Saturday, November 29, 2014

The political calculus of Obama's immigration executive action

A couple of weeks back, when President Obama announced his executive action on delaying the deporation of up to 4 million undocumented immigrants -- before that news got eclipsed by the events in Ferguson -- Jonathan Chait wrote about it in New York magazine.

He set the stage by reminding readers that: "Immediately after the election, when John Boehner asked Obama to hold off on unilateral action, reporters asked if he would promise to bring an immigration bill to the House floor. He refused. A senior administration official pinpointed this as the moment when any chance of delay ended."

He further clarifies that "there are no serious legal questions about the administration's plan" and that "the humanitarian and political logic all point in the same direction. . . .  The serious questions revolve around political norms."     Chait has explored this question and says that
"Immigration law, unlike other kinds of law, is explicitly designed by Congress to delegate authority to the president. . . . The announcement by Obama may go farther than any previous use of presidential discretion, but it is an incremental rather than a revolutionary advance on previous such moves. . . .

"The political calculus, on the other hand, is perfectly simple. Obama underwent negotiations with Republicans in Congress planning to trade political advantage for policy gain. In return for a policy accomplishment, he would give Republicans a chance to shore up their standing with immigrant communities and to settle immigration as a live issue."
This is where Boehner's refusal to give an assurance that the House will bring an immigration reform bill to the floor breaks that supposed compromise.  And, at the same time, it frees Obama to act as he has done.  According to Chait, this will prove a political disadvantage for Republicans.
"The GOP primary will remorselessly drive its candidates rightward and force them to promise to overturn Obama’s reform, and thus to immediately threaten with deportation some 5 million people — none of whom can vote, but nearly all of whom have friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors who can. . . .  

"Ardent populists are demanding a series of suicidal confrontations, from shutdowns to, potentially, impeachment, as the Party leadership strains desperately to keep them at bay. . . .  The emotional momentum in the Republican Party now falls to its most furious, deranged voices. . . .  This is the point of contrast [with more moderate conservatives] that Obama drew out clearly and effectively. After years of legislative muddle, he was able to detach himself completely from Congress and articulate his own values."
And, by extension, he articulated the values for the Democratic Party as well:   protecting families, compassion and support for the disadvantaged, using government to make ordinary people's lives better.

Some very smart thinking went into that decision -- and especially into the crafting of the president's speech announcing his action.    Not getting what he wanted in policy legislation, President Obama deftly painted Republicans into a corner and left them sputtering irrational threats.

It's going to be interesting.


Friday, November 28, 2014

Turkey holiday

Yes, I know yesterday was Thanksgiving;  and I hope everyone paused before the feast to reflect on something they're thankful for -- especially when there seems so much wrong with the world.

Lately I've been writing this blog a day ahead so I can set it to post in the wee hours -- like putting the daily newspaper in your driveway at 5 am.

So -- because yesterday was a holiday -- today there's no news.    Just a heartfelt moment of solidarity with families everywhere, with deepest sympathy for those who have lost loved ones, especially the young men needlessly killed on foreign fields of war -- and the young men needlessly gunned down in our streets.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fact-checlomg President Obama

Grasping for something to criticize President Obama for in response to his executive action on prosecutory discretion in deportation of undocumented immigrants, Republicans have seized on the talking point that he "changed his position" on whether he has this power to act.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had its PolitiFact checker look into the president's previous statements, and they rated as Not True his recent statement that his position has not changed.   I disagree with that rating.

He did make statements last year to the effect that he is not king or emperor, that he does not have the power to enact comprehensive immigration reform.    That is still his position and, most likely, what are the true facts.   Only congress can enact laws.

Obama's recent executive action will affect up to 5 million immigrants, but these exceptions are explicitly stated as temporary and all come under the category of an executive decision to delay deportation for certain categories (here 5 years, have a child who is an American citizen, no criminal record, etc.).   It does not change or violate the law.

The gray area of disagreement about the truth of his disclaimer about position change is this:   While his original statement about not being king was made in response to questions about comprehensive reform, he did continue to use the same line later on when he was questioned about deportations.

So there is some technicality to saying his current action is a change.    But when deciding how to rate a statement, PolitiFact has discretionary leeway to rate it in varying degrees of true or untrue.    I would have rated this as "half true."    My reason is that the original statement in its context was true, but it then got repeated -- perhaps inadvertantly -- in other contexts that made it not true

Often in deciding these gray areas, PolitiFact shows its bias -- in my opinion, anyway, and they often lean to the conservative side -- again, in my opinion.    They often seem to decide it on the basis of inferred intent, whether the person meant to deceive.   In this case, I don't think there was deliberate deception.    I think Obama just trotted out what had become a stock answer and didn't notice that the question had changed.

Of course, this isn't worth a hill of beans in the real world.  It only matters if the Republicans can used it to attack -- and thus divert attention from the real issues.   But what else do they have to talk about?    Just bluster and false issues.

So I rate this whole thing as a 4 + Bah humbug ! ! ! !


PS:   A day after I wrote this, the AJC again did a fact-check on a politician.   This time it was former senator Rick Santorum.   Again, it was one of those gray areas that depends on context.   This time, however, PolitiFact rated Santorum's statement "Half-True."    See what I mean?

What will they call Glacier National Park when there are no more glaciers?

It's true.    The glaciers are melting, not just in the Arctic Circle but in Montana, home of the Glacier National Park.

A century ago, there were 150 ice sheets, many of them scores of feet thick, along the park's Montana-Canadian border.   Today there are perhaps 25, according an article by Michael Wines in the New York Times.

There will be multiple results -- and not just tourist vistas and skiing resorts, but water supply to farmers and to cities in the area that depend on melting snow and ice in hot summer months.    The melting is now months ahead of the usual.

This is not just in this one national park.  It's happening all across the North American West.  Wines writes: 
"The retreat is not entirely due to man-made global-warming, though scientists say that plays a major role. While the rate of melting has alternately sped up and slowed in lock step with decades-long climate cycles, it has risen steeply since about 1980.

"And while glaciers came and went millenniums ago, the changes this time are unfolding over a Rocky Mountain landscape of big cities, sprawling farms and growing industry. All depend on steady supplies of water, and in the American West, at least 80 percent of it comes from the mountains.

“'Glaciers are essentially a reservoir of water held back for decades, and they’re releasing that water in August when it’s hot, and streams otherwise might have low flows or no flows,' Daniel B. Fagre, a United States Geological Survey research ecologist, said in an interview. . . .'" 
Dr. Fagre said that the implications for wildlife are almost too great to count.  But: 
"For people, the future is somewhat clearer. . . . Rising temperatures and early snowmelt make for warmer, drier summers as rivers shrink and soils dry out. That is already driving a steady increase in wildfires, including in the park, and disease and pest infestations in forests. . . . 

"Moisture loss from early snowmelt is worsening a record hydrological drought on the Colorado River, which supplies water to about 40 million people from the Rockies to California and Mexico; by 2050, scientists estimate, the Colorado's flow could drop by 10 percent to 30 percent."
And, as dire as this all sounds, a sizable number of Republicans in congress refuse to believe that this is a crisis -- while we careen ever so much closer to the tipping point when it will be too late.


PS:   In a letter to the editor of the NYT, someone suggested an answer to what would we call Glacier National Park when there are no more glaciers:    "Glacier Memorial Park."   I like that -- except I'm don't know that we'll need to call it anything;  if the land has become inhabitable, there will be no one to call it anything.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This is simply jaw-droppingly amazing . . . depth of bias in Ferguson police

People are now pouring over the thousands of pages of grand jury testimony and evidence released by the prosecutor's office.   This gem comes from a Daily Kos entry.

This is from the testimony of the medical examiner about usual practices when he goes to investigate a shooting.   Here's the point:   whenever there is a shooting involving a police officer, it is routine to consider it "an assault of law enforcement," regardless of the fact -- as in this case -- that the police officer did the shooting that killed a suspect.

Here's the transcript:   
Q: Were you told when you initially arrived at the scene that there was some type of altercation involving an officer and the deceased?
A: Yes, ma'am.
Q: And that was described as an assault?
A: Correct.
Q: So when you began this investigation, you were characterizing this as an assault of a law enforcement officer, correct?
A: Yes.
Q: Is that in any way meant to be your opinion of what happened or who was a victim in this case? A: No, ma'am. Any time I'm involved in an officer involved shooting, be it a fatal one or non-fatal, it is always during my initial investigation listed as an assault on law enforcement.
Q: And so on various evidence items that you package on these sheets, you list a victim name?
A: Correct.
Q:  And when you began this investigation, who was your victim name on these packages? 
A: Officer Wilson.
We're not talking about racial bias here.   This is bias that assumes that police officers are never at fault.   And, indeed, we now learn that they almost never are indicted, despite the countless stories of police shooting unarmed victims -- just in the past year since we began paying attention following the Trayvon Martin killing by a vigilante stand-your-ground neighborhood watch guy who got off scott free.


Answer these questions, Mr. McCulloch

On Monday night, I raised two questions that were not answered by Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch:

   1.  How far was Michael Brown from Office Darren Wilson when he fired the shots that killed him?
   2.  What is the evidence that lethal force was justified?

About #1.   For months the authorities have been saying that Brown was about 35 ft from Wilson -- making it seem more plausible that he had reason to fear for his life.    But there is pictorial evidence floating around the more substantial blogs (Daily Kos) that actually measures the distance from Brown's body to the officer's SUV at 148 feet.   What isn't answered is how far Wilson had run from his SUV in chasing Brown.

The fact remains that Brown did run 148 feet away from the SUV where the original altercation took place.   So it sounds like he was the one fearing for his life.  Wilson had already wounded him once.

About #2.  Over and over in his press conference announcement, McCulloch emphasized that there were conflicting testimonies from witnesses;  and he said that they each had to be tested against the physical and forensic evidence.

But did anyone test Officer Wilson's statement about how threatened he actually was by Brown's aggressiveness?    So the answer to #1 becomes extremely important.   Wilson can say -- months after the incident and many opportunities to think through and rehearse his testimony -- that Brown looked like a demon and was as big as Hulk Hogan.    But if Brown was running away and ran 148 ft, how threatening could he be at that point?

Is someone, who stole some cigarillos from a convenience store and who mouthed off and maybe attacked a police officer, so dangerous to the community that he must be shot down in the street like a mad dog?

All of these questions may have good answers.   But they add up to more than sufficient reason to find probable cause to have a trial.

Justice has not been served.    It does not help to learn that it is extremely rare for an officer to be indicted for killing an unarmed suspect, unless there is clear and unambiguous evidence of criminal activity on the part of the officer.    No, that just indicts the whole system and screams out for a thorough investigation of our law enforcement.


The grand jury process in Ferguson

Gabriel Chin, a law professor at the University of California-Davis, explained the grand jury process in an interview with the New Republic:
"If the prosecutor had wanted to bring charges, he could have proceeded by filing an information charging the officer with an offense, which would have resulted in a preliminary hearing before a judge who would have determined whether probable cause existed. 

"To proceed by grand jury rather than information and preliminary hearing meant that the prosecutor believed charges were unwarranted, but that he wanted the grand jury to at least share responsibility for the decision. . . .
"The prosecutor did err in his statement when he said "The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact from fiction."  The grand jury is obliged to determine whether there is probable cause, not what the actual truth is."
There is absolutely no doubt that Prosecutor McCulloch did not want Officer Wilson to be indicted.   If he wanted to avoid the responsibility, he could have punted by asking the governor to appoint a special prosecutor.  The problem with tht is that it might have resulted in an indictment.   The governor also punted when he said he would not appoint a special prosecutor, unless McCulloch requested it.    In this case, a special prosecutor was exactly what was needed, but it seems that no white person involved in the case actually wanted an indictment.

McCulloch took the coward's way out.  In effect, he made a show of washing his hands of the responsibility by dumping it on the grand jury -- and at the same time manipulating the process so it appeared to be a completely thorough and open hearing of all the evidence.  But he clearly signaled to the grand jury that he was not seeking an indictment.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Size matters ?

When I first read excerpts from the grand jury testimony of Officer Darren Wilson, I thought -- "Yeah, this guy really felt intimidated and was afraid."    He described Brown as being enraged and "looking like a demon."   He also described Brown as being so big that he himself felt like "a five-year old holding onto Hulk Hogan."

Now that sounds like something a defense strategist would tell him to say, and he's had months to prepare for this testimony.   But let's give him the benefit of doubt:   maybe he really did feel intimidated and afraid.   Did he have good reason to?

Brown was 6'4" and weighted 292 pounds.  A Big Angry Guy.  And then someone, supposedly one of the grand jurors, asked Wilson about his own size.   He is also 6'4" and weights about 210 and was a trained police officer.

So it was hardly a shrimp against Goliath.   And besides, Officer Wilson had a gun.

OK.  Let's say Wilson was confronted with an enraged, perhaps stoned, big teenager -- who he knew by now was unarmed and who ran away from him.    Why was lethal force necessary?    Where was the officer's MACE?    He doesn't carry it;  "it's uncomfortable to carry," he said.   And for that, an unarmed young man is dead.


Predictable lack of justice in Ferguson, MO

The Grand Jury's decision not to bring an indictment of any sort against Office Darren Wilson was totally predictable.

It was predictable from the moment the governor refused to appoint a special prosecutor, meaning that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch would be in charge.   Here are the reasons he should not have been allowed to have that responsibility:

1.   Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch has a history of never seeking an indictment of a police officer for killing an unarmed person.  This is now the fifth such case that he has had jurisdiction over, and his score for an indictment is 0 for 5.

2.  McCulloch has a working relationship with the officers in this department, including Officer Darren Wilson.

3.  McCulloch's own father was a policemen who was killed by an African-American man in the line of duty.   McCulloch was 12 years old.   He thinks that does not have any bearing on his handling of such cases, even though he does acknowledge that his father inspired his work in criminal justice.    Look at the parallel:   Wilson says he fear for his life if he allowed Brown to get close enough to hit him again.  Wilson appears to be about the age that he might have a 12 year old son.

4.  McCulloch could have brought an indictment himself on the basis of evidence.   But -- under the false guise of complete transparency and fairness -- he chose to bring it to a grand jury.

5.  He further made the decision not to present a case for indictment but to present the grand jury with the details of every testimony, every scrap of evidence, every detail of forensic evidence -- for them to sort out and come to their own conclusion.  Experienced prosecutors say they have never seen this happen before.  The prosecutor is expected to present the case, not just dump data on the grand jury.

6.   A grand jury has one dutyto decide if there is probable cause to charge an accused person with a crime and bring it to a jury trial.   It's job is not to decide guilt or innocence;  only to determine there is sufficient cause to have a trial.   It is a very low level of proof needed;  just probable cause to warrant a trial.

7.  It's important to understand what the grand jury process is.   It is not an adversarial process, where you have a prosecutor and defense lawyers examine and cross-examine witnesses.  There are no lawyers except the prosecutors.   The victim's side of the story does not get told, unless the prosecutor chooses to tell it.   And in Michael Brown's case, Prosecutor McCulloch chose not to do it.   Michael Brown and his family's interests were not represented in this grand jury process.   

8.  That is what makes so highly questionable McCulloch's decision to allow Office Wilson himself to testify for four hours before the grand jury.   Realize the significance of this:   the defendant -- the officer who admittedly killed Michael Brown -- was allowed to tell his story without an opposing attorney to cross-examine his testimony.

9.  Every signal that has been sent by the local police and the prosecutor has been that there would be no indictment -- from the early leaks from the investigation, the release to the media of the completely unrelated convenience store robbery, the further leaks during the three month grand jury proceedings.   Clearly McCulloch did not want an indictment, and by not making the case to the grand jury, he signaled to them that he didn't.   They must have realized that they were being used.

10.  And then the long, drawn out police "preparations" for a night of violence after the announcement.   The fact that, having sent signals that they expected a violent community reaction, McCulloch then scheduled his announcement for 8 pm.   Why wait until night time when, according to Ferguson police, that's when they expect violence and rioting to happen?

11.   McCulloch's 30 minute presentation was itself -- in the words of one commentator -- "a defense lawyer's presentation, not a prosecutor's presentation."   He began by blaming the social media and the 24 hour tv news cycle for spreading false information.   He rambled on overlong telling how wide was the range of conflicting testimony of witnesses -- without ever once mentioning Officer Wilson's testimony.    When asked about this by a reporter, he dismissed that, saying something like we didn't put much importance on that because he was the one involved.   Yeah?   Then why let him have a four hour opportunity to sway the emotions of the grand jury -- without only the ordinary citizens of the grand jury to question him?

12.  Even more disturbing was the fact that McCulloch did not address the two major questions that go directly to whether it was a justified killing:

   a.  How far was Michael Brown from Office Wilson when Wilson fired the shots that killed him?   That should be one crucial question;  it wasn't mentioned.

   b.  What was the evidence that justified killing the unarmed Michael Brown?    Self-defense?   Brown was unarmed and running away, then turned.  Reports vary about whether he was charging toward the officer or simply turning to surrender with his arms up.    But isn't that discrepancy on such a crucial question reason enough to have a trial ?    Did Officer Wilson say he feared for his own life -- or that he feared Brown would harm others?    Nothing about that.   [Later:  we did learn that Wilson did say he feared for his life.]

SO:   This was a pretty complete travesty of justice -- and totally predictable.

Now, mind, I am not saying that I know what the verdict of an actual trial would be.   It might very well be "not guilty."  It is not just the non-indictment that it so upsatisfactory;   it is the lack of a fair process of determining whether there should be a trial that I am so sure was a miscarriage of justice.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Congress blunders on Keystone pipeland . . . again

I can't be sure that a Democratic-led House would not have made the same blunder -- after all, support for the Keystone oil pipeline is not limited to Republicans.   However, I do believe Democrats would have been a little more likely not to have blundered this badly.

It seems that the planned route for this pipeline from Canada to the Gulf state refineries in Texas and Louisiana will pass through tribal territory of the Great Sioux Nation.    The treaties of 1861 and 1868 between the U. S. government and the Sioux Nation give the Sioux certain sovereign rights over their own territory.

Last February, the Sioux Nation adopted resolutions opposing the Keystone pipeline project crossing their land.

What this will do is give President Obama even more moral and legal authority to veto it, if both houses of congress should pass the bill to allow it.    The Senate failed by one vote to muster the 60 needed to move on the House-passed bill.   That's small comfort, knowing that in January they will have enough new Republican members to reverse that vote.    

So it may come to a veto;  and if it does they don't have the votes to over-ride.

Even more than that, however, this matter of the Sioux territory gives reason for it to be challenged in the federal courts -- and I don't see how the SCOTUS could ignore valid treaties.

But, of course, I would never have thought they would give the 2000 election to Bush, or make the Citizens United decision either.    We should never underestimate the conservative bloc's capacity to turn a blind eye to their own loudly touted principles when it comes to corporate interests.

Stay tuned.


PS:   I first read about this and wrote this account several days ago.   I have seen nothing in the mainstream media about it.    Has someone made it go away?    Is the MSM just going to ignore it?   Is anyone in congress or the administration going to talk about it?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Republican committee -- that's right, a REPUBLICAN committee found no wrong-doing in Benghazi

 The Republican controlled House Committee on Intelligence has completed an exhaustive two-year investigation into the attack on our mission in Benghazi and has filed a report, which contradicts most of the Republican accusations and talking points.  

According to an article by Michael McCauliff of the Huffington Post:
"Among its findings, the report says CIA personnel responded not just well, but heroically; that there was no "stand down" order, as some critics have claimed; there was no intimidation of witnesses by superiors; there was no intelligence failure prior to the attack; and that a "mixed group" of individuals, including some linked to al Qaeda, participated in the attack.

"But perhaps the most significant conclusion is its finding that [U.N. Ambassador Susan] Rice's talking points . . . were not part of an attempt to conceal the severity of the incident.  According to the report, early intelligence that the attacks were sparked by an Internet video was "not accurate," but not intentionally so . . .  [and resulted] in errors rather than deliberate lies. . . . "
At least four other investigations have reached similar conclusions.   But last year, unwilling to accept those findings, House Republicans created yet another blue ribbon Select Committee to investigate.   So far, it has held one hearing.    This new report would seem to take a lot of steam out of that already unnecessary, political showcase.

You can tell how happy Republicans are to report these negative findings -- they released the report late on Friday afternoon when the House members had left town for the Thanksgiving vacation, not to return until mid-December.   That's the way you do something that is either embarrassing or that you don't want to have to take a position on.

Shouldn't we all be relieved to learn that there was no conspiracy involved in Benghazi, no cover-up, and that they were telling the truth all along?   You'd think so.

Gee, Republicans are really having a bad week, aren't they?    They thought they were now the King of the Walk after the election.   But President Obama stole the show Thursday night, and this report was a further splash of rain on their parade.