Fair and Unbalanced

img
Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

15233126649_fe7313df92_z

OK, it wasn’t like we weren’t warned. But here was the U.S. Senate not only voting on whether to defund Planned Parenthood, but promising that this is just the beginning of a long fight, maybe one that would last even longer than Congress’s summer recess.

As expected, Democrats successfully filibustered the bill, but the defunding exercise, in some form, will be back. And not only will it be back, but some Republicans are even threatening to attach it to this fall’s spending bills so we can – yes – face yet another shutdown showdown.

I know this must be a shock to many. In fact, on Election Day there were nearly a million people in Colorado alone — and that’s not counting The Denver Post editorial board — who maintained that it was absurd to think that abortion would be a critical piece of our national political debate. And yet, The Washington Post is calling the defunding of Planned Parenthood — a long-time stand-in in the abortion wars — “a centerpiece of the Republican agenda going into the summer congressional recess.”

Mark Udall, call your office. Oh, wait …

In case anyone has forgotten, it’s Cory Gardner’s office now. He, of course, voted for the defunding (Michael Bennet voted against), just as he used to vote for personhood before he, um, understood the ramifications.

And when Gardner was asked by The Denver Post about his vote against Planned Parenthood, he said, with full understanding of the ramifications, “This bill would redirect funding for women’s healthcare away from the scandal-plagued Planned Parenthood and towards responsible community health clinics that operate without a political agenda. Funding for women’s healthcare must actually go to fund women’s healthcare, not to line the coffers of an organization under increased scrutiny for reprehensible, inhumane behavior.”

I’d like to ask Gardner about his comments, but he doesn’t return my calls, which is just as well. I think I understand what he’s saying.

When he says the thing about “line the coffers,” I assume he is accusing Planned Parenthood of being in it for the money, just one more non-profit in another get-rich scheme. I wonder if Donald Trump is investing. I also assume Gardner’s relying on the unedited videos from the antiabortion group, Center for Medical Progress, which conducted a sting operation on Planned Parenthood, including Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. According to factcheck.org and others, the unedited videos, which the center released, show no profit motive. They do show heavily edited scenes meant to mislead the viewer. I wonder if Gardner has mentioned that point.

Not that Planned Parenthood is without blame. How many stings must there be before people start to catch on? And why would anyone cavalierly talk to strangers about abortion and harvesting organs, particularly to someone who might have a camera in his tie-pin?

But is Gardner’s attack on “reprehensible, inhumane behavior” referring to what Hillary Clinton called “disturbing” images from the videos or is he talking about the biomedical research that has, over many years, saved millions of lives? It’s research that many Republicans have voted for, including Mitch McConnell, which is why Erick Erickson over at Red State says not to trust McConnell. I don’t, but I don’t think it’s for the same reasons. And Clinton, by the way, later made a video strongly in support of Planned Parenthood’s work. If you trust the polls, I’m pretty sure Erickson doesn’t trust her either.

Let’s look at the notion, offered by Gardner and friends, that Planned Parenthood is not using its resources to “fund women’s healthcare.” The organization does get more than one-third of its $1.3 billion budget from the government. It also serves 2.7 million clients, most of them low-income women without insurance. It offers cancer screenings, birth control counseling and other reproductive services. The idea that you should defund Planned Parenthood — and spend the money elsewhere, as if there is enough elsewhere — while possibly putting the health of poor women at risk is, I don’t know, reprehensible? It’s probably just a coincidence that Planned Parenthood also does abortions, although federal funds cannot be used for them except in rare circumstances.

The vote also shows, of course, that these critics are not really serious about debating the use of fetal organs, or else they’d be working on changing the law instead of attacking Planned Parenthood. This is all about abortion politics and presidential politics and a pre-recess show vote.

The videos have given culture warriors on the right – who have been losing most battles on the federal front – a chance to get back in the game, the way they have on the state level. And when you’ve got four Republican senators running for president, this is what happens — a chance for them to appeal to those Republicans who aren’t voting for Trump, who was once, of course, pro-choice, not that it seems to matter.

Democrats, meanwhile, are making the case that limiting women’s access to birth control would lead to more unwanted pregnancies and, therefore, more abortions. Somehow that doesn’t seem to matter, as we saw in the Republican-controlled Colorado Senate, where they voted down money for a free-IUD program that, from all accounts, had drastically reduced teen pregnancies in the state.

I doubt if Republican leaders really want defunding Planned Parenthood to be a centerpiece of their agenda. And I’m sure they don’t want to risk a government shutdown. But if people push the issue hard enough — watch the upcoming debate for clues — they may have no choice. And if it does get that far, how do you think Cory Gardner would vote?

 

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr.

Littwin: The Donald’s madhouse candidacy will implode, right?

There will be at least two GOP primaries – the Trump primary and the post-Trump primary. The Trump primary doesn’t end until his campaign ends. The question is when will it be over.

11360949604_47ba7dfcfa_z-2

I don’t know what date you’ve got in your when-will-the-Donald-finally-implode pool, but there’s a lot of smart money down on Debate Night, Aug. 6.

As The New York Times put it, Thursday’s Debate Night is – in a word — huge. Huge for Trump, and maybe for the other guys, too. The thinking is that when Trump supporters actually see the Donald being the Donald during an actual debate about who leads the free world, it might just give some of them pause.

But here’s my guess: There will be no pausing. Not yet. Eventually, certainly, but not now. This may be the night for which all liberal elites have been waiting, the night when the Donald turns out to be, well, the Donald. But it’s also the night that the Trumpians have been awaiting – the night for their guy to be, well, their guy. And the funny thing is, they’ll probably both get what they want.

For Trump the night is so huge that instead of poring over policy books, he went to Scotland to visit one of his golf courses, where he told the press that he’s not studying at all for the debate — you knew that guy in high school, right? — and that he’ll do either “great” or “terribly,” which is probably right.

There are two questions, though: Which will it be – great or terribly? And, will it matter?

The other guys — and we’re not even sure which of the other guys will make the 10-person cut — can’t know what to do. As one GOP operative smartly noted, prepping for this debate is like preparing for a NASCAR race when you know one of the drivers will show up drunk. You can drive a perfect race and still wind up in a nine-car mashup.

Here’s what I mean. Rick Perry, polling at 2 percent, decided that his way to a presidential comeback was to be the anti-Donald. And so the skirmish begins. Now Trump is saying Perry should have to take an IQ test to get into the debates, and Perry, meanwhile, is challenging Trump to a pull-up contest. Who wins that one? At this point, Perry doesn’t even qualify for the big-kids’ debate.

Look, everyone knows there will never be a President Trump. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any of the candidates as president just now, including Hillary Clinton as she does her own implosion dance. But what should be clear is that there will be at least two GOP primaries – the Trump primary and the post-Trump primary. The Trump primary doesn’t end until his campaign ends, at which time we can get back to more familiar political dysfunction.

But how do you get to post-Trump time? The usual stuff won’t work, as, surprisingly, none of the established political rules seem to apply to blowhard, billionaire, real-estate-mogul, reality-TV-star vulgarians.

The evidence is all there. Start with the so-called gaffes — Mexicans as rapists, McCain as a non-hero (Trump saying he prefers heroes who aren’t captured) — which don’t seem to be gaffes at all to the Trumpians, who think he got it right.

Stop next at the semi-scandalous media revelations about Trump’s all-too-chronicled life. The Daily Beast goes back 22 years to find that Ivana once said that Trump raped her when they were married. Ivana has now walked that back, but not before The Daily Beast reports that a Trump lawyer asserted that there’s no such thing as marital rape and threatened the reporter’s career if he went with the story.

The New York Times, meanwhile, went back over a decade’s worth of Trump depositions to find the time when he told a lawyer who needed to take a break to pump breast milk for her 3-month old that she was “disgusting.” Is anyone surprised? I didn’t think so.

Then there are the laughable policy prescriptions, containing little to no policy, the latest example being Trump’s ideas on medical reform. In a CNN interview, he said Obamacare was “very bad” and when asked what he would do about it, he said, “Repeal and replace it with something terrific.” The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza promptly dubbed it “Terrificare.” Meanwhile, when Trump offered up a vague outline of what something terrific would be, it sounded a lot like Obamacare. Of course, Trump once favored universal health care, which you’d think would work against him among the Trumpians, and yet.

How will Trump’s opponents handle all this? In the run-up to the debate, Rand Paul is calling the Trump surge a temporary “loss of sanity.” His opponents know they have to call his candidacy out for what it is — a fevered dream for a significant slice of angry Republicans. But will they? Trump will be asked, of course, to explain himself. Can he?

This is what makes the whole thing so delicious. Every pundit has tried to explain the Trump appeal — I like Peggy Noonan’s: it’s not about people’s anger at government, but about their contempt for government — but I think The Onion got it best, in a fake column supposedly authored by Trump, in which he writes, “Admit it: You people want to see how far this goes, don’t you?”

This is how far. According to The Daily Mail, Trump has asked the Iowa State Fair for permission to bring one of his three helicopters there to offer free rides to the kids so they can see just what 18-karat, gold-plated seat belts look like. In a temporary appearance of sanity, the State Fair apparently said no. Just don’t expect the sanity to hold.

 

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative commons, Flickr.

Littwin: After the Lafayette shooting, the jury is still out on us

We have shootings in schools, in churches, in theaters, at Navy Yards, at Marine recruiting stations, and each time we wonder how it could happen

8272406879_b448667e59_z-2

The shooter, we’re told, was a drifter, a word you rarely hear outside Hollywood westerns. But this couldn’t be a western, because in the West, they took your guns at the town limits. Or at least that’s how they did it in the movies.

Anyway, the drifter, a 59-year-old man named John Russell Houser, had come to Lafayette, Louisiana, from a small town in Alabama, 500 miles away, and was staying in a Motel 6, where the cops later found wigs, glasses and other disguises. This was planned. An escape was planned. And when he went to the theatre, three years after the Aurora shooting, six days after the Holmes verdict, he stood up a few minutes into the movie “Trainwreck” and began firing away.

There were “shot and more shots,” one witness said.

He killed two people and then, as cops closed in, he killed himself. At least one victim is critically wounded.

You are not surprised, I’m sure. Sickened maybe. Sick at heart, surely. Wondering what kind of pathetic copycat a 59-year-old drifter would have to be to imitate, if that’s what he was doing, the lunatic rantings of James Holmes.

And then you learn, from an AP report, that Houser was mentally ill. Of course he was. That his wife had once filed for a protective order against him, saying that she had “become so worried about the defendant’s volatile mental state that she has removed all guns and/or weapons from their marital residence.”

He still had at least one gun, although we don’t yet know how he got it. Alabama does not require a permit or a license to buy or own a handgun. Louisiana, by some measures, has the most lax gun laws in the country.

He had a .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol from which he took at least 13 shots, apparently shooting indiscriminately. The first two people Houser shot were the two who happened to be sitting in front of him at the theater. He was described as being “at ease” as he was spraying the theater.

No jury will have to determine whether he was legally sane. He’s dead. We can just know it was an insane act, just as the Aurora theater shooting was an insane act. We are told that mass murders are statistically rare, and they are. And yet, at the same time, they are always with us. And they beg us to look deeper, because they are just the front-page news of the gun-death epidemic in America, where we’ve transitioned over time from going postal to going to the movies.

Mother Jones has tracked shooting sprees since 1982 and found 61 mass murders occurring in 30 states. A Congressional Research Service report found 78 over the same period. The numbers depend on how you define a “mass murder.” Is it more than three dead or more than four? Is it indiscriminate killing or do you include terror killings?

However you count them, the numbers mock us and our unwillingness to do anything about them. I wrote after Sandy Hook that that was the ultimate test. If someone can kill 20 6-year olds and nothing changes, then nothing will change.

And so, nothing did change. And nothing has changed.

One thing Mother Jones has found in its study, the guns used in these killings were overwhelmingly purchased legally. Are gun laws working? And isn’t that the issue? We can’t even get the conversation to the point where we can discuss whether the laws are working. This is no surprise when Congress, at the NRA’s urging, had cut off funds for any federal studies of gun violence until Obama reinstituted them.

We have shootings in schools, in churches, in theaters, at Navy Yards, at Marine recruiting stations, and each time we wonder how it could happen. Was it a coincidence that we had a theater shooting around the news of the Aurora shooting? Presumably, the investigation into the shooting will tell us.

It was definitely an eerie coincidence that in the hours before the shooting, Barack Obama was talking to the BBC about his presidency and saying how the greatest disappointment of his tenure has been the inability to get basic gun-safety laws passed. The shootings in Charleston seemed to have further emboldened him in talking about the issue.

Obama told the BBC that if there’s “one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied, it is the fact that the United States of America is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense, gun-safety laws, even in the face of repeated mass killings.

“And you know, if you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands. And for us not to be able to resolve that issue has been something that is distressing. But it is not something that I intend to stop working on in the remaining 18 months.”

It is distressing that we do nothing. It is frustrating and distressing that we can’t even agree that the issue isn’t guns but gun violence.

In Aurora, a jury found James Holmes guilty and is in the process of determining his punishment. But for the rest of us, the jury is still out.

Photo credit: Patrick Feller, Creative Commons, Flickr

5440393641_2892f718d7_z

If you were worried that the Donald’s inevitable implosion wouldn’t be wildly spectacular, you can put your mind at ease.

Give the guy some credit.

Moving from insulting Mexican immigrants to insulting Vietnam-era POWs was a hugely risky and un-Wharton-School-like jump. Sure it was John McCain, the RINO’s RINO, being ripped, and maybe the “I like people who aren’t captured” line reads halfway like a joke, but let’s face it: Isn’t this the ultimate Spinal Tap test of where that line between clever and stupid actually falls?

The entire Republican establishment — absent, of course, Ted Cruz, who is always quick to show his pro-demagoguery bona fides – did turn on Trump as if they had all just noticed he was still the short-fingered vulgarian he’d always been.

Ah, but Trump, in turn, fired back at them — because why wouldn’t he. And now we’re left in the aftermath of the implosion wondering who it was that actually got hurt.

What we know is that for entertainment value — and how else can you measure the GOP primary at this time? — this is more than anyone could hope for. It’s ratings gold. It’s Internet click bait. It’s the story that won’t go away.

And Trump isn’t going away either, of course. His non-apology tour over the weekend — in which he continued to rip McCain and, of course, also the media — proved as much. As we all know, the Donald does nothing halfway. If you’re going to deal exclusively in the art of the outrage, there is no percentage in halfway. For Trump, it’s always go big or go home, and even though he has a few dozen outsize buildings named after him, going home just isn’t his style, at least not until he’s ready.

And, besides, who’s going to force him out of the race? As various pundits have noted, Trump has no funders to rein him in. Every penny he has raised has come from his own pockets. As Trump puts it, “I’m really rich.” Maybe, if nothing else, this will be the moment America realizes that money and politics aren’t always a good match.

But the bigger question, the vital question, is not whether Trump is going anywhere. It’s whether the unseemly number of Republicans supporting Trump will stick with him. They rallied to him after the immigrants-as-rapists speech. You think they’re leaving now?

The question is eating away at the GOP establishment, and you can see why.

If the Trumpians stay with him, it means for a significant subset of Republicans that insulting Mexican immigrants trumps insulting war heroes. No wonder most of Trump’s GOP competitors have stayed basically silent on the Donald’s adventures in xenophobia.

If the Trumpians stay with him, it’s an admission that insulting war heroes is fine if they’re not, say, your kind – like double-amputee Democrats or, for that matter, semi-moderate Republicans who spend 5 1/2 years in a prisoner of war camp enduring torture while Trump, like Bush and Clinton, was enduring the torture of figuring out the best way to avoid the draft. (The irony, of course, is that John Kerry, who enlisted, would be the one who gets swift boated.)

If the Trumpians stay with him, the GOP push to dump Trump could well push Trump toward a third-party run, which, Ross Perot-like, could wreck any chance of Republicans beating someone named Clinton. This is Trump’s hole card, and it’s safe to assume he’d play it if he’s in the mood. If the Republicans continue to hit at Trump – and especially if they try to exclude him from the Aug. 6 Fox debate, for which he is sure to qualify – you can bet that he’ll hit back. It’s what he does.

The reason Trump insulted McCain in the first place was McCain’s assertion that Trump had riled up the “crazies” in his state. First he called McCain a “dummy” for finishing at the bottom of his class at Annapolis. And when that didn’t go anywhere, he went for his he-prefers-heroes-who-don’t-get-captured line.

Given that McCain’s refusal to take an early out from torture when offered was heroism above and beyond, Trump’s insult would be the end of a campaign for any normal politician. The Des Moines Register editorial board called him a “feckless blowhard” and said he should drop out of the race. But nothing about Trump is normal. And nothing about his campaign is normal. And if the madness must eventually come to an end, there is still this to consider: In a just-released Washington Post/ABC News poll, Trump leads the GOP field with a staggering 24 percent. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush are next, at 13 and 12 percent respectively.

What’s staggering about it is that everyone knows Trump can’t win. The same poll showed 54 percent of Republicans saying he didn’t represent their party’s core views. Meanwhile, 66 percent of Republicans said Mexican immigrants were mostly honest. But if the poll also showed Trump’s support falling significantly on the one day of post-McCain polling, it also showed in a three-way race, Clinton at 46 percent, Bush at 30 and Trump at 20.

So what is the Trump story about? Pretty obviously, it’s about those in the Republican Party needing to latch on to the candidate most likely to go rogue — but really rogue this time, which apparently you can do if you happen to be both a reality-TV billionaire and real-life mogul whose whole persona is built on the notion that he doesn’t care about getting along with others.

And if it’s clear that this is where the Trump campaign was always headed, that doesn’t mean anyone really knows where it might go next.

 

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr

Littwin: James Holmes real trial begins: To kill or not to kill the mentally ill

You can’t execute a minor. You can’t execute someone with a sufficiently low IQ. How does mental illness fit into that equation?

crossroads

Now that James Holmes has been found guilty of the terror that he brought to the Aurora theater that night three years ago, the real trial begins, in which the jurors decide whether Holmes lives or dies.

No one can be surprised by the guilty verdict in a trial in which the testimony was so often so heartbreaking. The mass murders were not only an offense against the victims and their families, but also an offense against an entire community.

And in any case, the question wasn’t whether Holmes had done the unthinkable. He had admitted he had. The question put to the jury was only whether Holmes was legally sane when he did the unthinkable. It was clear from the start how this phase of the trial would end. Whether the testimony actually showed him to be sane or insane, Holmes would inevitably be found sane enough. And so he was.

This verdict was not about expert testimony or about the ramblings in a notebook or about the hours of psychiatric interviews or about Holmes’ strange – yes, crazy – ideas about gaining “value” from killing others. Holmes said himself he knew right from wrong. Philosophers have trouble with that concept. It’s no wonder when juries do.

But now the certainty ends, and the question changes. It also gets tougher.

Because whether or not Holmes was legally sane — and the verdict won’t end those arguments — he is clearly mentally ill. There seems to be no argument about that. Psychiatrists testifying for the prosecution and for the defense agreed, most putting him somewhere on the schizophrenia spectrum. We assume all mass murderers are not normal, but a diagnosis of schizophrenia makes it official.

The penalty phase of the trial could last as long as a month, and we will doubtless hear about Holmes’ long struggle with mental problems. And so the question for the jury, and for the rest of us, will be: Should we execute a mentally ill killer in Colorado?

That’s a much different question than determining guilt or innocence. And in this, where the facts were not in dispute, it’s a much harder question. What are the rules, legal or moral or otherwise? What level of sanity is sanity enough? The same jury that determined that Holmes was legally sane – a so-called death-qualified jury, meaning the jurors have agreed they’re willing to impose the ultimate penalty – will also make that decision.

Before we go any further, I should say that I’m opposed to capital punishment in all cases. This hardly makes me a radical. The state of Nebraska, where you’re hard pressed to even find a liberal, has just banned capital punishment. The state of Pennsylvania, where 185 prisoners are currently on death row, is sufficiently ambivalent about the punishment that it hasn’t executed anyone since 1999.

As I wrote after the Nebraska legislative vote, capital punishment can’t long survive without certainty, and it’s pretty obvious how uncertain we are on this issue. Barack Obama is said to be “evolving” on capital punishment, meaning we could see some executive action on federal death penalty cases. The polls, which not so long ago showed 80 percent of Americans favoring the death penalty, are now closer to 50 percent if life without parole is given as an option.

When the case of the botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett went to the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a 40-page dissent saying that it was time to look again at the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment. “The arbitrary imposition of punishment,” he wrote, “is the antithesis of the rule of law.”

The arbitrary argument is easily made. Most executions come from just a few states and, in most cases, from only a few districts in those few states. This is the definition of arbitrary: There were, by one account, 35 executions last year as opposed to nearly 15,000 murders.

In Colorado, there has been only one execution since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. John Hickenlooper’s controversial reprieve of Nathan Dunlap – made as Hickenlooper also evolved on capital punishment – became an issue in the gubernatorial race, but obviously not a decisive one.

But what comes next in the Holmes case could be decisive. The Supreme Court has put limits on the death penalty. You can’t execute a minor. You can’t execute someone with a sufficiently low IQ. How does mental illness fit into that equation? It may take many years of appeals to find out.

If a death-qualified jury were to decide that life without parole is the proper punishment for a mass murderer, that could change the course of the death penalty in Colorado. That is probably a long shot, though. In liberal Massachusetts, where they banned the death penalty three decades ago, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in federal court by a death-qualified jury. That’s despite the fact that a Boston Globe poll showed that only 15 percent of Bostonians favored death.

Of course, that was a terrorism case. In the Holmes case, the motive is not so easily explained. If jurors decide that the explanation is, in large part, that Holmes may be legally sane but still mentally ill, what do they do? What should they do?

 

Photo credit: Carsten Tolkmik, Creative Commons, Flickr.