 50 or more employees.)

In July 2013, the administration deferred that requirement until 2015. Seven months later, the administration announced a further delay, until 2016, for employers with 50 to 99 employees.

The suit also challenges what it says is President Obama’s unlawful giveaway of roughly $175 billion to insurance companies under the law. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the administration will pay that amount to the companies over the next 10 years, though the funds have not been appropriated by Congress. The lawsuit argues that it is an unlawful transfer of funds.

This was aggressive, but many have pointed out the problem with this. Congress seems to have no standing – there is no tort – they cannot demonstrate that they were harmed in any way. They cannot point to any damages. Secondly, that “employer mandate” was only delayed. By the time they find a judge willing to hear their case and get this to move up to higher levels, hoping for the Supreme Court to weigh in, that part of the law will have been implemented. That issue will be moot, and no one thinks they’ll find any court at any level that will touch this. The issues here are entirely political, not a matter of law. They also spent a lot of taxpayer money retaining council on this, but the first two firms bailed on them. They didn’t want to be embarrassed. The House Republicans have now retained the rather liberal legal scholar Jeffery Toobin to represent them, and Toobin sees this as kind of a lark – he’s always been fascinated by separation of powers issues. He may soon bail too. The issues here really are interesting, in a theoretical way, but as a practical and legal matter, this lawsuit is obviously absurd. It is, however, aggressive. When you’re down two touchdowns with twenty seconds left to play in the fourth quarter, and it’s fourth and twenty-five on your own ten-yard line, you do something dramatic. You throw that impossible long pass, hoping for the best, even if you’ve lost the game already. That shows you have spunk. Everyone will admire you. That seems to be the idea here. This also shifts attention away from everyone asking these guys what THEY propose about the issue of the day, immigration reform.

This is an attempt to shift momentum, but the same day we got a late Friday afternoon news-dump, after most of the media has shut down their news operations and turned to weekend sports stuff and fluff, the usual thing you do when you want no one to notice what you’re admitting. That one was interesting:

A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, intelligence about who carried it out and why was contradictory, the report found. That led Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to inaccurately assert that the attack had evolved from a protest, when in fact there had been no protest. But it was intelligence analysts, not political appointees, who made the wrong call, the committee found. The report did not conclude that Rice or any other government official acted in bad faith or intentionally misled the American people.

Benghazi? We never mentioned Benghazi. Who’s talking about Benghazi? There’s no scandal there. There never was. What were you thinking?

That matter will now disappear, more or less, in another attempt to shift momentum. They had been looking foolish about this for a long time. Now they can say they never did take the scandal talk all that seriously. The eighth Benghazi investigation being carried out by a House Select Committee appointed in May will probably mysteriously disappear. What House Select Committee? We don’t do foolish things like that.

Will these two things shift the momentum back to the Republicans? That’s questionable, and their aggressiveness in response to Obama doing stuff on immigration because they didn’t want to, or because they really don’t want to, may get them in trouble. ThinkProgress notes their current aggressive statements:

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) didn’t “have the citation at the tip of his tongue,” but he nonetheless claimed Obama might be guilty of a felony for aiding or abetting a foreigner to enter the United States, according to Slate. Brooks made the claim early Thursday before Obama released the details of his plan, so Brooks said he couldn’t be sure. But he added that Obama might end up in jail. “At some point, you have to evaluate whether the president’s conduct aids or abets, encourages, or entices foreigners to unlawfully cross into the United States of America,” he continued. “That has a five-year in-jail penalty associated with it.”

And there’s this:

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach stoked fears about ethnic cleansing in a radio interview discussing President Obama’s planned executive action earlier this week, posted by Right Wing Watch. When a caller worried that “when one culture or one race or one religion overwhelms another culture or race,” they “run them out or kill them,” Kobach responded by suggesting that Obama’s lawlessness could indeed lead to what he identified as ethnic cleansing. …

During the same radio program, he warned that Obama’s real plan was to create “newly legalized voters” who would favor socialism. “The long term strategy of, first of all, replacing American voters with illegal aliens, recently legalized, who then become U.S. citizens,” Kobach said. “There is still a decided bias in favor of bigger government not smaller government. So maybe this strategy of replacing American voters with newly legalized aliens, if you look at it through an ethnic lens… you’ve got a locked in vote for socialism.”

And of course Obama’s executive action is deeply offensive to blacks and Hispanics:

Count on Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) to revive the anti-immigrant refrain that immigration reform hurts African Americans. In remarks to Fox News’ Sean Hannity after Obama’s national address Thursday night, Gohmert doubled down on this claim, saying that Obama’s action is “so offensive” to both African Americans and Hispanics “who have an enormously high unemployment rate.” He then inferred that the 4.9 million immigrants who are being granted deportation relief from Obama would take others’ jobs at a 1-to-1 ratio, saying, “That’s going to leave 5 million people out in the cold.”

And there’s this:

Even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) immediately winced when he heard outgoing Tea Party darling Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) warn that Obama’s action will create illiterate immigrant voters. “The social cost will be profound on the U.S. taxpayer – millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language,” Bachmann told reporters the Wednesday before Obama’s address. And when the Washington Post asked Bachmann how she knew that, she said, “I’ve been down to the border.” She added that she was sure that those who aren’t citizens are likely to successfully commit widespread voter fraud. “Even though the president says they won’t be able to vote, we all know that many, in all likelihood, will vote. … People do vote without being a citizen. It’s a wink and a nod – we all know it’s going to happen.”

When you’re losing the game, or the argument, you get more aggressive. What else can you do? And you make things worse. Momentum is a bitch, and sometimes the coach has to get those who are making dumb moves off the field:

All but drowned out by Republicans’ clamorous opposition to President Obama’s executive action on immigration are some leaders who worry that their party could alienate the fastest-growing group of voters, for 2016 and beyond, if its hottest heads become its face.

They cite the Republican Party’s official analysis of what went wrong in 2012, the presidential-election year in which nominee Mitt Romney urged Latinos here illegally to “self-deport.”

“If Hispanics think that we do not want them here,” the report said, “they will close their ears to our policies.”

“Both the president and the Republican Party confront risks here,” said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. While the danger for Mr. Obama is “being perceived as overstepping his boundaries,” Mr. McInturff said, “the Republicans’ risk is opposing his action without an appropriate tenor, and thereby alienating the Latino community.”

Hey, don’t do dumb things:

“Clearly with Republicans not having gotten to a consensus in terms of immigration, it makes it a lot more difficult to talk about immigration as a unified voice,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises House leaders. “There are some people – because there’s not a consensus – who somehow end up having a little bit louder voice than perhaps they would normally have.”

Among them is Representative Steve King of Iowa, once a fringe figure against immigration and now a voice of rising prominence, to many leaders’ chagrin. Congressional leaders were privately relieved that many Republicans had left Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday before Mr. Obama announced plans for his address, reducing the availability of anti-immigration conservatives for cable-television bookers seeking reactions.

Kevin Drum takes it from there:

Ah yes, Steve King of Iowa. The odds of shutting him up are about zero, and with primary season approaching he’s going to become the de facto leader of the anti-immigration forces. In the same way that Republican candidates all have to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s ring and swear eternal loyalty to Israel if they want access to his billions, they’re going to have to kiss King’s ring and swear eternal hostility to any kind of immigration from south of the border – and they’re going to compete wildly to express this in the most colorful ways possible. And that’s a big problem. Expressing loyalty to Israel doesn’t really have much downside, but effectively denouncing the entire Hispanic population of the United States is going to steadily destroy any hopes Republicans have of ever appealing to this fast-growing voting bloc.

And that’s not all. Republican leaders are not only fearful of next year’s primaries branding the GOP forever as a bunch of xenophobic maniacs, they’re afraid it’s going to wipe out any chance they have over the next two years of demonstrating to voters that they’re a party of adults.

That may be a problem, as Drum cites this in the Los Angeles LA Times:

The strong reaction by Republican leaders has less to do with opposition to the nuts and bolts of the president’s immigration policy and more to do with fear and anger that the issue will derail the agenda of the new Republican majority before the next Congress even convenes.

Republican leaders who had hoped to focus on corporate tax reform, fast-track trade pacts, repealing the president’s healthcare law and loosening environmental restrictions on coal are instead being dragged into an immigration skirmish that they’ve tried studiously to avoid for most of the last year. …

To many, stark warnings from Boehner and McConnell sound more like pleas to the president to avoid reenergizing the GOP’s conservative wing, whose leaders are already threatening to link the president’s immigration plan to upcoming budget talks.

Something shifted. They lost the momentum of the game, and Drum thinks he knows why:

I think Obama deserves credit for an unusually brilliant political move here. Some of this is accidental: he would have announced his immigration plan earlier in the year if he hadn’t gotten pushback from red-state Democratic senators who didn’t want to deal with this during tough election battles. Still, he stuck to his guns after the midterm losses, and the result seems to be almost an unalloyed positive for his party.

The downside, after all, is minimal: the public says it’s mildly unhappy with Obama using an executive order to change immigration rules. But that’s a nothingburger. Outside of the Fox News set that’s already convinced Obama is a tyrant bent on shredding the Constitution, this simply isn’t something that resonates very strongly or for very long. It will be forgotten in a few weeks.

The upside, conversely, is potentially huge. Obama has, indeed, waved a red flag in front of congressional tea partiers, turning them into frothing lunatics who want to shut down the government and maybe even impeach him. This has already turned into a huge headache for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who really don’t want this to be the public face of the party. In addition, it’s quite possibly wrecked the Republican agenda for the next year, which is obviously just fine with Obama. And it’s likely to turn next year’s primary season into an anti-Hispanic free-for-all that does permanent damage to the GOP brand.

And that’s not even counting the energizing effect this has on Democrats, as well as the benefit they get from keeping a promise to Hispanics and earning their loyalty for the next few election cycles.

There may be a price to pay for this, but Drum doesn’t think so:

If you think that maybe, just maybe, Republicans were willing to work with Obama to pass a few constructive items, then there’s a price. Those items might well be dead in the water. If you don’t believe that, the price is zero. I’m more or less in that camp. And you know what? Even the stuff that might have been passable – trade authority, the Keystone XL pipeline, a few tweaks to Obamacare – I’m either opposed to or only slightly in favor of in the first place. If they don’t happen, very few Democrats are going to shed any real tears.

That leaves only presidential appointments, and there might be a downside there if you think that initially Republicans were prepared to be halfway reasonable about confirming Obama’s judges and agency heads. I kinda doubt that, but I guess you never know. This might be a genuine downside to unleashing the tea party beast.

Here’s the final assessment:

The whole thing is politically pretty brilliant. It unifies Democrats; wrecks the Republican agenda in Congress; cements the loyalty of Hispanics; and presents the American public with a year of Republican candidates spitting xenophobic fury during primary season. If you’re President Obama, what’s not to like?

Jonathan Chait sees the same thing:

Substantively, Obama’s executive order gives him less than he hoped to gain with a bipartisan law. But politically, he has ceded no advantage. Indeed, he has gained one. Not only does immigration remain a live issue, it is livelier than ever. The GOP primary will remorselessly drive its candidates rightward and force them to promise to overturn Obama’s reform, and thus to immediately threaten with deportation some 5 million people – none of whom can vote, but nearly all of whom have friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors who can.

The emotional momentum in the Republican Party now falls to its most furious, deranged voices.

It has fallen to them, and it’s the wrong sort of momentum. It’s actually the opposite of momentum. It’s that dangerous aggressiveness you try when the real momentum has shifted, and here it just did. Obama did no more than announce his administrative adjustments, which really don’t solve the major issues with our dysfunctional immigration system, but one little thing can change everything in a game – as it does seem that politics is a game. Perhaps this one is over.

Posted in Political Momentum, Republican Overreaction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Limited Relief for Les Misérables

There were no surprises. There was no executive order – this was not Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or Harry Truman’s executive order desegregating the Armed Forces once and for all – there was just an address from President Obama, not carried on network television, where he explained that he was going to adjust enforcement activities, to concentrate on sending dangerous folks back home to wherever they came from, and getting to everyone else, who really shouldn’t be here, later. That was the outrage that had everyone on the right seething. Obama was taking unilateral action to change immigration policy, changing the law all on his own without Congress – the folks who create and pass all our laws – when he was, of course, making minor adjustments to the enforcement of current immigration law, such as it is. The dispute over what this was – the work of that devious tyrant-slacker from Kenya, to end democracy as we know it here in America, or some necessary administrative steps to begin to rationalize our hopelessly confused immigration-control activities, because Congress can’t seem to pass anything about anything at all these days – will continue.

The dispute is politically useful. Republicans will whip up outrage over this bully would-be dictator that the American people foolishly elected two times, who uses our government to give stuff to people who deserve only contempt. There are votes there. Democrats get to whip up outrage over this ultimate do-nothing Congress that only says no, to everything, with no ideas of its own, and wants to stick it to the poor and the unemployed and minorities and gays, and to greedy American workers who want too much and are ruining American businesses, and now wants to stick it to these hard-working good folks without papers, because Hispanics make them uncomfortable. There are votes there too – lots of them. There’s no reason each side wouldn’t think of this as a big deal.

That’s a stretch, but maybe not:

President Obama invited as many as 5 million immigrants and international visitors Thursday to openly live and work in the U.S., a controversial, unilateral demonstration of his power that signaled a new phase of activism for the remainder of his presidency.

Without a vote from Congress, Obama set in motion a government program that, starting next year, will begin to evaluate applicants and enroll those eligible to protect them from deportation.

The majority of those affected under the executive action, about 4.1 million, could be eligible for a program that will invite parents of either U.S. citizens or long-term permanent residents to apply for a work permit and three years of protection from deportation. Applicants will have to prove they have been in the country at least five years.

This is a select group of people – fewer than half of the eleven million people living and working here without legal permission to do so – but it’s still a lot of people, and a big change. Is that outrageous? There’s an answer to that:

Wearing a solemn dark suit and repeatedly pointing his finger, Obama challenged lawmakers who doubt his authority to act.

“To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill,” he said.

In the meantime, there’s this:

Short of any legislation, the president is also ordering an expansion of a program that defers deportation of people who arrived in the U.S. as children before June 2007. By opening the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to people who immigrated as recently as 2010 and removing a cap on the age of the applicant, the directive will make roughly 300,000 more people eligible.

Obama will make other changes affecting another 600,000 people, in part by expanding and adding visas for entrepreneurs and recent graduates in science and technology.

But don’t get too excited:

In arguing that the executive action is within the bounds of the law and Constitution, its architects noted that it is temporary and revocable. It relies largely on the concept of discretion as it is exercised every day by prosecutors.

One senior Obama administration official insisted repeatedly Thursday, “It is not a pathway to citizenship.”

Congress has to decide if it wants to create that pathway. Obama can’t do that. That’s not his business, and thus this is about existing law:

The major changes will come as directives from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to his agency, not as an executive order from Obama, policy advisors to the president said. That’s in keeping with earlier actions Obama has taken on immigration.

In addition to Obama’s other changes, a new memorandum from Johnson will alter his agency’s priorities for deportation. Immigration officers will be instructed not to deport people who were convicted before 2014 of low-level immigration violations.

The priorities for deportation will be revamped to fast-track removal of suspected terrorists and people convicted of gang crimes or other serious felonies.

The second level of priority for removal will be of people with “significant” misdemeanors, multiple misdemeanors or immigration violations committed after Jan. 1, 2014.

A third level of priority will be for people who failed to abide by a removal order given after Jan. 1 and those who left the U.S. and re-entered illegally after that date.

This is about it, a matter of deciding what to do first, because it’s important to do, and then moving on down the list to less important matters, even if they are important too. It’s no more than resource allocation, and common sense:

“I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty,” Obama said. “Well, it’s not. Amnesty is the immigration system we have today – millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.”

“Mass amnesty would be unfair,” he said. “Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability – a common-sense, middle-ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”

It’s hard to see what the fuss was about, and here’s a bit of Andrew Sullivan’s assessment:

Did he make the case that a mass deferral of deportations was the only option for him? Not so effectively. His strongest point was simply the phrase: “pass a bill.” Saying he is doing this as a temporary measure, that it will be superseded as soon as a law reaches his desk, gives him a stronger position than some suppose. There is more than one actor in our system. The president and the Senate have done their part; the House has resolutely refused to do its – by failing even to take a vote on the matter. Why, many will ask, can’t the Congress come up with a compromise that would forestall and overrule this maneuver? What prevents the Republicans from acting in return to forestall this?

The question is obvious, and that was obviously planned out carefully – make the Republicans look like sour old men, bitter in their impotency. It was almost sexual. The young and dynamic and viral guy will at least get something done, and instead of being sour, he will do what they only wished they could do. At least that’s what Sullivan saw as he watched:

His early backing of even more spending on the border, his initial citing of the need for the undocumented to “get right with the law” by coming out of the shadows to pay back taxes, among other responsibilities, was a way to disarm conservative critics. It almost certainly won’t. But it remains a fact that the speech – in classic Obama style – blended conservative stringency with liberal empathy in equal parts.

That’s hard to pull off, but Obama is comfortable in what Sullivan calls the moderate middle:

Obama’s position on immigration – as on healthcare – has always been that. It’s utterly in line with his predecessor and with the Reagan era when many conservatives were eager for maximal immigration. His political isolation now is a function, first and foremost, of unrelenting Republican opposition and obstructionism. From time to time, then, it is more than good to see him openly challenge the box others want to put him in, to reassert that he has long been the reasonable figure on many of these debates, and to remind us that we have a president whose substantive proposals should, in any sane polity, be the basis for a way forward, for a compromise.

Compromise is, unfortunately, not possible these days:

This act of presidential doggedness, after so long a wait, may well inflame the divisions further. I still have doubts about the wisdom of this strategy. But I see why this president refuses to give in, to cast his future to fate, to disappoint again a constituency he has pledged to in the past, and why he is re-stating his right as president to be a prime actor rather than a passive observer in the last two years of his term. That’s who many of us voted for. And we do not believe that the election of a Republican Senate in 2014 makes his presidency moot…

The branches are designed to clash and to jostle over public policy. And the Congress has one thing it can do now that it has for so long refused to do. It can act. And it should.

And it won’t, because they’re angry, or know they’re supposed to be angry, or know that being angry is critical to their political survival, and now they’re even angrier because Obama has dared them to do what they have taken pride in not doing for six years, to pass some actual legislation. Given the rifts in their party maybe they can’t do that any longer – Ted Cruz wants one thing, shutting everything down to get Obama to stop doing whatever he’s done, and John Boehner wants another, a legacy of some sort of meaningful legislation. The situation may be hopeless, which makes them even angrier.

Obama wants something else. Peter Beinart argues here that Obama “decided once again to trigger the hatred of defenders of the status quo because, I suspect, he knows American history well enough to know that real moral progress doesn’t happen any other way.” He’s not like them:

Yes, Obama is a pragmatist. Yes, he is professorial. Yes, he wants to be liked by his ideological opponents and by the powers that be. But he also knows that were he in his twenties today – a young man of color with a foreign parent and a foreign-sounding name – he might be among those activists challenging the vicious injustice of America’s immigration system. When Obama talked about “the courage of students who, except for the circumstances of their birth, are as American as Malia or Sasha; students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in a country they love,” he wasn’t only comparing them to his daughters. He was comparing them to himself.

For progressives, this was always the real promise of Barack Obama. It was the promise that a black man with a Muslim name who had worked in Chicago’s ghettos – a man who had tasted what it means to a stranger in America – would bring that memory with him when he entered the White House. It’s a promise he fulfilled tonight.

How are they supposed to deal with that?

Ramesh Ponnuru isn’t that kind:

I imagine that most left-wingers will rally behind the president’s immigration policy, especially since it appears to be a minority position. But some of them will be complaining that the president didn’t go far enough. And we should take a moment to appreciate that they have a point. The moralizing language Obama used, which essentially cast attempts to enforce the immigration laws as acts of indecency, are hard to square with the limits that he set.

These were, after all, no more than administrative adjustments, and Dara Lind wonder if they can change anything:

In order for the program to be effective when it officially launches (which is expected to be in spring of 2015), people are going to have to apply. And that could be tricky. After all, these are people who’ve been living in the shadows for years – and have learned that any interaction with government officials could lead to their deportation.

The good news is that the administration and community groups have done something of a test run on the new program – via the DACA program in 2012. The push to get unauthorized immigrants to apply for DACA has created an existing infrastructure that can now be built on for the new, expanded relief programs. But in order to build on that, they’re going to need more money and more lawyers. And the government agency running the program, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, doesn’t have much money to spend on outreach.

This may not work as intended, but Byron York says it’s all political anyway:

Obama’s action is not about winning broad support now. It’s a long-term effort to increase the number of Hispanic voters, who chose Obama over Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent in 2012. If that support can be cast in cement, and the number of Hispanic voters increased even beyond current demographic trends – well, that would be very good news for the future health of the Obama coalition.

That’s cynical, but Jamelle Bouie argues that now it is not Obama who determines that:

At most, the president’s immigration order might strengthen the short-term bonds among Latinos, Asians, and the Democratic Party. More significant, I think, is the Republican reaction. If the GOP reacts to the immigration order with unhinged hysteria and anti-immigrant animus … it could further estrange itself from these groups. And that, more than anything, could shift the long-term shape of our politics.

Marc Ambinder sees what is coming:

You think you’ve heard the last of talk radio hosts bloviating about Ebola-carrying migrants sneaking across the southern border? It’s about to get much worse, and much more toxic. By singling out certain classes of undocumented immigrants, Obama puts a bullseye on the backs of those who do not qualify for documented status. Add the idea that the president is acting like a dictator and — Kaboom! The act of granting amnesty becomes even more associated with one political party.

And Paul Suderman argues here that real immigration reform just got a whole lot harder:

Unprecedented, unpopular, large-scale, unilateral policy changes are nearly certain to produce a backlash – against the president, against his party, and against the ideas at the heart of the policy change itself.

To me, this is the most significant risk of Obama’s plan – that it will create a backlash, not only amongst congressional Republicans, but within the public at large, a backlash that makes it more difficult to achieve a stable, legal, and politically viable system of expanded and simplified immigration, one that is not dependent on a sympathetic executive or enforcement discretion, but that is codified in law and agreed upon by enough of the country’s residents and legislators.

That may never happen no matter what Obama does, or who decides to oppose what he does. Eric Posner, that pesky professor at the University of Chicago Law School, sees that the real problem here is structural:

America has a huge and insatiable hunger for cheap labor – workers to mind the kids, trim the hedges, pick strawberries, and slaughter chickens. But the United States also has numerous laws that make labor expensive. These laws impose minimum wages and maximum hours, give workers the right to unionize, and protect them from unsafe conditions. They also provide welfare to those who don’t work, and many people prefer no job to a menial job. The result is that few American workers will do the really cheap labor that so many households, factories, and farms demand.

Foreigners, however, will. In Mexico, 40 million people earn less than $2,000 a year. They can migrate to the United States and earn 10 or 15 times that amount even if they work off the books. True, they cannot form unions or complain if the workplace is unsafe, but life is still better than back home. The laws that matter are the laws of supply and demand, as a result of which 11 million people reside illegally in the United States.

Many people who feel threatened by legal immigration have been able to live with this system of illegal labor. Because undocumented immigrants are denied social services, Americans don’t pay taxes to support them. Because they do menial jobs, they don’t undercut the wages of most American workers. Because they can’t vote, they can’t get these rules changed through political action.

Looking at it that way, we don’t have a “broken” immigration system at all. We have one that evolved organically that satisfies everyone, more or less. Obama is messing with a good thing, but Posner does concede that it is rather unstable:

The people who come to work here for cheap wages often settle permanently and become integrated in communities that include American citizens. They intermarry or they arrive as an American’s parent, sibling, or child. The natural sort of sympathy toward the laboring poor that animated many of the protective laws for Americans has led to political pressure to extend the laws to undocumented immigrants as well. People feel uneasy that a large group of second-class citizens resides on our soil – hence the constant drumbeat from many quarters for a pathway to citizenship.

But to give undocumented immigrants citizenship is to acknowledge that they are entitled to it, and that the “illegal immigration system” is unjust. The current system violates deeply ingrained American principles, which hold that everyone should receive equal protection of the law. That is why the obvious solution to illegal immigration – a lawful guest-worker system – is opposed by nearly everyone, but especially liberals, who see it as institutionalizing a caste system. Indeed, countries that use formal guest-worker systems – like the Persian Gulf countries – are routinely accused of exploiting and abusing migrant workers, of maintaining a caste system or even a system of de facto slavery, of violating human rights law, even though those workers benefit massively from wages much higher than they could earn at home.

That’s the problem here:

The contradiction between ideological opposition to guest workers and the huge demand for cheap foreign labor is the key to the present controversy. To avoid the appearance of a legally recognized caste system while allowing one to exist in reality, Congress has given nearly full legal rights to legal immigrants and passed tough laws to keep everyone else out – while appropriating far too little money to enforce them. This throws to the executive the task of deciding whom to enforce the laws against. Because Congress appropriates only enough money to deport 400,000 people per year out of 11 million, the president by necessity must pick and choose whom to deport. It’s no surprise that for decades every president has deported mainly criminals while leaving most everyone else alone.

Obama, then, is just doing what he can to maintain the status quo, like others before him, and this big deal announcement was nothing much:

The president’s discretion to enforce the immigration laws has always been the cornerstone of a de facto guest-worker (or, if you want, caste) system from which most Americans have greatly benefited. That’s why Republicans’ claim that the president is shredding the Constitution sounds so odd to people knowledgeable about immigration law. He’s just doing what countless Congresses have wanted him to do, and have effectively forced him to do, so that Congress itself could avoid charges that it has created a two-tier system of citizenship where the bottom tier is allowed to stay in this country and work, but is not allowed to vote, to benefit from welfare programs, to travel freely, or to enjoy the full protection of workplace laws. Of course, you might say that the whole illegal immigration system, with its two-tier system of rights, violates the Constitution or at least constitutional values, but the fault for that lies with Congress, not with the president.

That would mean nothing will change:

Obama’s action will not fix the problem of illegal immigration; nor would congressional action that created a legal pathway to citizenship. The great irony is that as undocumented aliens gain rights, they will no longer need to, or even be able to, supply menial work at a low wage. Illegal immigration will rise again, just as it did after the last path-to-citizenship-law in 1986. America’s hunger for cheap labor can’t be legislated away.

Is that cynical, or is that just the way things are? It may be both. Obama outraged the Republicans and everyone on the right, and did something vaguely heroic that will cheer Democrats and everyone on the left, but what did he really do? Well, he did make life easier for millions of families that won’t be torn apart now, which is humane and decent and comes at little cost, but there are those who think that those families deserve to be torn apart, as a matter of law – they deserve our contempt. That dispute, between common decency and firm and unambiguous law, will go on forever. There will be another Victor Hugo writing another Les Misérables, and then another and then another, but the underlying problem, as Posner states it, won’t go away. That hunger for cheap labor is the problem here. That makes doing the right thing nearly impossible. Obama did what he could. It will have to do. Now we’ll fight about it for a year or two.

Posted in Immigration Reform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Day Arrives

They told him not to do it, and then they told him again not to do it, and again and again, but like a dimwitted and confused teenager who sneers and defies his kindly and wise parents, he’s going to do it:

President Obama said in a video that he will lay out his proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration system Thursday and will travel to Las Vegas on the heels of that announcement to rally support for his initiative on Friday.

“Tomorrow night I’m going to be announcing here from the White House some steps I can take to start fixing our broken immigration system,” Obama said in a video posted on Facebook Wednesday afternoon.

So the day has arrived. He’s going to take the law into his own hands and grant total amnesty to fourteen millions folks who are here illegally, and give them each a new car and tickets to Disneyland, and free healthcare, or he’s not. His aims seem to be more modest:

“Everybody agrees that our immigration system is broken. Unfortunately Washington has allowed the problem to fester for too long,” Obama said. “So what I’m going to be laying out is the things I can do with my lawful authority as president to make the system work better even as I continue to work with Congress and encourage them to get a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that can solve the entire problem.”

He’s going to adjust enforcement activities, to concentrate on sending dangerous folks back home to wherever they came from, and getting to everyone else later? The “everyone else” in this case may total only five million folks, and he’ll get to them later? That’s it? That’s not much, and none of these folks will be eligible to sign up for Obamacare either. He has deported more people-here-without-proper-papers than any other president in history – two million and counting – so he’s hardly an open-borders guy. He seems to be acting like a careful and rather boring administrator, explaining a shift in resource allocations to a bored staff in a conference room. There’s nothing very startling here:

In a blow to activists advocating on behalf of young immigrant families, there will be no guaranteed protections for the parents of so-called “Dreamers” – children protected by Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – nor for immigrant agricultural workers, said the Democrat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

What we’ll get is no more than tinkering around the edges, and the Republicans should see that as a good thing, as one of their own advocacy groups suddenly realized:

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, wrote in an e-mail that even as Obama acted on his own to break the stalemate on the issue, Republicans would still have a chance to legislate.

“While executive action is not ideal, it accomplishes four things: Stabilizes our workforce, prioritizes law enforcement, protects families and puts congressional Republicans in the driver’s seat going into 2015,” Noorani wrote. “They have an incredible opportunity to get credit for fixing America’s immigration system.”

This group used to talk about closing down the border and little else. They changed their tune. They sense that what Obama is doing is nothing much at all, leaving the field wide open for Republicans to be the heroes here, eventually. The unspoken assumption, however, is that the Republicans want to do something about the “broken” immigration system. That may be a stretch. Republicans thrive when things are broken and they can point fingers. Who needs Republicans when thing are going well? And there’s the matter of modern conservative philosophy. When things are going well, that means government works – it can do good stuff – and that just can’t be. Ronald Reagan said the ten most dangerous words in the English language are “Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” – or maybe Jesus said that. It doesn’t matter which. That’s a given. Why would they fix the immigration system? The business community – large corporations and the national Chamber of Commerce – want immigration reform, because they want cheap labor with no legal hassles, and they do pay the campaign bills for every Republican, but maybe they can be put off again. This could be tricky.

It’s not tricky for this guy:

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn warns there could be not only a political firestorm but acts of civil disobedience and even violence in reaction to President Obama’s executive order on immigration Thursday.

“The country’s going to go nuts, because they’re going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president, and it’s going to be a very serious situation,” Coburn said on Capital Download. “You’re going to see – hopefully not – but you could see instances of anarchy. … You could see violence.”

The implication is that massive waves of violence might be justified in this case, because the president is acting like “an autocratic leader who is going to disregard what the Constitution says and make law anyway” – and rising up against that is right and natural, or something or other. This is, of course, tantamount to giving permission for certain folks – the Rush Limbaugh crowd and those who think Ted Nugent is the finest constitutional scholar living today – to go out and pillage and loot or whatever. He says he’d hate for that to happen, but he’d understand if it did. Coburn seems to hope that will happen. Maybe it is time to overthrow the elected government. He could have just said that.

Then there’s Ted Cruz at Politico with Obama Is Not a Monarch – more of the same sort of thing:

To be clear, the dispute over executive amnesty is not between President Obama and Republicans in Congress; it is a dispute between President Obama and the American People. The Democrats suffered historic losses in the midterm elections largely over the prospect of the President’s executive amnesty.

None of the exit polls showed that, but if Cruz wishes to think so, then this follows:

Undeterred, President Obama appears to be going forward. It is lawless. It is unconstitutional. He is defiant and angry at the American people. If he acts by executive diktat, President Obama will not be acting as a president, he will be acting as a monarch.

Cruz did, however, avoid calling Obama an angry and uppity nigger. Obama is King George of course, and Cruz is Thomas Paine, or perhaps Patrick Henry, or George Washington. It’s safer to say that, but an item in the Los Angeles Times looks at another dynamic at play here:

Tea party conservatives have renewed talk of censuring or impeaching the president. But the strong reaction by Republican leaders has less to do with opposition to the nuts and bolts of the president’s immigration policy and more to do with fear and anger that the issue will derail the agenda of the new Republican majority before the next Congress even convenes.

Republican leaders who had hoped to focus on corporate tax reform, fast-track trade pacts, repealing the president’s healthcare law and loosening environmental restrictions on coal are instead being dragged into an immigration skirmish that they’ve tried studiously to avoid for most of the last year.

They really don’t want to deal with this at all. Obama is forcing Republicans to deal with immigration, setting the agenda, which frustrates them:

To many, stark warnings from Boehner and McConnell sound more like pleas to the president to avoid reenergizing the GOP’s conservative wing, whose leaders are already threatening to link the president’s immigration plan to upcoming budget talks.

Another government shutdown is not what McConnell and Boehner had in mind when their party won control of Congress this month.

In fact, McConnell said flatly a day after the election that another shutdown would not happen. But calls by firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to use “all procedural means necessary” during Congress’ lame-duck session to block the White House’s immigration plans have left leaders scrambling to tame their rebellious ranks.

Republican leaders are increasingly concerned that if Obama follows through, the anti-immigrant fervor in their party will rise to an unappealing crescendo and the rank-and-file’s desire to confront the president will overtake other party priorities.

This does make it hard to advance legislation that lowers taxes on the rich and gets rid of all environmental regulation and confirm trade pacts that let corporations move work offshore, freeing them from whining American workers who want their high wages and stupid benefits. It is a distraction:

“We’re urging Republicans, whatever happens on immigration, let’s also stay focused,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which is aligned with the billionaire Koch brothers and spent millions in the midterm campaign supporting Republican candidates for Congress. The group has not taken a position on immigration.

“We just want to make sure this economic agenda is not lost, because there’s an enormous opportunity next year with Republicans who control the Senate and the House to … pass significant legislation,” Phillips said.

Note that this group that the Koch brothers set up has not taken a position on immigration. They don’t want to touch that. They don’t want the political party that they now own to go down that rabbit hole. Alice found Wonderland down the rabbit hole, but she also found the Mad Hatter, and the Cheshire Cat. That cat, like Obama, just grinned and grinned until only the grin was left. You don’t want to go there.

Ed Kilgore thinks they may not be able to resist that:

As the engines of the Right-Wing Noise Machine rev themselves up into a high-pitched, chattering whine in anticipation of the Great Tyrannical Amnesty Declaration of 2014, it becomes harder and harder to believe that Republicans are going to resist the temptation to shut down the federal government again. Some of them, of course, are already there. And a lot more are back to the “partial shutdown” position that Ted Cruz tried to sell during his “Defund Obamacare” run-up to the 2013 shutdown: the fantasy that Republicans can get Obama blamed for a shutdown if they keep saying they want everything other than the contaminated areas of government to continue.

When they shut down the government last time they did quickly make sure the air-traffic controllers got back to work right as it started – important people flying to important places to do important things were getting pissed off – and they made sure the Social Security checks went out. Their base is full of angry old folks on Social Security. Shut the government down, but don’t tick off your people. That was what they thought would work, even if it didn’t, but now, looking back, Republicans also don’t think voters will remember what happens this time, because they didn’t last time.

Paul Waldman explains that thinking:

Approval of the Republican Party took a nose dive in the wake of the shutdown, and though it is still viewed negatively by most Americans, that didn’t stop Republicans from having a great election day. Because as at least some within the GOP understand, you can create chaos and crisis, and large numbers of voters will conclude not that Republicans are bent on creating chaos and crisis but that “Washington” is broken, and the way to fix it is to elect the people who aren’t in the president’s party. That in this case that happened to be precisely the people who broke it escaped many voters. The fact that the electorate skewed so heavily Republican in an election with the lowest turnout since 1942 also helped them escape the consequences of their behavior.


There’s a very fine line between realizing you’ve escaped the consequences of your behavior and concluding there are no consequences. And once you arrive at that conclusion, you’re the alcoholic who has a drink or two, doesn’t pass out, and decides to celebrate the drinking problem being gone by ordering up a whole bottle.


We may be seeing the front end of an evolution in their thinking, not just from “Shutting down the government would be bad for us” to “We could shut down the government and be just fine,” but from there all the way to “Shutting down the government would be genius.” Just you wait.

They will go down that rabbit hole, and they will meet that grinning Cheshire Cat. That would be the grinning cat with a plan. Slate’s John Dickerson explains:

Republicans will react with anger and fury, but the president believes the move might spur Republicans to act on immigration if for no other reason than to overwrite his executive orders. Some of the president’s aides and supporters believe it will lead to a Republican overreaction like the government shutdown of last year. That, in turn, would weaken the GOP, helping Democrats politically and possibly even offering the opportunity for better negotiating terms with Republicans on a variety of issues, when they become anxious to show that they can govern ahead of 2016.

That’s the theory anyway.

Ah, but there’s more to it:

More important, this president has picked a course for the final stage of his presidency that is a total reversal from its original heading. The promises of Obama 2008 have been dead for a long time. The idea of progress through engagement and a higher-minded approach to the zero-sum politics of the Bush years started dying not long after Obama had his first contact with a determined Republican opposition. By the time the president won re-election, his team was operating under the premise that it was useless to negotiate with Republicans in the House. They concluded GOP leaders couldn’t deliver on the minimum requirements necessary for governing. What the president is doing now on immigration is going one step further. He’s embracing a strategy that posits that progress doesn’t come through cajoling, speechmaking, or refusing to budge, as he did during the debt ceiling debate during the shutdown; instead, you have to punch them in the nose. It’s an approach that is bigger and more confrontational than the minimum wage workarounds or Environmental Protection Agency regulations. He once promised to use his pen to make progress; now he’s wielding it as a weapon.

You have to punch them in the nose? Maybe there is no other choice now:

This, say the president’s aides, is the only way to proceed when faced with Republicans who refuse to act on immigration reform. The GOP has had years to make progress and has failed to do so. Marco Rubio, the Republican senator who pushed a comprehensive solution, now feels like a remote participant in the conversation and House Speaker John Boehner wouldn’t raise a bipartisan Senate bill in the House for fear of having an election-year crackup over policy details. That dynamic hasn’t changed, so the president is moving forward.

He could give them more time, another two years perhaps, to come up with something on their own, but there are other matters to consider:

Why not give Republicans a handful of months to come up with their immigration plan and then, if they don’t meet the deadline, go ahead with the executive orders? There’s no real rush (or Obama would have ordered the overhaul before the election), and the election has actually changed the dynamic. (If the election didn’t change things, then why did Obama wait until it passed to act?) An argument can be made for delay on purely political grounds. It would look “reasonable” to the op-ed writers and pundits, and it would put pressure on Republicans to act – to actually wrestle with the details of the issue – and that would be messy as different GOP factions fought it out over specific legislative language. Chaos in Republican ranks benefits the president because GOP leaders would have to work to avoid appearing that they were unable to govern on an important issue of the day. That might make them partners on a larger immigration deal that could benefit more people and offer a big legacy item for the president, whereas if the president moves unilaterally they’ll never cooperate with the White House on immigration. Any deal with Obama after the executive orders would be seen by the conservative grass roots as a grand capitulation.

The president cannot delay say his aides and allies, because he cannot disappoint his supporters in the Latino community again. There have been too many delays already. Deferring any longer would damage the political unity he’ll hope to draw on in his final two years, and it would hurt Democrats up for re-election in 2016, especially if the president backed down again. That’s why in an interview with Univision, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made his case for the president “going big” by referring to his own political situation. “I think the parents of people I know in Nevada deserve this.”

In short, the argument for moving unilaterally is stronger than the surprisingly strong argument for putting that off, and you can also help people and still screw the Republicans:

Democrats believe that delay will only create calls for more delay and more inaction. By forcing the confrontation now, the president takes immediate action to help immigrant families and still puts political pressure on the GOP. Republican leaders now have to temper their reaction by reining in in their members calling for impeachment or another set of budget confrontations, perhaps even a government shutdown, which could backfire as the last one did. At the moment, the risk of a shutdown looks remote, but the challenge is larger than just avoiding a shutdown. Republicans also have to be smart about how they undo the president’s actions, making it an argument about presidential overreach and not an opportunity for them to be painted as inflexible on the issue.

At least someone learned something:

President Obama’s new, muscular position on immigration is the best evidence of his newfound freedom that has come after his party’s big loss at the polls. He is no longer holding his fire to protect Democrats up for re-election in red states. (Some of his aides believe the restraint not only irritated him but led to the weak outcome.) This will likely be the first of few brawls in the president’s final years in office.

The day has come for that and it starts with an announcement of a few administrative adjustments to existing law, which doesn’t change.

This is not a big deal, but it is to those who long to rise up and rid America of this usurper, but Sam Stein reports this:

At the Mayflower Hotel, lawyers gathered for the annual Federalist Society national convention –one of the highest-profile conservative legal events of the year. The day’s big draws were the opening speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and an evening event featuring Justice Samuel Alito.

Before the crowd changed into black tie attire for Alito’s appearance, however, a smaller panel convened under the title, “Federalism: The President’s Duty to Take Care That the Law be Faithfully Executed.” Panelists discussed major confrontations between the branches of government, from enforcement of marijuana law and the implementation of health care to Obama’s impending executive order on immigration.

The talk was, well, lawyerly. Every conclusion seemed to have a qualification attached to it. But, by and large, the panelists agreed the president has wide legal latitude to prioritize and shape deportation laws, as regrettable for Republicans or the long-term balance of powers that may be.

The lawyers know:

“I think the roots of prosecutorial discretion are extremely deep,” said Christopher Schroeder, the Charles S. Murphy Professor of Law and Public Policy Studies at Duke Law School. “The practice is long and robust. The case law is robust. Let me put it this way: Suppose some president came to me and asked me in the office of legal counsel, ‘Is it okay for me to go ahead and defer the deportation proceedings of childhood arrival?’ Under the present state of the law, I think that would be an easy opinion to write. Yes.”

And the Cheshire Cat grins.

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Dysfunction Junction Forever

Dysfunction Junction is that Seattle bluegrass band – not to be confused with Dysfunkshun Junkshun – the disco-funk party band down in Austin, in Texas, available for weddings and such. Coming up with a good name for your band is hard. Everything from The Strawberry Alarm Clock to Counting Crows has been tried. Down the street here, at the Whisky and the Viper Room and the Roxy, there’s always a new and random and absurd set of band names on the marquees each night. They come and they go. Maybe it’s best to go with two rhyming words that everyone’s been rubbing together since the swing band era in the forties, if there’s a way to avoid trademark/copyright issues. It’s just that these two words, put together, should be in public domain by now. Everyone has probably put those two words together at one time or another, in a lame attempt to be clever, and now the current editors of Foreign Affairs have decided to call their latest issue Dysfunction Junction:

Francis Fukuyama kicks off our special package with a magisterial analysis of U.S. political decay, showing how today’s problems stem from the basic design of the country’s political institutions and have been exacerbated by increasingly hostile polarization. His conclusion is depressing: absent some sort of major external shock, the decay is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Yascha Mounk looks at the rise of populism in the United States and Europe. Far from being the product of a temporary economic crisis, he finds, the Tea Party and its European cousins have emerged from the enduring inability of democratic governments to satisfy their citizens’ needs. Leaders must learn to co-opt and channel popular passions, addressing political outsiders’ legitimate grievances while bypassing their simplistic solutions.

And then there is the domestic scene:

The American right is in particular turmoil, as it tries to reverse a national losing streak while also accommodating the ideological demands of an increasingly angry and extreme base. David Frum argues that the Republican Party’s central problem is its increasing dependence on the old and the rich and that a revival of its fortunes will have to wait for the emergence of a truly multiethnic, socially tolerant conservatism. And Byron York assesses the work of the party’s would-be reformers and stresses the importance of appealing to the middle class.

As for the left, while its divisions may look less dramatic, differences lurk there as well. Michael Kazin juxtaposes the left’s string of victories in the cultural sphere, where progressives have expanded individual rights for society’s oppressed, with its equally notable string of defeats on the economic front, as the left has tried to create a more egalitarian society motivated by a spirit of solidarity. And Michael Tomasky assesses the potential for a revolt against the centrist views of Democratic elites by the party’s progressive masses, led by a champion such as Senator Elizabeth Warren.

All of that is behind an impressive paywall, so you’ll have to spend a considerable amount to read all that, or buy the dead-tree hardcopy magazine itself, but that may not be necessary. The summaries will do. The structure of representative government we set up in the late eighteen century, with its elaborate system of check and balances, which we have continually refined since then, seems to have stopped working, torn apart by its own internal contractions – or perhaps it never did account for human nature. Actual people always mess up theoretically perfect systems. Every robot in every science fiction movie would tell you that, and has. That is what HAL told Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. People want what they want, even if it will ruin everything. Others will, however, try to stop them, for their own idiosyncratic reasons, and can stop them – and then nothing gets done either way. Things stop working. We’re there now.

That just happened again:

Senate Democrats, by a single vote, stopped legislation that would have approved construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, one of the most fractious and expensive battles of the Obama presidency.

The vote represented a victory for the environmental movement, but the fight had taken on larger dimensions as a proxy war between Republicans, who argued that the project was vital for job creation, and President Obama, who had delayed a decision on building it.

Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, who is facing a runoff election Dec. 6, had pleaded with her colleagues throughout the day to support the pipeline, leading to a rare suspense-filled roll call in the Senate. But she was ultimately rebuffed and fell short by one. The bill was defeated with 59 votes in favor and 41 against, and Ms. Landrieu needing 60 votes to proceed.

The bill didn’t proceed to simple majority vote – she couldn’t break the de facto filibuster – and this was curious, because this wasn’t about the pipeline:

The battle over approving the pipeline, which will carry petroleum from the oil sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, ultimately became a proxy war for the Louisiana Senate seat, where Ms. Landrieu and Representative Bill Cassidy, a Republican, are locked in fight for votes in their oil-rich state ahead of a Dec. 6 runoff election.

Ms. Landrieu – who, if re-elected, will lose her coveted position as chairwoman of the Energy Committee when Republicans take the Senate majority next year – spent the past few days working furiously to round up Democratic support for her bill, which she had hoped would be her last, best chance of holding on to her Senate seat.

She had a special need. Her party seems to have decided she was going to lose that runoff election anyway, so they voted for the environment:

Both Mr. Cassidy and Ms. Landrieu were eager to take credit for supporting the Keystone bill back home, where their state’s economy is heavily dependent on oil-industry jobs. Speaking on the floor, Republicans sought to cast the legislation as “Congressman Cassidy’s Keystone jobs bill,” while Democrats described it as Ms. Landrieu’s brainchild.

Even Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, who did not support the bill and said Keystone XL stood for “extra lethal,” was sure to note that credit for the legislation belonged to Ms. Landrieu.

“Senator Landrieu is the only reason that we are debating this today,” Ms. Boxer said. “Set the politics aside. Let the record be clear forever: This debate would not be before this body were it not for Senator Landrieu’s insistence.”

That’s pretty nasty, and Landrieu had cover too. Obama was going to veto the thing, making her support of this ugly pipeline moot, after the fact, if it came to that. It didn’t come to that. Nothing got done. Next year’s thoroughly Republican Congress can revisit this, unless oil prices continue to plummet, making extracting oil from tar sands in Canada, an extremely expensive process, just not worth doing at all. That’s a market-based solution the Republicans never saw coming. The Republicans said building that pipeline would create nearly fifty thousand jobs – but the number of net jobs that would be created, when all was said and done, would be fifty full-time jobs – so they dodged a bullet there. They could have argued that no one gives a shit about the environment or about global warming or any of that stuff, but many do. They couldn’t go there. This is over for now.

A few minutes later it was this:

A wall of Republican opposition brought down a controversial National Security Agency reform bill Tuesday night, leaving the future of the package in doubt ahead of a Republican takeover next year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy’s legislation that would end the NSA’s bulk data collection narrowly fell short of the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, 58-42, a major defeat for privacy advocates, civil libertarians and a White House that supports the bill. The filibuster of the proposal prevents it from even coming to the floor for debate.

The one filibuster was the mirror of the other:

Opposition was led by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and colleague Sen. Rand Paul, who both voted down the legislation, though for different reasons. McConnell, like many Republicans, voted it down because he believed the reforms went too far, while Paul voted against the bill because it did not go far enough.

The issues were clear:

Other heavy hitters joined the view that NSA proposal would make it difficult to combat terrorism, a crowd that included Marco Rubio of Florida, another potential White House aspirant.

“They cannot cite a single example of this program being abused,” Rubio said of the bill’s supporters. “Not one. We are dealing with a theoretical threat.”

Advocates of the bill made impassioned pleas to advance it past a filibuster, the rare proposal that drew the support of both GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California.

“It would help address the problem of the American government spying on its citizens without cause,” said Lee, a co-sponsor of the bill, on the Senate floor before the vote. “What opponents of this bill fail to appreciate is that most Americans are deeply, deeply, concerned about the collection of their personal information.”

Polls do show that, but the “we’ll do anything because the terrorists are going to kill us all today” crowd needed to show that they were ruthless and strong, because they think that’s where the key voters are these days. Key voters matter far more than general public opinion. General public opinion doesn’t vote. Specific people do – and this will come up again next year too, when the same thing will happen. Once again, the merits of the legislation won’t matter much. This is about political positioning. One of these folks will be running for president the next year.

In both case there was not a majority vote. Each side seems fine with structural anomaly – the sixty-vote wall that much be breached to get to that majority vote, the wall that seems to assure that nothing gets done. Kevin Drum puts it this way:

Both bills had majority support. Both failed thanks to filibusters. It’s good to see that life is back to normal in Washington DC.

Then there is the issue of President Obama changing immigration rules via executive action, where the latest USA Today poll shows the Democrats want Obama to act now, and Republicans want him to wait for them to come up with legislation, finally, and independents are split down the middle. There is, however, this curious crosstab:

On one more issue, Americans are in agreement: The elections two weeks ago aren’t going to make Washington work better. Just 15% predict Obama and the new Congress, now under solid Republican control, will work together more closely to reach bipartisan compromises.

Kevin Drum puts that this way:

The American public is pretty politically astute, I’d say. They may not be up to speed on all the details of policymaking, but when it comes to the big picture, they know a lot more than the Beltway pundits seem to.

They may be more astute than David Brooks – everyone’s favorite reasonable and pleasant “nice” conservative (he never shouts) – who offers this:

The White House has not privately engaged with Congress on the legislative areas where there could be agreement. Instead, the president has been super-aggressive on the one topic sure to blow everything up: the executive order to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws. …

I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do substantively, but the process of how it’s being done is ruinous. Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We’ll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).

This move would also make it much less likely that we’ll have immigration reform anytime soon. White House officials are often misinformed on what Republicans are privately discussing, so they don’t understand that many in the Republican Party are trying to find a way to get immigration reform out of the way. This executive order would destroy their efforts.

Kevin Drum, again, is certainly not impressed:

In 2006, Republicans lost. President Bush’s first action was to order a surge in Iraq, which infuriated Democrats. In 2008, Republicans lost. They responded by adopting a policy of obstructing every possible action by Democrats – including even a modest stimulus package during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In 2012, Republicans lost. They responded with brinkmanship over the fiscal cliff, a flat refusal to fill open judicial positions on the DC circuit court, and an endless bellowing rage over Benghazi and other manufactured outrages.

By comparison, all Obama is doing is something he’s been saying he’ll do for nearly a year. It’s not even all that big a deal if you step back for a moment and think about it. Several million undocumented immigrants are going to be told they’re officially free of the threat of deportation for a temporary period, as opposed to the status quo, in which they’re effectively free of the threat of deportation. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a big deal for the immigrants affected. But in terms of actual impact on immigration policy writ large? It doesn’t really do much.

And yet, this single action is apparently enough to – rightly! – put Republicans into warfare mode. If that’s true, I can only conclude that literally anything Republicans don’t like is enough to justify going into warfare mode. That’s certainly been how it’s worked in the past, anyway.

That’s been a root cause of our dysfunctional government for six years now, but it doesn’t have to be that way:

Look: Republicans can decide for themselves if they want to go to war. If they want to pass yet another bill repealing Obamacare, that’s fine. If they want to sue the president over the EPA or immigration, that’s fine. If they want to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, that’s fine. I assume Obama will win some of these battles and lose others, but in any case will treat these as the ordinary cut and thrust of politics instead of declaring them calculated insults that have infuriated him so much he can’t possibly ever engage with the GOP again. In other words, he’ll act like an adult, not a five-year-old.

This is what we expect from presidents. Why don’t we expect the same from congressional Republicans? Why are they allowed to stamp and scream whenever something doesn’t go their way, and everyone just shrugs? Once and for all, why don’t we demand that they act like adults too?

That’s a good question. Perhaps we expect dysfunction now, as how things are and will always be from now on. We shrug, but something else bothers Drum too:

I didn’t bother with Brooks’ claim that Republicans are “privately” discussing real, honest-to-goodness immigration reform, but color me skeptical. If they want to engage on this subject, they need to discuss it with Obama, not between themselves. They’ve had plenty of time for that, and have never been willing to buck the Tea Party to get something done.

Ed Kilgore addresses that:

Give me a break. The Senate acted on comprehensive immigration reform seventeen months ago. Since then the principal Republican cosponsor of that bill, Marco Rubio, has practically toured the country in sackcloth and ashes, recanting his heresy. The House has done nothing, other than a hasty symbolic “response” to the summer border refugee crisis that wound up being shaped by Steve King and Michele Bachmann. The GOP’s center of gravity on immigration has steadily shifted to “deport ‘em all.” So what will further delay mean – a big debate over how much to spend on police dogs and box cars?

Even that, of course, might be appropriate, since the current law is “deport ‘em all,” without the resources to “deport ‘em all” – which forces the executive branch to exercise prosecutorial discretion on whom to pursue, and that’s why we are where we are today.

Kilgore will cut these guys no slack at all:

If you’re going to harshly criticize Obama for taking a more definitive position on prosecutorial guidelines, you need to identify some alternative strategy. Is it more police dogs and box cars? Is it random prosecution, hoping the fear of arbitrary state power makes life difficult enough for the undocumented that they “self-deport?”

“Wait!” won’t cut it anymore.

Jamelle Bouie, at Slate, is a bit more detailed about this:

One of the great ironies of the Obama administration is that – on several occasions – it was pushed to the left by Republicans. The Affordable Care Act didn’t have to have the Medicaid expansion – a huge liberal reform of a major government program. It didn’t have to have the generous subsidies, the “Cadillac tax” on expensive, high-income insurance plans, or the broad coverage for birth control and other contraceptives. At any point during the health care debate – which lasted from the spring of 2009 to the beginning of 2010 – Republicans could have bargained with Democrats to remove or weaken those provisions for their support on the final bill. And the White House would have gone along. The president wanted bipartisan support, and with his post-partisan faith still strong, he would have sacrificed a lot to get it.

They chose dysfunction instead:

Instead, they fought a war, attacking reform, denying their participation – and in the process – marking the right of the Democratic Party as the conservative boundary of discussion over the bill. That’s why, after President Obama finally signed the Affordable Care Act into law, former Bush speechwriter David Frum called the occasion “the most crushing legislative defeat” for Republicans since the 1960s. “Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views,” asked Frum, “To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.”

They could have had half a loaf, which is always better than none, but they decided to it was far more noble and principled to go hungry, and perhaps that did impress their base, which got nothing at all. The resultant white-hot anger of their base has been politically useful to the Republicans. Only David Frum seemed unhappy with nothing, but there are those who, if they can’t have exactly what they want, will accept nothing at all – you know, four-year-olds.

Bouie sets out where that led:

This dynamic – Republicans losing their shot for more conservative policy at the cost of some cooperation – played out with entitlement reform (a small concession on taxes would have won a “grand bargain” on Medicare and Social Security), and environmental policy (instead of a market-based “cap and trade,” Republicans will get new regulations and a more bureaucratic approach). And now it is about to play out with immigration, too.

They don’t know what they’re missing:

According to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute, this plan – which might build on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – could reach more than five million people, depending on the exact criteria the administration applies. Compared to the Senate immigration bill passed last year – or the guidelines crafted by House Republicans the same year – the White House plan is less far reaching. At the same time, it lacks the border security and enforcement mechanisms of the bipartisan and Republican proposals. Under the president’s plan, millions of immigrants will receive legal protection without any of the requirements of the bipartisan Senate bill, from thousands of new border and customs agents, to billions of dollars in new enforcement funding, to strict triggers for when unauthorized immigrants are even eligible to apply for legal status and citizenship. Liberals will have made an important policy advance – and one likely to stick, judging by similar executive orders by previous presidents- without making substantive concessions to conservative priorities.

I wouldn’t call it a defeat on the same scale of the Affordable Care Act, but it is a defeat.

Of course it is, but they see compromise, for some of what they want, as defeat. Go figure:

Given the high priority for immigration reform, there’s no question Democrats could have worked with House Republicans to craft a counterpart to the Senate bill. And indeed, there’s a good chance they would have made even more concessions if it guaranteed a vote. As with health care, Republicans could have gotten more conservative policy than they otherwise will if they had backed down from their relentless opposition.

There’s no good response to that:

Now, the obvious reply to this is that the president’s executive action is lawless – that it’s outside of the bounds of presidential power. And if that’s true, then it’s hard to pin the outcome on Republicans; unlike health care – where Democrats really could act regardless of what Republicans did – immigration legislation is only possible with GOP cooperation. In normal circumstances, the president backs down when he loses a legislative fight. If, instead, he responds with an illegal executive order, then it’s unfair to point the finger at the opposition and say, you did this.

But, GOP assertions aside, there’s no evidence the president’s plan is illegal.

Yes, that is a pesky problem. Now, on this and everything else, we have reached that dysfunction junction. It would be nice if that were only a bluegrass band, from Seattle of all places. It isn’t. America is broken, maybe for good this time.

Posted in Immigration Reform, Keystone XL Pipeline, NSA Spying, Republican Obstructionism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment