Assessing Toxicity

It’s a free country. You can express any political position you’d like, within certain limits. You cannot call for the violent overthrow of the government, or maybe you can. When Sharron Angle was running against Harry Reid out in Nevada a few years ago she said this:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every twenty years.

I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

It sounded like she was calling for the assassination of Harry Reid, but she was actually just calling for armed insurrection if Congress keeps doing stupid stuff – she seems to have had Obamacare in mind. It was pretty simple. In a representative democracy, if a majority of the duly elected representatives of the people vote for what those who put them in office pretty much told them to vote for, and what the majority passes into law is, in your opinion, wrong, then you have those Second Amendment remedies – get your gun and change the government. You do that if you believe in democracy – or maybe if you believe that what you see as freedom is far more important than majority-rule democracy. That was a pretty consistent theme in all the Tea Party talk. They wanted to take their country back from the wrong-headed majority, who were foolish enough to elect Obama in the first place, and she wasn’t alone:

The former spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party sent out an email that questioned whether armed rebellion was justified over the Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare.

Matthew Davis, an attorney in Lansing, sent the email moments after the Supreme Court ruling to numerous news media outlets and limited government activists with the headline: “Is Armed Rebellion Now Justified?”

Davis added his own personal note saying, “… here’s my response. And yes, I mean it.”

No one arrested Angle or Davis for advocating the violent overthrow of the government. It was just talk – but it was close to the line. It’s just that they weren’t organizing armed cells or building giant fertilizer bombs like Timothy McVeigh did. What they said was protected free speech, even if a little hyperbolic. Glenn Beck talked about FEMA death camps and Obama coming for your guns, but he sort of apologized when that fellow in Pittsburgh took him seriously and shot and killed those three cops – Beck said he wasn’t responsible for crazy people, really. Sorry about that, but people should be able to say what they want. It’s a free country.

Beck no longer works at Fox News and Sharron Angle lost the election in Nevada, convincingly, but that doesn’t mean toxic political speech isn’t popular. If you can express any political position you’d like you do get the Tenth Amendment crowd, saying the states are pretty much sovereign nations in a sort of loose trade federation called the United States. They say the states don’t have to follow federal law if they don’t want to – it’s an option they might choose or might not. That notion was behind the recent effort in North Carolina to establish a state religion – Christian, or maybe Baptist, or maybe Southern Baptist, and maybe Missouri Synod only. That’s their business. That’s the view of the folks at the Tenth Amendment Center – the First Amendment, forbidding any official government religion, only applies to the federal government. The parallel is the Sovereign Citizens Movement – the folks who say they are not subject to any statutes or proceedings at the federal, state or municipal levels, who do not recognize our currency and say they are free of any legal constraints – and that most forms of taxation are totally illegitimate of course. Everyone is their own single sovereign nation, of one, or they’re a slave – you either believe in freedom or you don’t. That’s pretty toxic and the FBI does classify “sovereign citizens” as domestic terror threats, but a good number of them only become sovereign citizens when they want to get out of a speeding ticket, even if it never works. Traffic Court isn’t the place for a discussion of hypothetical political theory.

There’s also the Aryan Brotherhood – the white supremacist prison gang and organized crime syndicate. Their crimes, mostly murder and extortion, aren’t protected by law, but their political views, about the superiority of the white race and its destiny to rule the world, are protected free speech. You can believe that if you want, and you can talk about it too, even if it is rather toxic. Wagner has been forgiven – Israeli orchestras are starting to play even more of his stuff even in Israel now – but no one is forgiving Hitler. Talk of Aryan superiority is considered incredibly dangerous, even if permissible.

That’s what makes this interesting:

News reports suggest a white supremacist group called the Aryan Brotherhood may be connected to the murders of Texas District Attorney Mike McClelland, his wife Cynthia Woodward and Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse.

But when Fox News asked [Texas Governor Rick] Perry on Wednesday about the murders, he speculated that Mexican drug cartels and border security problems were behind the killings…

Of course! He said this:

We know the drug cartels are very, very active in our country now… I would suggest to you, it is really at the heart of this issue. You secure the border, then it makes it harder for these individuals to have access into this country as well as it addresses this whole issue that’s hanging out on immigration.

No one was buying it. After his flaming out in the Republican debates – generally talking through his hat when he wasn’t forgetting the whole point of what he was saying – everyone assumes he just makes it up as he goes along, and Perry finally had to admit that he was pretty much doing that again:

Under fire for his foundation-less ramblings, Perry walked back the comments the following day at a press conference.

“It is very premature to be making any statements about who may or may not have been involved with this,” Perry said Thursday.

Perry did, however, try to save some face by adding: “There was a report by the Texas Department of Public Safety that said the greatest threat to Texas safety was the drug cartels.”

White supremacists, Mexicans – whatever – and thus we have Digby (Heather Parton) with this:

I still can’t get over the fact that at one time a whole bunch of Very Serious People were promoting this idiot for president – after we’d endured the debacle that was George W. Bush.

I will once again make this proposal: California should agree to never nominate another one of its favorite sons for president if Texas will do the same. Seriously, Californians and Texans need to do this for the sake of the country.

That’s amusing, but then all of politics is a matter of assessing toxicity. It used to be fine to attack those lazy shiftless black folks, and then it wasn’t. It used to be fine to attack those icky gay folks, grinning and sneering as you did, and now it’s not. Attacking the useless poor who have no sense of personal responsibility, the moochers, the takers not the makers, used to be fine – then, with the economy in ruins, that just wasn’t cool anymore. Mitt Romney discovered what he thought was benign was now toxic. Reagan’s talk of welfare queens driving Cadillacs won’t fly now, nor will talk of the noble captains of industry and the financial wizards who will save America. America now knows better. The ground keeps shifting.

That was Rick Perry’s problem here. The Aryan Brotherhood may be connected to those murders of the district attorneys, or not, but Perry made the assumption he could shift to something equally toxic, Mexican drug cartels and border security problems, and Obama not keeping the damned wetbacks out, although he didn’t use that term. He just thought he could score some easy political points.

He was playing it safe – but what wasn’t toxic before is now. The quick shift to blaming everything on the Mexicans, and on that foolish Obama who thinks everyone deserves respect, doesn’t work anymore. They asked him what the hell he was talking about, and he was forced to admit he was just talking smack, and it’s clear he didn’t quite understand that his party had just reassessed what’s toxic at the moment:

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) issued an apology Thursday after using the term “wetbacks” to describe Latino workers on his family farm.

“During a sit down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio this week, I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California. I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect,” Young said in a statement to the Alaska Dispatch.

The whole Republican Party came down on him like a ton of bricks as they say, or so Young must have felt. The party has lost the Hispanic vote. All the talk of making things so miserable for anyone even vaguely Hispanic that those here illegally would, in despair, self-deport, and all the talk of building a double-walled giant electrified fence on the border, one that would fry any man, women or child who touched it to a crisp, played well in the primaries, but that screwed them in the general election. They’d already lost the black vote with the birther talk, and the women’s vote with the talk about legitimate rape and sluts who use birth control, and the youth vote and the gay vote, and the vote of those who like science and fact, so losing the Hispanic vote – the vote of the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the country – was intolerable. Young made an understandable mistake – he’s a seventy-nine-year-old congressman from another era – but Rick Perry didn’t get the memo. Blaming everything on the burrito folks is now toxic. The party is now in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, and in favor of a path to citizenship, as long as it’s a hard path and it’s not called amnesty.

It’s just not that easy to untangle what’s toxic now, as Marco Rubio is discovering:

Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) recent concerns about the pace of immigration reform are causing heartburn for immigration activists, who warned the senator on Friday that he’ll only damage the odds of a bill passing and his own political standing if he keeps calling for a slower process.

“Most of us think he’s been courageous in engaging the debate and are very hopeful he’ll stay in it,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said on a conference call with reporters. “On the other hand, he seems to keep building himself exit ramps.”

Rubio echoed immigration skeptics like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) last weekend by calling for a slow and deliberate pace that included additional hearings on new legislation and an open amendment process. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) chair of the Judiciary Committee that will examine the bill, sounded more than a little annoyed in his response, writing that “swift” action was his preference.

Marco Rubio has a problem. Immigration reform is toxic within his party – at least with the angry old white folks at the core – and opposing immigration reform is just as toxic everywhere else. Rubio is slow-walking reform until he figures out how to reconcile that, but maybe he can’t:

Activists are worried that Rubio is giving himself a process-based excuse to abandon immigration reform if it becomes politically difficult. At best, he could give opponents of reform more time to organize efforts to kill a bill entirely.

“He cannot walk away during this crucial moment that we are in for immigration reform,” said Evelyn Rivera, a Florida-based coordinator for United We Dream, an advocacy group for young undocumented immigrants.

She added that she would be meeting in Miami with dozens of activist this weekend to determine “how we will hold [Rubio] accountable” in the future.

For Rubio, the message from activists was that he’s in way too deep to back away from immigration reform without wrecking his political standing.

He’s trapped, but the Washington Post’s in-house conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, is telling him to relax:

Certainly not everyone is on board on the right. Cranky dead-tree magazines and their Web incarnations still churn out objections to any realistic immigration-reform measure. There are some talk show hosts who rail about letting 11 to 12 million people remain here. And there are some pols who think they can go right on this issue and carve out a niche with primary voters. But if one looks at the Gang of Eight, GOP leadership in the House (where a reform bill is also in the works), prominent conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and a number of GOP governors, the “new normal” for mainstream conservatives seems to have shifted from border security only to legalization with border security triggers.

There’s an out, and Rubio should realize he has friends:

A diverse group of conservatives including anti-tax maven Grover Norquist and the American Action Forum, as well as the Hispanic Leadership Network (a group former Florida governor Jeb Bush supported,) are working on generating public support for the Gang of Eight and getting ready to launch a pro-immigration reform ad campaign.

Pro-immigration reform conservatives are no longer willing to cede that the conservative position on immigration is exclusion and “self-deportation.” Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, told me the anti-reform advocates’ claim to be supporting “law and order” is misguided. He said, “Conservatives believe in the rule of law as a foundation for a free society in which individual effort generates personal merit and social advance. Clinging to a broken set of immigration laws for sole exclusionary purposes harms the advance of those principles, and hurts the country. It is not a conservative goal.” As an economist, he argues that support for free markets and a thriving economy necessitates immigration reform. He said, “We need a legal immigration system that reflects the needs of our economy. We have conservative members of Congress working to ensure that the bipartisan legislation does just that.”

She’s saying it’s time for Rubio to forget the angry white Tea Party core of the party:

Those who thought Republicans could never abandon opposition to immigration reform are, I would suggest, victims of the right-wing echo chamber and too enamored of sloganeering (“rule of law”). If they had been critically analyzing our current system, which Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) characterized as “de facto amnesty,” they might have seen how fragile is the ostensible premise for their anti-immigration reform position. Moreover, immigration reform opponents did not fully appreciate the degree to which a presidential loss (two in a row, actually) can have as a liberating effect on a party, generating receptivity to innovation.

The Republicans should grab this opportunity. They can grab it away from the Democrats, unless they sense there’s no point even if they do. That’s what Josh Marshall sees:

For months, the key fact for understanding the immigration debate has been that if it doesn’t happen it’s a catastrophe for the GOP – so Republican demands or threats to shut the whole thing down have all the political force of someone putting a gun to their own head and threatening to shoot. Despite the occasional claims from the right that the President wants a campaign issue in 2014 rather than a bill, I have not spoken to anyone in a position to act or know who thinks this is true. The Democrats and the White House really, really want a bill passed. The truth is they get the political bump regardless.

But it’s only in the last couple weeks that I’ve heard Republicans doubting the premise that they need immigration reform to pass. And it’s mainly come in the form of something like this. “They’ll vote for the Democrats by big margins regardless. So blocking reform or letting it die is no big loss, especially when pushing it will turn off our most loyal voters.”

Others point to Republican Senators from states with sizable Hispanic populations who weren’t hurt very badly when immigration reform went down during the Bush years.

Ah, blocking reform or letting it die is toxic, but it’s not fatal. It’s just a little poisonous. What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, but Marshall isn’t buying that argument:

It’s highly likely that Hispanics will continue supporting Democrats by substantial majorities whether or not immigration reform passes. You don’t get that much credit signing on to something that you pretty clearly weren’t particularly for. Just ask all those Democrats who voted for the Iraq war in 2002. But that’s not really the question. There’s a big difference between years of Democrats getting 60/40 margins and years of getting 80/20 margins….

The risks of blocking reform are profound. But not a few Republicans are starting to doubt that. And if that doubt grows as the 2012 election recedes into memory that will cast a big shadow over our politics going forward.

Assessing toxicity is tricky. Get it wrong and you’re dead. And a functional memory helps.

This is a problem, but Mike Murphy, a fairly mainstream Republican strategist, sees another way out of this trap if the party really wants to take back the White House in future elections:

The GOP’s greatest challenge is the fact that Democrats begin each presidential election with a near lock on the Electoral College. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have given their electoral votes to the Democratic presidential nominee in at least five out of the last six elections. These states represent 257 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Under current trends, the GOP nominee has to pull the equivalent of drawing an inside straight in poker to get to the White House.

His answer is to put more blues states in play, particularly where there are a whole lot of white people:

The GOP should make it a priority to win states like Michigan, where Republicans have institutional advantages over Democrats driven by their foothold in the governorships. The nation’s shifting demographics are another reason Michigan should receive more attention from the national GOP.

In the last two presidential elections, President Barack Obama carried minority voters by 60 points. As Latinos become a larger part of the electorate in Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Florida, the pressure for the GOP to expand the playing field in the Midwest becomes greater. So while the GOP must be committed to winning the support of minority voters, the party needs to increase its share of white votes in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

So don’t say anything too toxic, but don’t worry about it all that much. Go for the white states, presumably while they’re still white, but Richard Barry wonders about that:

I’m not sure what Mr. Murphy is talking about. Sure, he’s saying the right things about winning minority support, but how exactly do you increase your share of white votes, as white votes, if not by encouraging them to feel different, more American, more deserving, than minority groups. …

We saw this in 2012. Are we going to see it again?

Yes. Assessing toxicity is tricky. Get it wrong and you’re dead, but at least the Republican Party is not calling itself the Aryan Brotherhood quite yet. That will always be toxic. They just need to be reminded of that now and then.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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