Tag Archives: Republican Party

A better way of covering the Indiana discrimination story

It's all about the cake.

It’s all about the cake.

In a frustratingly inconclusive Washington Post column today on Indiana’s religious-freedom law, Kathleen Parker writes, “Without diving into the weeds, the law aims to protect religious freedom against government action that abridges deeply held convictions.”

Trouble is, the weeds are exactly where we need to be. The public perception is that the law would discriminate against the LGBT community. Yet Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who supports the legislation (though he now wants to add clarifying language), has insisted that it would not discriminate. For instance, Tony Cook and Tim Evans quote Pence in today’s Indianapolis Star as saying that the law “does not give anyone a license to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.”

For someone trying to follow this story, the problem appears to be two-fold. First, the law itself is vaguely worded and could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Second, the media for the most part have covered this as a political story, more interested in traditional narratives about winners and losers than in what effect the law might actually have on people.

Bits of background emerge here and there. For instance, we’re regularly told that the Indiana law is similar (though not identical) to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, and that 19 other states already have such laws on the books. We know that Arkansas is on the brink of joining those states. For the most part, though, coverage is framed in terms of pure politics.

My frustration spilled over this morning in reading the latest from The New York Times and The Washington Post. I don’t mean to single them out. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about this in recent days, and today’s coverage crystallized my sense that the public is not being as well-served by journalism as it could be.

The Times story, by Campbell Robertson and Richard Pérez-Peña, and the Post story, by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, are mainly about politics. You learn a lot from both of them. The Post strikes me as particularly insightful, as Rucker and Costa observe in their lede that the controversy over the Indiana law “has drawn the entire field of Republican presidential contenders into the divisive culture wars, which badly damaged Mitt Romney in 2012 and which GOP leaders eagerly sought to avoid in the 2016 race.” The Post also notes that Pence may harbor presidential ambitions of his own.

But if you want to know what, exactly, the law would do, you’re out of luck, unless you want to latch onto Gov. Pence’s assurances that it won’t do much of anything (then why pass it?) or the warnings of civil-rights groups that it would legalize discrimination against sexual minorities.

Here is how I’d define what we need to know.

Does the Indiana law merely (for instance) prohibit the government from requiring a member of the clergy to perform same-sex marriages? No; the wording of the law makes it pretty clear that the door is open to actions that would go well beyond that. In any case, the clergy is already protected by the First Amendment.

So where does the law draw the line? What it comes down to, as Kathleen Parker and others have pointed out, is cake. Would the law allow a bakery to refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple? And here is where the coverage has tended to devolve into a one-side-says-this/the-other-side-says-that morass.

Maybe the Indiana law is just too vague to provide a clear answer to that question. Nevertheless, I think German Lopez of Vox deserves a lot of credit for trying. In a lengthy article published on Tuesday, Lopez pulls together all known facts — the background, the threatened boycotts — and points out that, historically, laws such as Indiana’s have not been used to engage in the sort of discrimination LGBT advocates are worried about. (My favorite example involves the Amish, who were exempted from a law requiring them to put fluorescent lights on their buggies.)

Nevertheless, Lopez notes that supporters of the Indiana law have celebrated the idea that “Christian bakers, florists and photographers” would not have to “participate in a homosexual marriage!” So the intent to discriminate is clearly there. Countering that, though, is University of Illinois law professor Robin Wilson, who tells Lopez that it is unlikely the courts would uphold such discrimination. And yet, as Lopez observes, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision raises the specter that Wilson’s sanguinity might prove unwarranted.

Of course, Vox’s self-styled mission is to explain. But I would argue that even a daily update in a developing story like this ought to explain as clearly as possible what the law is about, or at least link to such an explanation.

In his book “Informing the News,” Thomas E. Patterson writes that journalists need to add a third tool — knowledge — to their traditional tools of direct observation and interviews. In the case of Indiana, telling us what the religious-freedom law would actually do is at least as important as telling us what people are saying about it.

Note: If you find any particularly good explainers about the Indiana law, let me know and I’ll post links to them here. And here we go:

• This article, by Stephanie Wang of the Indianapolis Star, is quite good. (Thanks to Mike Stucka.)

• Here’s an explainer in Q&A form that’s in today’s Times. (Thanks to Kris Olson.)

• In the comments, Steve Stein flags this article by Kristine Guerra and Tim Evans of the Indy Star that explains the differences between federal and state law.

On Twitter, I got recommendations for several worthwhile pieces — one from the liberal website ThinkProgress and two from more conservative sources, The Weekly Standard and Commonweal:

This commentary was also published at WGBHNews.org.

Photo (cc) by D&K and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Why the midterms could be disastrous for the planet

PresidentAlfredPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

Monday’s broadcast of “The CBS Evening News” began on a portentous note. “Good evening,” said anchor Scott Pelley. “Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, higher temperatures. If you think someone’s trying to tell us something, someone just did.”

Pelley’s introduction was followed by a report on the latest study by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to The Washington Post, the panel found that global warming is now “irreversible,” and that drastic steps must be taken to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to prevent worst-case scenarios from becoming a reality.

No matter. Before the night was over, Americans had turned their backs on the planet. By handing over the Senate to Mitch McConnell and his merry band of Republicans, voters all but ensured that no progress will be made on climate change during the next two years — and that even some tenuous steps in the right direction may be reversed.

At Vox, Brad Plumer noted that Tuesday’s Alfred E. Neuman moment came about despite more than $80 million in campaign spending by environmentalists and despite natural disasters that may be related to climate change, such as the unusual destructiveness of Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing drought in the West.

“Which means that if anything’s going to change, it may have to happen outside Congress,” Plumer wrote, adding that “the 2014 election made clear that Washington, at least, isn’t going to be much help on climate policy anytime soon.”

Not much help? That would be the optimistic view. Because as Elana Schor pointed out in Politico, Republicans and conservative Democrats may now have a veto-proof majority to move ahead on the Keystone XL pipeline. The project, which would bring vast quantities of dirty oil from Canada into the United States, would amount to “the equivalent of adding six million new cars to the road,” the environmentalist Bill McKibben said in an interview with “Democracy Now” earlier this year.

The problem is that though Americans say they care about climate change, they don’t care about it very much.

In September, the Pew Research Center reported the results of a poll that showed 61 percent of the public believed there is solid evidence that the earth has been warming, and that 48 percent rated climate change as “a major threat” — well behind the Islamic State and nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

Moreover, whereas Democrats registered 79 percent on “solid evidence” and 68 percent on “major threat,” Republicans scored just 37 percent and 25 percent. The Republican political leadership, anxious to keep its restive right-wing base happy, has every incentive to keep pursuing its science-bashing obstructionist path.

One possible solution to this mess was proposed in the New York Times a few days ago by David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan of Duke University: get rid of the midterm elections altogether by extending the terms of representatives from two to four years and by changing senatorial terms from six years to four or eight.

As Schanzer and Sullivan noted, presidential election years are marked by high turnout across a broad spectrum of the electorate. By contrast, the midterms attract a smaller, whiter, older, more conservative cohort that is bent on revenge for the setbacks it suffered two years earlier. (According to NBC News, turnout among those 60 and older Tuesday was 37 percent, compared to just 12 percent for those under 30.)

“The realities of the modern election cycle,” they wrote, “are that we spend almost two years selecting a president with a well-developed agenda, but then, less than two years after the inauguration, the midterm election cripples that same president’s ability to advance that agenda.”

There is, of course, virtually no chance of such common-sense reform happening as long as one of our two major parties benefits from it not happening.

The consequences of that inaction can be devastating. According to The Washington Post’s account of this week’s U.N. report, “some impacts of climate change will ‘continue for centuries,’ even if all emissions from fossil-fuel burning were to stop.”

Sadly, we just kicked the can down the road for at least another two years.

Correction: This commentary originally said that CBS News’ report on climate change was aired on Tuesday rather than Monday.

 

New York Times sanitizes Bachmann on immigration

Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann

The New York Times today sanitizes U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, in a story on immigration.

Times reporter Jonathan Weisman writes that the Republican Party is starting to move toward its Tea Party base on immigration issues and quotes Bachmann as saying, “This was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had in my eight years in Congress. We were able to achieve unity across the conference in what is likely to be the most consequential issue of this time: immigration.”

But though Weisman quotes incendiary remarks by Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, about a “war on whites,” he gives Bachmann a pass for her recent comments that President Obama wants to bring more undocumented children into the United States so that the government can carry out medical experiments on them. Here’s what Bachmann said on a radio show called “WallBuilders Today,” as transcribed by the liberal group People for the American Way:

Now President Obama is trying to bring all of those foreign nationals, those illegal aliens to the country and he has said that he will put them in the foster care system. That’s more kids that you can see how — we can’t imagine doing this, but if you have a hospital and they are going to get millions of dollars in government grants if they can conduct medical research on somebody, and a ward of the state can’t say “no,” a little kid can’t say “no” if they’re a ward of the state; so here you could have this institution getting millions of dollars from our government to do medical experimentation and a kid can’t even say “no.” It’s sick.

I can’t imagine why Weisman and his editors decided it was all right to quote Bachmann on immigration issues without bringing up this piece of demented and very recent rhetoric.

A loose, funny and partisan SOTU. But will it matter?

President Obama delivering his State of the Union address.

President Obama delivering the 2014 State of the Union address Tuesday night.

This commentary was published earlier at WGBH News.

President Obama’s fifth State of the Union speech wasn’t his best, but it may have been his most entertaining. Freed from the illusion that Republicans will ever work with him, the president last night was upbeat, funny and slashingly partisan.

He paid tribute to House Speaker John Boehner as “the son of a barkeep,” forcing a pained smile and upraised thumb from his longtime nemesis. He rambled about the glories of Obamacare so that Republicans could be seen sitting on their hands for as long as possible. And, in my favorite moment, he pulled a rhetorical switcheroo that put Republicans in the position of having to applaud gay people if they also wanted to be seen paying tribute to our Olympic athletes.

“We believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” Obama said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” USA! USA!

It was an interesting gambit — a way for a president whose poll numbers have fallen to show dominance over a group of people who are even less popular than he is. According to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, 49 percent of the public hold a favorable view of Obama and 50 percent hold an unfavorable view — down from the 60-37 spread he enjoyed about this time a year ago. But an ABC/Post poll also found recently that 71 percent of Americans disapprove of how congressional Republicans are doing their jobs, compared to just 25 percent who approve. (Congressional Democrats do only slightly better, but they were not Obama’s target Tuesday night.)

The pundit class, both liberal and conservative, took note of Obama’s loose mood.

“Gone from the speech was what I’d heard in pretty much every other Obama State of the Union, pressing bipartisan cooperation, finding common ground, pushing points of agreement,” wrote Josh Marshall, editor of the left-leaning Talking Points Memo. “There wasn’t a contrary note. It was more just ignoring the whole thing, as though the President were saying, ‘Okay, guys, I get it. You won’t do anything. Okay. Fine.’ Basically, let’s not play that charade anymore.”

Observing the same phenomenon through the other end of the ideological prism was Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review, who put it this way: “If this is the imperial presidency, it wasn’t a very imperial speech. It was small in every way. It wasn’t eloquent and didn’t even seem to try. Instead it was conversational, including a joke about calling your mother.” Added Ron Fournier of the nonpartisan National Journal: “Is that all there is? … It was a good speech about a modest agenda delivered by a diminished leader.”

On the more substantive elements of the State of the Union, media reaction focused mainly on the president’s determination to work around congressional gridlock through the use of executive orders to raise the wages of employees who work for federal contractors and to combat climate change, among other things. On this front there is some confusion. Is it no big deal given that Obama has actually used such orders far less frequently than his predecessors, as Dan Amira of New York magazine has noted? Or has he exceeded his authority by taking bold actions such as rewriting parts of the Affordable Care Act without the necessary congressional approval, as conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer argue?

Leave it to Wall Street Journal columnist Ted Cruz — wait, that Ted Cruz? — to offer a distinctly nuance-free perspective. “Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency,” he wrote, “none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.” Expect to hear a lot of that in the days and weeks ahead.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the State of the Union was Obama’s near-silence on gun violence, a year after he tried and failed to push Congress into acting following the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. “Obama devoted a whole 67 words to gun control, offering no specifics in a speech that was stuffed with specifics on other issues,” complained Roger Simon of Politico.

And without question, the most memorable and emotional part of the evening came toward the end, when the president acknowledged Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, recovering from grievous injuries suffered in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment, as described by Ernesto Londoño of The Washington Post. We’ll remember that long after Obama’s words are forgotten.

The immediate reaction to the speech was favorable. According to a CNN/ORC snap poll, 76 percent had either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” reaction to the State of the Union, and the president got a 17 percent bump — from 52 percent before the speech to 69 percent after — in terms of whether his policies would move the country in the right direction.

But such findings tend to be ephemeral at best. If we know one thing about the Obama era, it’s that the president can give a good speech and that it rarely makes a difference in his ability to move congressional Republicans.

“A man who entered the White House yearning for sweeping achievements finds himself five years later threatening an end run around gridlock on Capitol Hill by using executive orders, essentially acknowledging both the limits of his ability to push an agenda through Congress and the likelihood that future accomplishments would be narrow,” wrote Carl Hulse of The New York Times.

On Twitter, John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, put it much more succinctly:

Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

How do you say ‘conservative’ in South Carolinese?

NPR’s Ailsa Chang reported earlier this week on the re-election struggles of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is being challenged by right-wingers who think he’s not conservative enough. I nearly drove off the road when I heard this nugget:

Leading the pack of four Republican challengers is Lee Bright, a state senator who’s pushed legislation to ban abortion funding for victims of rape and incest. He also wants to make enforcement of the Affordable Care Act punishable by one year in jail.

“I would put my conservative record against any legislator in the country. I don’t think there’s anybody more conservative than I am,” Bright says.

Fortunately, Chang found that Graham probably doesn’t have much to worry about. Which means that even South Carolina Republicans have their limits.

Update: In other news from the far right, the Arizona Republican Party has censured Sen. John McCain for being too liberal.

Republicans find another group to alienate: the disabled

Bob Dole in 2008. Photo (cc) by Kevin Rofidal and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Bob Dole in 2008. Photo (cc) by Kevin Rofidal and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

It’s hard to imagine a more disgraceful moment for the modern Republican Party.

The Senate was voting on whether to accept a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled — a treaty that was reportedly modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the great accomplishments of President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.

Former Republican senator Bob Dole, 89, sitting in a wheelchair, was on hand to lend his support. Dole, of course, was disabled long before old age rendered him a wheelchair-user — a consequence of his heroism in World War II.

And Republican senators voted against the treaty, 38-8. Not a single Democrat voted against it. Sixty-one senators were in favor — five short of the two-thirds needed.

We in Massachusetts, at least, can hold our heads high: Sen. Scott Brown was among the hardy band of Republicans who voted in favor. And Democratic Sen. John Kerry delivered what the New York Times called “his most impassioned speech all year” in urging his fellow senators to approve the treaty.

After losing the election in part because they alienated African-Americans, Latinos, gay men and lesbians, you would think that Republicans wouldn’t be looking for another group to infuriate.

You would be wrong.

Olympia Snowe, a motorcycle rally and me

One of the more fun things I got to do during my years at the Boston Phoenix was drive to Augusta one weekend in 1999 to meet Maine’s senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, at a motorcycle rally. I started thinking about that story following Snowe’s announcement that she won’t seek re-election.

My article, by the way, appeared in the debut issue of the Portland Phoenix, which is still going strong more than a dozen years later. When you visit Portland (one of my favorite cities), you should be sure to pick up a copy.

Snowe’s career harks back to a time when there was such a thing as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Nonideological partisan politics had its shortcomings, but it did tend to minimize the gridlock and enmity that characterizes the national dialogue today.

Snowe’s announcement will also reduce the ranks of moderate New England Republican senators to just two: Collins and Scott Brown of Massachusetts. And that’s assuming Brown wins re-election this November against his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren.