In the USA...How the Mainstream Press Bungled the Single Biggest Story of the 2012 Campaign
Posted: 12/07/2012 1:36 pm
Post-mortems of contemporary election coverage typically include regrets about horserace journalism, he-said-she-said stenography, and the lack of enlightening stories about the issues.
But according to longtime political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, campaign coverage in 2012 was a particularly calamitous failure, almost entirely missing the single biggest story of the race: Namely, the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party, both in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.
Mann and Ornstein are two longtime centrist Washington fixtures who earlier this year dramatically rejected the strictures of false equivalency that bind so much of the capital's media elite and publicly concluded that GOP leaders have become "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."
The 2012 campaign further proved their point, they both said in recent interviews. It also exposed how fabulists and liars can exploit the elite media's fear of being seen as taking sides.
"The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties' agendas and connections to facts and truth," said Mann, who has spent nearly three decades as a congressional scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution.
"I saw some journalists struggling to avoid the trap of balance and I knew they were struggling with it -- and with their editors," said Mann. "But in general, I think overall it was a pretty disappointing performance."
"I can't recall a campaign where I've seen more lying going on -- and it wasn't symmetric," said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who's been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, "but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top."
Lies from Republicans generally and standardbearer Mitt Romney in particular weren't limited to the occasional TV ads, either; the party's most central campaign principles -- that federal spending doesn't create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit -- willfully disregarded the truth.
"It's the great unreported big story of American politics," Ornstein said.
"If voters are going to be able to hold accountable political figures, they've got to know what's going on," Ornstein said. "And if the story that you're telling repeatedly is that they're all to blame -- they're all equally to blame -- then you're really doing a disservice to voters, and not doing what journalism is supposed to do."
Ornstein said the media's failure led him to conclude: "If you want to use a strategy of 'I'm just going to lie all the time', when you have the false equivalence meme adopted by a mainstream press and the other side lies a quarter of the time, you get away with it."
Ornstein and Mann's big coming out took place in late April, when the Washington Post's Outlook section published their essay "Admit it. The Republicans are worse", adapted from their book It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, which went on sale a few days later.
Political journalists had no doubt heard similar arguments many times before, mostly from left wing bloggers. But this time the charge was coming from two of the most consistent purveyors of conventional wisdom in town, bipartisan to a fault.
And they were pretty harsh in their critique of the media. "Our advice to the press: Don't seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views," they wrote in the Post. "Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?"
Initially, at least, Mann and Ornstein weren't completely ignored. "We had really good reporters call us and say: 'You're absolutely right'," Mann said. "They told us they used this as the basis for conversations in the newsroom."
But those conversations went nowhere, Mann said.
"Their editors and producers, who felt they were looking out for the economic wellbeing of their news organizations, were also concerned about their professional standing and vulnerability to charges of partisan bias," Mann said.
So most reporters just kept on with business as usual.
"They're so timid," Mann said.
Some reporters did better than others, Ornstein said, particularly crediting Jackie Calmes of the New York Times and David Rogers of Politico among a few others. "They grew a little bit more straightforward in what they do, and showed you can be a good, diligent unbiased reporter, report the facts, put it in context, and yet show what's really going on," he said.
Most reporters, however -- including many widely admired for their intelligence and aggressive reporting -- simply refused to blame one side more than the other. Mann said he was struck in conversations with journalists by how influenced they were by the heavily funded movement to promote a bipartisan consensus around deficit reduction and austerity. Such a bipartisan consensus doesn't actually exist, Mann pointed out. But if you believe it does, than you can blame both parties for failing to reach it.
"The Peterson world, I think, has given journalists the material to keep doing what they're doing," Mann said of the vast network of think tanks and other influential Washington groups underwritten at least in part by Wall Street billionaire Peter Peterson.
Peterson's vast spending has given rise to an environment of contempt among the Washington elites for anyone who doesn't believe the government is dangerously overextended. And by that reckoning, the Democrats are therefore more out of touch with reality than Republicans, who at least pay the concept ample lip service.
How Fact-Checking Made Things Worse
Ornstein and Mann's views on journalistic failure have not been widely shared by mainstream media critics, who have instead focused on the fact that the press, in its enthusiasm to see the presidential race decided by a nose, ignored solid polling data to the contrary and called it wrong until the very end.
To the extent that the issue of widespread prevarication has come up at all, many media critics identified the rise of fact-checking as the big new trend of the 2012 cycle.
But Mann and Ornstein said that in practice, the fact-checkers may have made things worse rather than better.
"We had these little flurries of fact-checking -- which I found not worthless, but not a substitute for coherent, serious reporting -- and most of the time it just got stuck in the back of a news organization's output and there was no cost to a candidate of ignoring it," Mann said.
And then there was this terrible irony: "Fact checkers almost seemed obliged to show some balance in their fact checking."
"There was some damn good stuff done, and stuff that really did hold Romney to account," Ornstein said. But no fact-checker intent on "appearing to be utterly straightforward, independent, and without an axe to grind, is going to actually do the job of saying that we're going to cover 20 fact checks on one side, to three on the other."
So, Ornstein concluded: "If you looked at where the scales should have been, and where they were, they were weighted. And they weren't weighted for ideological bias. They were weighted to avoid being charged with ideological bias."
It's hard to exaggerate just how popular Mann and Ornstein were with the press before their apostasy. They were quite possibly the two most quotable men in Washington. They were the media cocktail party circuit's most reliable walking talking points.
And now they are virtual pariahs.
"It's awkward. I can no longer be a source in a news story in the Wall Street Journal or the Times or the Post because people now think I've made the case for the Democrats and therefore I'll have to be balanced with a Republican," Mann said.
Neither Mann nor Ornstein have been guests on any of the main Sunday public affairs shows since their book came out. Nor has anyone else on those shows talked about the concerns they raised.
Ornstein is particularly infuriated that none of the supposed reader advocates at major newspapers have raised the issues they brought up. "What the fuck is an ombudsman doing if he's not writing about this?" he asked.
Their phones are still ringing, they say -- but not from inside the Beltway. "We've gotten a tremendous amount of attention, but much of that is due to the Internet and our original piece going viral," Mann said. They were also featured on NPR.
There have been countless requests for speaking engagements. "We're just selling a shitload of books," said Mann. "There've been page-one stories in countries around the world."
Domestically, however, Mann and Ornstein said they refuse to be "balanced" on TV shows by Republicans -- because they are not anti Republican. The reason they wanted the press to expose what was really happening, they said, was to give voters a chance to respond in an appropriate way.
"The argument we're making is that our politics will never really get better until the Republican Party gets back into the game, instead of playing a new one," Mann said. "We want a strong, conservative Republican Party -- but one with some connection with reality."
Their critique came not out of ideology, they said, but out of their background as devoted process junkies and honest analysts, who finally realized that their vision of collegial governance wasn't possible any more, and it was clear why.
Both see the rise of Tea Party influence on the GOP as a major turning point. For Mann, the moment of reckoning came in the summer of 2011. "What flipped me over was the debt ceiling hostage-taking," Mann said. It was clear then that the Republicans would "do or say anything" to hurt Obama, even if it was overtly bad for the country and false to core Republican values.
"That and getting older. What do I give a shit about access," he said.
"The fact is that one of the parties stopped being a conventional conservative party," Mann said. "My own view is that what needed to happen is somehow the public had to take a two-by-four to the Republicans' heads, knock them back to their senses, and allow conservative pragmatic voices to emerge," he said.
Democrats won soundly in 2012 of course, so the two-by-four was administered. But because the media obfuscated what was going on, the message was not entirely clear -- and certainly not to the Republican leadership.
Their Message Going Forward
Mann and Ornstein don't get invited to talk to the leaders of news organizations anymore.
But if they were, again, here is what Mann would say: "First of all, I'd sympathize. I'd say I understand that you have the responsibility to use professional norms of accuracy and fairness and not let your own personal feelings get in the way."
But, he would add: "You all have missed an incredibly important story in our politics that's been developing over a period of time. You'll slip it in here and there, you'll bury it, but you really don't confront it."
Ornstein said his message would be this: "I understand your concerns about advertisers. I understand your concerns about being labeled as biased. But what are you there for? What's the whole notion of a free press for if you're not going to report without fear or favor and you're not going to report what your reporters, after doing their due diligence, see as the truth?
"And if you don't do that, then you can expect I think a growing drumbeat of criticism that you're failing in your fundamental responsibility.
"Your job is to report the truth. And sometimes there are two sides to a story. Sometimes there are ten sides to a story. Sometimes there's only one.
"Somebody has got to make an assessment of whether the two sides are being equally careless with their facts, or equally deliberate with their lies."
Dan Froomkin is in the process of launching a new accountability journalism project. He is contributing editor of Nieman Reports, and the former senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. He wrote the White House Watch column for the Washington Post website from 2004 to 2009, and was editor of the site from 2000 to 2003. Dan welcomes your email and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
December 9, 2012U.N. Ambassador Questioned on U.S. Role in Congo Violence
By HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON — Almost two decades after the Clinton administration failed to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda, the United States is coming under harsh criticism for not moving forcefully in another African crisis marked by atrocities and brutal killings, this time in Rwanda’s neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
While President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have taken some of the blame, critics of the Obama administration’s Africa policy have focused on the role of Susan E. Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations and a leading contender to succeed Mrs. Clinton, in the administration’s failure to take action against the country they see as a major cause of the Congolese crisis, Rwanda.
Specifically, these critics — who include officials of human rights organizations and United Nations diplomats — say the administration has not put enough pressure on Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, to end his support for the rebel movement whose recent capture of the strategic city of Goma in Congo set off a national crisis in a country that has already lost more than three million people in more than a decade of fighting. Rwanda’s support is seen as vital to the rebel group, known as M23.
Support for Mr. Kagame and the Rwandan government has been a matter of American foreign policy since he led the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front to victory over the incumbent government in July 1994, effectively ending the Rwandan genocide. But according to rights organizations and diplomats at the United Nations, Ms. Rice has been at the forefront of trying to shield the Rwandan government, and Mr. Kagame in particular, from international censure, even as several United Nations reports have laid the blame for the violence in Congo at Mr. Kagame’s door.
A senior administration official said Saturday that Ms. Rice was not freelancing, and that the American policy toward Rwanda and Congo was to work with all the countries in the area for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Aides to Ms. Rice acknowledge that she is close to Mr. Kagame and that Mr. Kagame’s government was her client when she worked at Intellibridge, a strategic analysis firm in Washington. Ms. Rice, who served as the State Department’s top African affairs expert in the Clinton administration, worked at the firm with several other former Clinton administration officials, including David J. Rothkopf, who was an acting under secretary in the Commerce Department; Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton’s national security adviser; and John M. Deutch, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Payton Knopf, a spokesman for Ms. Rice, declined to comment about whether her work with Rwanda at Intellibridge affected her dealings with Rwanda in her present job as the United States ambassador to the United Nations.
Two months ago, at a meeting with her French and British counterparts at the French Mission to the United Nations, according to a Western diplomat with knowledge of the meeting, Ms. Rice objected strongly to a call by the French envoy, Gerard Araud, for explicitly “naming and shaming” Mr. Kagame and the Rwandan government for its support of M23, and to his proposal to consider sanctions to pressure Rwanda to abandon the rebel group.
“Listen Gerard,” she said, according to the diplomat. “This is the D.R.C. If it weren’t the M23 doing this, it would be some other group.” The exchange was reported in Foreign Policy magazine last week.
A few weeks later, Ms. Rice again stepped in to protect Mr. Kagame. After delaying for weeks the publication of a United Nations report denouncing Rwanda’s support for the M23 and opposing any direct references to Rwanda in United Nations statements and resolutions on the crisis, Ms. Rice intervened to water down a Security Council resolution that strongly condemned the M23 for widespread rape, summary executions and recruitment of child soldiers. The resolution expressed “deep concern” about external actors supporting the M23. But Ms. Rice prevailed in preventing the resolution from explicitly naming Rwanda when it was passed on Nov. 20.
Mr. Knopf, the spokesman for Ms. Rice, said the view of the United States was that delicate diplomatic negotiations under way among Rwanda, Congo and Uganda could have been adversely affected if the Security Council resolution explicitly named Rwanda. “Working with our colleagues in the Security Council, the United States helped craft a strong resolution to reinforce the delicate diplomatic effort then getting under way in Kampala,” Mr. Knopf said.
The negotiations subsequently fell apart, and the M23 continued to make gains in eastern Congo. Last week, the M23 withdrew from Goma but left behind agents and remain in range of the city.
Mr. Knopf declined to confirm or deny the account offered by the United Nations diplomat about the conversation between Ms. Rice and the French ambassador. But he said that “Ambassador Rice has frequently and publicly condemned the heinous abuses perpetrated by the M23 in eastern Congo,” adding that the United States was “leading efforts to end the rebellion, including by leveling U.S. and U.N. sanctions against M23 leaders and commanders.”
Ms. Rice’s critics say that is the crux of the problem with the American response to the crisis in Congo: it ignores, for the most part, the role played by Mr. Kagame in backing the M23, and, as it happens, risks repeating the mistakes of the genocide by not erring on the side of aggressive action. “I fear that our collective regret about not stopping the Rwandan genocide, felt by all of us who worked for the Clinton administration, led to policies that overlooked more waves of atrocities in the Congo, which we should equally regret,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who has worked closely with Ms. Rice both in the Clinton administration and after.
“For almost 20 years now, the premise of U.S. policy has been that quiet persuasion is the best way to restrain Rwanda from supporting war criminals in the Congo,” Mr. Malinowski said. “It might have made sense once, but after years of Rwanda doing what the U.S. has urged it not to do, contributing to massive civilian deaths, and ripping up U.N. resolutions that the U.S. sponsored, the time to speak plainly and impose penalties has come.”
When Mrs. Clinton appeared before reporters on Nov. 28 to talk about the M23’s seizure of Goma, she sprinkled her talking points with a demand that the rebel group withdraw, calling the humanitarian impact “devastating,” with 285,000 people forced to flee their homes, health workers abducted and killed, and civil workers under threat of death. But she made no mention of Rwanda’s role backing the rebel group, limiting her inclusion of Rwanda to a mention of negotiations with Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo to try to get a cease-fire.
“The M23 would probably no longer exist today without Rwandan support,” said Jason K. Stearns, author of “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of Congo and the Great War of Africa.” “It stepped in to prevent the movement from collapsing and has been providing critical military support for every major offensive.”
Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, noted that the United States cut a portion of its military financing for Rwanda — around $250,000. But the Rwandan military continues to receive substantial American training, equipment and financial help. In an interview, he said, “There is not an ounce of difference between myself and Ambassador Rice on this issue,” adding that quiet diplomacy was better than publicly calling out Mr. Kagame.
Ms. Rice, who has been at the eye of a political storm over her portrayal of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya, declined to be interviewed for this article. But in recent days, she seems to have tried to publicly distance herself from the M23 — although still not from Mr. Kagame. On Dec. 3, she posted on her Facebook page: “The U.S. condemns in the strongest terms horrific M23 violence. Any and all external support has to stop,” in a reference to action in the Senate.
Her posting drew immediate responses. “Condemn the rape but don’t name the rapist?” one of them said. “What kind of Justice is that?”
December 9, 2012113th Congress: This Time, It’s Out With the New
By JEREMY W. PETERS
WASHINGTON — As a fund-raiser for a local college scholarship program, Rick Nolan understands how much it costs to send children in northern Minnesota to technical school. Having run a sawmill, he can speak like a logger.
“I know what you can get for 1,000 board feet of lumber,” he said recently. “I know what you have to pay for stumpage.”
But there is another piece of Mr. Nolan’s biography that until recently few voters wanted to hear about, and that few politicians would dare own up to: the three terms he spent in Congress 30 years ago.
In fact, his success in Washington became one of his most marketable traits when he decided to make another run for office this year. “It’s time to get something done,” Mr. Nolan declared in one of his ads.
He beat his opponent, a former airline pilot who was elected in the Tea Party upheaval of 2010, by nine points. And when he takes his seat as one of 84 new members of the House of Representatives (49 of them Democrats, 35 Republicans) in January, Mr. Nolan, Democrat of Minnesota, will be one of the many who were elected despite their histories in politics and government.
The 2010 election, with its throw-the-bums-out, antigovernment furor, swept into office a host of people who had no government experience. There was an exterminator, a dentist, a youth minister and a pizza man. But this year, voters sent many of those people packing.
In their place will be a class of career bureaucrats and policy wonks who, after two years of intransigence and dysfunction on Capitol Hill, make up what could be characterized as the anti-antigovernment wave.
These members, many of whom ran on a promise to break the seemingly endless impasse in Washington, will face their first test early. The new Congress will almost certainly inherit complicated tasks like raising the nation’s borrowing limit, revamping the tax code and making adjustments to social welfare programs — issues that are not expected to be entirely resolved as part of the negotiations to head off the automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect on Jan. 1.
The new House will include nine people, like Mr. Nolan, who have already been in Congress. It will also include a former Congressional chief of staff, a decade-long member of a local water board, an assistant secretary for veterans affairs and even a Kennedy.
In some cases, voters opted for nonpoliticians, albeit ones who sold themselves as more capable of handling the country’s problems.
In Florida, voters rejected Representative Allen B. West, a retired Army colonel who became one of the most visible faces of the Tea Party movement. His replacement, Patrick Murphy, is a former accountant for Deloitte & Touche.
“The substance, I think, prevailed over the rhetoric,” Mr. Murphy said. “Having a financial and accounting background, I know how to look for waste, inefficiencies and fraud.”
The makeup of Congress has not been this volatile in 20 years, a result of shifting political tides and redistricting. The number of House seats that changed hands in 2010 and this year — 96 and 84, respectively — is the highest since the early 1990s, a period of turnover not seen in nearly half a century.
First came the 1992 election, when district lines redrawn after the 1990 Census and a House scandal led to a class of 110 new members. In 1994, two years into President Bill Clinton’s first term, Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party seized control of the House, wresting it from Democrats for the first time since the 1950s. In that Congress, there were 86 freshmen.
But now, two years after voters shook up the Capitol, many of them seem to have cooled on the notion that a new group of citizen legislators can fix the country’s ills. And for aspiring politicians waiting in the wings — many of them given an advantage because of favorable redistricting — this year presented a rare opportunity.
“If the incumbent looks vulnerable, that’s when the ambitious career politicians decide it’s time to run for Congress,” said Gary C. Jacobson, an expert on Congressional races and a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. “That’s when you get the mayors, City Council members, state legislators emerging. And usually they’re pretty shrewd.”
Take Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in Iraq when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down. Ms. Duckworth first ran for Congress in northeastern Illinois in 2006 to fill the seat held for more than 30 years by Henry J. Hyde. She lost but was tapped later that year to lead the state’s Veterans Affairs Department. In 2009, President Obama nominated her as assistant secretary for veterans affairs.
Then late one night in April 2011 when she was at her desk on the ninth floor of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a spot with postcard views of the White House, she decided to run for Congress again. A budget stalemate had nearly brought the federal government to a halt, and Ms. Duckworth said she was fuming.
“I was sitting in my office at five minutes to midnight waiting for government to shut down,” she recalled. “And there was my congressman boasting about how he had brought Washington to a standstill. That’s when I thought, we’ve got to stop this.”
She beat her opponent, Joe Walsh, a Republican who had never held elected office, by nine points, a margin no doubt cushioned by district lines redrawn in Democrats’ favor.
Sean Patrick Maloney, a former aide to Mr. Clinton and two New York governors, defeated the Tea Party darling Nan Hayworth, an ophthalmologist with no history in government, to represent a district about 30 miles north of New York City.
Cheri Bustos of Illinois, a former alderwoman in East Moline, Ill., and a communications executive for a health care company, defeated Bobby Schilling, a Republican who, after being elected to office for the first time in 2010, had to suddenly decide who could run his popular pizza parlor.
Even though government experience may have helped some of this year’s winners, they all seem eager to maintain their distance from Washington. Asked the other day to reflect on his experience in learning the ways of Washington, Alan Grayson, a former one-term Florida congressman who was defeated in 2010 but prevailed after running again this year, said: “Oh, I don’t think I fit into that category. I wasn’t elected to anything the first half-century of my life.”
But Mr. Grayson, who along with a fellow incoming congressman, Raul Ruiz of California, can claim three Harvard degrees, acknowledged that being able to navigate the federal bureaucracy is something constituents value. “Wouldn’t you want somebody in Congress who actually knows how to do that stuff?” he said.
Mr. Nolan, who, during his first stint in Congress was named by the late columnist Jack Anderson as one of its most respected members, agreed that the extra knowledge he and others acquired from their previous stints in Congress would be a guide. “Because in Minnesota,” he joked, “maybe with the exception of Michele Bachmann, no one talks directly to God.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.
**********Obama and Boehner meet to discuss fiscal cliff
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 9, 2012 19:23 EST
President Barack Obama and House of Representatives speaker John Boehner met Sunday to discuss the so-called impending fiscal cliff of steep tax hikes and spending cuts.
No details of the talks were given, but a statement from Boehner’s office said “the lines of communication remain open.”
That sounded relatively upbeat compared to Boehner’s statement on Friday, when he reported “no progress” in deficit talks. He accused the White House of recklessly pushing the country to the fiscal brink over tax hikes.
The last time the two leaders had spoken was Wednesday, by telephone.
The so-called fiscal cliff refers to a combination of severe tax increases and spending cuts due to kick in automatically in January if the president and Congress don’t find a compromise plan to cut the deficit first.
Economists warn that careening over the fiscal cliff would throw the country back into a recession.
Obama sent Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Capitol Hill last week with an opening gambit, proposing $1.6 trillion in new tax revenues over the next decade, mainly from higher tax rates on the wealthiest two percent of Americans.
A Republican counter-offer included a plan for $800 billion in tax revenue raised through closing loopholes and ending some deductions. Both plans have been rejected.
In his weekly address Saturday, Obama said he was willing to find ways to reduce health costs and make more entitlement spending cuts as sought by the Republicans.
But he said asking “the wealthiest Americans to pay higher tax rates — that’s one principle I won’t compromise on.”
December 9, 2012Same-Sex Issue Pushes Justices Into Overdrive
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — Life moves fast these days, and so does the law.
In the civil rights era, the Supreme Court waited decades to weigh in on interracial marriage. On Friday, by contrast, the court did not hesitate to jump into the middle of one of the most important social controversies of the day, agreeing to hear two cases on same-sex marriage.
By taking both, the court gave itself the chance to issue a sweeping ruling that would cast aside bans on same-sex marriage nationwide. But the speed with which the court moved also raised the possibility of a split decision, one that would provide federal benefits to same-sex couples married in states that allow such unions but would permit other states to forbid gay and lesbian couples from marrying.
Gay rights advocates said they were optimistic that the time had come for marriage equality across the nation.
“We are at a major turning point in the arc of gay and lesbian rights,” said Suzanne B. Goldberg, a law professor at Columbia. “The cases are moving fast, and the country is as well.”
There has indeed been a rapid shift in public opinion, with a majority of Americans now saying they support same-sex marriage. With last month’s elections, nine states and the District of Columbia now allow such unions.
Still, the Supreme Court’s move came just eight years after Massachusetts became the first state to permit gay and lesbian couples to marry and just four years after voters in California rejected a ruling of their Supreme Court allowing same-sex marriages there.
The cautious move for the justices would have been to hear just one of the cases they were asked to consider, the one posing the relatively modest question of whether the federal government can discriminate against same-sex couples married in the places that allow such unions.
But the court went big on Friday, also taking the case from California filed by Theodore B. Olson and David Boies. Their case seeks to establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in the remaining states, almost all of which have laws or constitutional provisions prohibiting it.
“We are now literally within months,” Mr. Boies said Friday, “of getting a final resolution of this case that began three and a half years ago.”
The speed with which the court is moving has some gay rights advocates bracing for a split decision. The court could strike down the federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, saying that the meaning of marriage is a matter for the states to decide. At the same time, it could reject the idea that the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriage, saying that the meaning of marriage is a matter for the states to decide.
That may be why supporters of traditional marriage sounded pretty cheerful on Friday.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage. “Taking both cases at the same time exposes the hypocrisy on the other side.”
It is entirely possible, then, that the votes to grant review in the California case came from the court’s more conservative justices. They may have calculated that they had a shot at capturing the decisive vote of the member of the court at its ideological center, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, at least in the California case.
But while the court is moving fast, it has left itself plenty of offramps. Officials in California refused to defend Proposition 8, the voter initiative that banned same-sex marriage in the state, or to appeal the lower-court decisions invalidating it. They left those tasks to proponents of the initiative.
On Friday, the justices directed the parties to address the issue of whether the proponents of banning same-sex marriage had suffered the sort of direct injury that gave them standing to appeal. If the answer is no, the trial court decision requiring the state to allow same-sex marriage would stand, but its sweep in the short term could be limited to two California counties or perhaps even to just the couples who brought the case.
The justices could also affirm a California-only rationale relied on by the appeals court. That court said Proposition 8 must fall because voters had withdrawn a constitutional right from gay men and lesbians. Whether the establishment of such a right was required by the Constitution in the first place, it said, was a question for another day.
Finally, the justices could pursue what Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University, calls the “eight-state solution,” one that would affect California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island. Those states give gay and lesbian couples all the benefits and burdens of marriage but withhold the name “marriage.” That distinction, the court could rule, violates equal protection principles.
Such a ruling, though, could have “perverse effects,” Professor Yoshino says. States prepared to enact laws allowing gay and lesbian couples to join in civil unions — marriages in everything but name — might hesitate, for fear of being forced by the courts to adopt same-sex marriage if they do.
But the eight-state solution would also be unlikely to give rise to the sort of reaction that imposing same-sex marriage on, say, Mississippi would. However the court rules in the California case, its very decision to consider it is a change from the caution of an earlier era.
In private correspondence in 1957, Justice Felix Frankfurter said the court was doing all it could to avoid hearing cases that would require giving the nation an answer about whether bans on interracial marriage — anti-miscegenation laws, in the parlance of the day — were constitutional.
“We twice shunted it away,” Justice Frankfurter wrote to Judge Learned Hand, “and I pray we will be able to do it again without being too brazenly evasive.”
Judge Hand responded that “I don’t see how you lads can duck it.”
But Justice Frankfurter was unpersuaded.
“I shall work, within the limits of judicial decency,” he wrote, “to put off decision on miscegenation as long as I can.”
The Supreme Court did not strike down laws banning interracial marriage until 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, when 16 states still had them on the books. That was almost two decades after the California Supreme Court in 1948 struck down a law making illegal “all marriages of white persons with Negroes” in Perez v. Sharp.
It has been just four years since the California Supreme Court, citing Perez, struck down two state laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
“We are in the midst of a major social change,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote in dissent. She said she supported allowing “our gay and lesbian neighbors” to marry. But she said change must come from the political process, not the courts.
“Societies seldom make such changes smoothly,” Justice Corrigan wrote. “For some the process is frustratingly slow. For others it is jarringly fast.”
The Christian Science MonitorMore Republicans agree to higher tax rates for the wealthy
By Brad Knickerbocker
posted December 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm EST
One by one, Republicans seem to be toppling in the direction of President Obama’s insistence that wealthy Americans pay higher taxes.
On Sunday, it was Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who told “Fox News Sunday” that Republicans likely would have to give in on Mr. Obama’s demand that the Bush-era tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 be allowed to expire at the end of the year. The president, he acknowledged, “has the upper hand on taxes.”
“There is a growing group of folks who are looking at this and realizing we don’t have a lot of cards as it relates to the tax issue before year’s end,” Senator Corker said. “So a lot of people are putting forth a theory, and I think it has merit, where you go ahead and give the president the rate increase on the top 2 percent, and all of a sudden the shift goes back to entitlements.”
In other words, agreeing to let tax rates go back up a couple of percentage points for the rich – but not for working- and middle-class taxpayers, which has been Obama’s position since the beginning of the presidential campaign – gives Republicans leverage in demanding spending cuts. Specifically, that means tightening up on the costs of Social Security and Medicare, something most Democrats oppose.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma voiced a similar theme.
His constituents, he said, “would like to be taken out of the line of fire” by an extension of tax cuts for the middle class.
“They expect me to continue to fight for everybody’s taxes not going up,” he said. “But if I can get a deal that protects 98 percent of them and leaves me free to continue fighting for them, they would say, ‘Take that deal, that’s progress, that’s maybe working together across the aisle a little bit, and get it done.’ ”
Representative Cole is urging his Republican colleagues to extend the tax cuts for middle-class earners while negotiating with the White House over a tax rate increase for top earners.
“You know, it’s not waving a white flag to recognize political reality,” he said.
While some Republicans in the Democratic-majority Senate (Susan Collins and Olympic Snowe of Maine among them) have indicated a willingness to let tax rates go back up for the wealthy, the White House is feeling a lot more resistance from the Republican-majority House – where members face more heat (including more frequent reelection challenges) from tea party conservatives.
“No Republican wants to vote for a rate tax increase,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Obama’s plan would raise $1.6 trillion in revenue over 10 years, partly by letting decade-old tax cuts on the country’s highest earners expire at the end of the year. He would continue those Bush-era tax cuts for everyone except individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples making above $250,000. The highest rates on top-paid Americans would rise from 33 percent and 35 percent to 36 percent and 39.6 percent.
House Speaker John Boehner has offered $800 billion in new revenues to be raised by reducing or eliminating unspecified tax breaks on upper-income people. The Republican plan would cut spending by $1.4 trillion, including by trimming annual increases in Social Security payments and raising the eligibility age for Medicare.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
December 10, 2012Homeless Rates in U.S. Held Level Amid Recession, Study Says, but Big Gains Are Elusive
By ANNIE LOWREY
WASHINGTON — The federal government has made big strides in reducing the ranks of the chronically homeless and of veterans who are homeless, but it probably will not reach its goal of ending homelessness among those two populations by 2015, according to a government report to be released on Monday.
In an annual report to Congress, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said that the overall level of homelessness remained essentially the same from 2011 to 2012, with the number of homeless individuals falling slightly and the number of homeless families increasing slightly.
“As encouraged as I am that overall homelessness is holding steady during this economic period, we can’t be satisfied,” Shaun Donovan, the housing and urban development secretary, wrote in an e-mail. “Every number in this estimate is a person, a family or a veteran living in our shelters or even on our streets. It’s exactly why we have to redouble our efforts to find real and lasting solutions for those facing homelessness.”
The number of chronically homeless people — a particularly at-risk population often in need of mental and physical health services and other safety-net support — fell about 7 percent in 2011 and more than 19 percent since 2007. Homelessness among veterans declined more than 7 percent in 2011 and 17 percent since 2009.
“We are on the right track in the fight to end homelessness among veterans,” Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said in a written statement. “While this is encouraging news, we have more work to do and will not be satisfied until no veteran has to sleep on the street.”
In 2010, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness announced a plan to end homelessness, starting with the most vulnerable populations. The goals included ending chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015, and ending homelessness among families, the young and children by 2020.
“They have set ambitious goals for themselves, but I don’t think those are goals that aren’t doable,” said Nan Roman, the president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “But not at the rate that we’re going.”
Though chronic and veteran homelessness have declined markedly, it seems unlikely that the housing agency and its partners will be able to eliminate homelessness among those two populations by the 2015 deadline. According to the HUD estimates, there were 99,894 chronically homeless people when a survey was conducted in January 2012, and 62,619 homeless veterans.
Still, the government has played a major role in keeping homelessness from rising during the recession. Indeed, the number of people counted as homeless has fallen for four out of the past five years. It is now about 6 percent lower than it was five years ago. Many poverty experts anticipated that homelessness would increase during the recession, and many were surprised that it did not.
At the same time, other measures of economic distress have increased. According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate has climbed for four out of the past five years. It is now 22 percent higher than it was five years ago.
The report’s data comes from a large survey conducted on a single night in late January, in which local teams counted the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people to provide a comprehensive “point in time” estimate of homelessness. The housing agency also keeps separate estimates of the number of people who become homeless for periods over the course of a year.
Housing officials said the declining population of homeless people could be credited in part to a $1.5 billion infusion of federal stimulus money. As part of the stimulus-financed Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, local governments identified vulnerable people and intervened to stop them from becoming homeless by helping them find and pay for new places to live, for instance. That program prevented or ended homelessness for more than one million people, the housing agency estimates.
HUD and its partners also increased the number of available beds in emergency shelters by about 15 percent over five years, and the number of beds in longer term housing by nearly 50 percent.
But with emergency stimulus financing at its end, experts worry that homelessness might increase for some vulnerable groups in the coming year. Ms. Roman, for instance, predicted that the end of the rapid rehousing program might result in more family homelessness in 2013.
Housing officials said they had invested in research and data analysis to learn how to use their resources more efficiently. “There’s always a start-up period where we’re trying to learn what works, and trying to understand the best and most effective uses of our resources,” said Ann Oliva, the acting deputy assistant housing secretary for special needs. “We know what we need to do now and between 2015 to get to zero.”
Some analysts say the large federal expansion of Medicaid coming in 2014 might help reduce homelessness. States that join the Medicaid expansion — with the federal government chipping in $9 for every $1 the state spends — will be required to provide coverage to all adults whose income is up to 33 percent higher than the poverty line. Many states do not provide Medicaid to childless adults now, no matter how poor.
Mark Johnston, the acting assistant housing secretary for community planning and development, estimated that homelessness could be effectively eradicated in the United States at an annual cost of about $20 billion. The housing department’s budget for addressing homelessness is currently about $1.9 billion.
December 9, 2012Divining the Weather, With Methods Old and New
By DAN BARRY
In these times of upset and uncertainty, comfort comes in knowing that dental floss can cut a dense cheesecake more cleanly than any knife. That cloves of garlic will send ants scurrying. That a cow requires at least 15 pounds of hay per day. That the state bird of South Dakota is the ring-necked pheasant.
For the 217th consecutive year, useful facts and tips like these have been assembled in J. Gruber’s Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack, a deceptively slim volume that is available to farmers, merchants and all good citizens — especially those residing in the Middle Atlantic States — at the nominal cost of $4.99.
Contained within its 82 pages is the accumulated wisdom of many generations of farmers who lived and worked according to the arc of the sun and the pull of the moon. This means that in addition to reporting that our nation’s fifth vice president was Elbridge Gerry and that the gift of a daffodil represents unrequited love, Gruber’s Almanack also provides “conjecture of the weather and other astronomical information.”
For example, if you want to know what weather to expect in New England next Thanksgiving Day, the almanac offers an answer with a better-than-even shot at accuracy: “Snow, heavy south.”
This is the educated guess of Bill O’Toole, 70, a retired college math professor who, for more than four decades, has served as the almanac’s seventh prognosticator — or conjecturer, or calculator — a line of work that began in 1797 with a star-savvy blacksmith. Mr. O’Toole is tall and bearded, with large eyes that convey wonder in all things, and a business card that declares in black and white his gray-area profession.
Working from desk space carved out of the book clutter of a brick row house here in Emmitsburg, about a mile south of the Pennsylvania line, Mr. O’Toole endeavors to divine the weather as much as 18 months in advance. He does so with a conjurer’s brew of age-old wisdom and 21st-century technology that includes a range of tools, from a software program of astronomical data produced by the United States Naval Observatory to the meticulous tracking — through some 30 computer programs he has written — of all things lunar.
The moon matters, Mr. O’Toole says, as people who work the land discovered long ago. “They noticed a trend,” he says. “When the moon changed phase close to midnight, the weather over the next lunar week, between six and nine days, would be fair, agreeable, calm. But it was just the opposite if it occurred close to noon: snowy, rainy, stormy, disagreeable.”
After completing his calculations, Mr. O’Toole charts his predictions on postcard-size weather maps of the continental United States, drawing a map for every week. Here, then, a test: Did the prognosticator foretell Sandy, the fall’s calamitous superstorm?
He points to a blue-ink swirl that he drew on one of those small maps. In June 2011. “Tropical storm from Atlantic,” the Almanack predicted — somewhat prematurely, it turned out. “I was off by a week and a few days,” he says. “Not too bad, considering this was done 16 months earlier.”
Mr. O’Toole ignores the occasional charge of quackery. He says that a person could predict the weather 25 percent of the time by simply throwing darts at a board, but that he shoots for better than 50 percent. And, in the annual “Conjecturer’s Column” that he writes for the almanac, he is nothing if not candid about his performance.
“Daily forecasts for the mid-Atlantic region were correct 55.1 percent of the time, slightly below last year’s 59.3 percent, which was the best in recent years,” Mr. O’Toole wrote in the current almanac. “The worst month for daily forecasts was October at 38.7 percent; the best was May, clocking in at 72.6 percent.”
Mr. O’Toole grew up in nearby Waynesboro, Pa. His father, William, was a toolmaker and sales representative, his mother, Dora, a homemaker and parish secretary who had grown up on a dairy farm. After she died at 91 last year, Mr. O’Toole found a diary in which his mother had faithfully recorded the weather every day for nearly 70 years.
High 76 degrees; rain; bright moonlit night...
“A deeply ingrained tradition among farmers,” he explained. A small way of trying to make sense of the natural world by those so grounded in it.
Mr. O’Toole was a boy so drawn to the moon and the stars that in high school he helped to establish an amateur astronomy club. After flirting with the idea of a career in astronomy, he graduated from Mount St. Mary’s University here, and promptly joined its math department as a teacher.
Then one day in 1969, he says, he received a call from “out of the blue” (a hoary expression that refers to the sky). It was the business manager of Gruber’s Almanack, and he wanted to know: Are you familiar with our publication?
Originally published in German, then German and English, then only in English when German became a dead-to-me language during World War I, the Gruber Almanack was as much a part of the local universe as Jupiter and Saturn. You’d punch a hole in the top left corner, hang it on a string, and consult it for — well, as the almanac puts it:
“The rising, setting, and Eclipses of the Sun and Moon; the phases, places, and southing of the Moon; the aspects of the planets; the rising, setting, and southing of the most conspicuous planets and fixed stars; the equation of time; with a variety of useful and entertaining matter, anecdotes, &c., &c.”
The business manager went on to explain that the almanac’s sixth prognosticator had passed away, and it was in need of its seventh. Was Mr. O’Toole interested?
He inherited his predecessor’s charts and notes and, before long, was using the lunar cycle and other variables to recommend the best days to plant, to weed, to harvest — even to go fishing (May 30 next year is good, for example, but May 31 is better).
The almanac has been passed on through the generations within the same family. These days it is owned and produced by three men driven more by loyalty than by money: Mr. O’Toole, a retired professor, is the prognosticator; Jerry Spessard, 63, a retired insurance agent and part-time inventor, is the longtime business manager; and Charles W. Fisher Jr., 63, a retired sales executive, is the editor and great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Johann Gruber.
Over the years, circulation has waxed and waned — it now is about 85,000 — but the readership remains fully engaged. Mr. Spessard often receives calls about sweet recollections of a grandmother’s reliance on the almanac, as well as angry complaints about a typographical error that might disrupt the spin of the earth.
But the earth continues to spin, and J. Gruber’s Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack continues to advise and to console. Dental floss can also be used as an emergency shoelace. The state flower of Maryland is the black-eyed Susan. And if you plan to be in the mid-Atlantic next Memorial Day, the prognosticator suggests that you might want to pack an umbrella.