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“Notes On A Pseudo-Scandal”: With No Credibility On Issues, Republicans Demand For Scandal Is Intense And Unflagging

OK folks, if you have the patience for some meta-blogging on the subject of Benghazi, let me share with you some of the thoughts that have been running around my head as I struggle with how to talk about this story. Whenever a topic like this comes up, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions. Do I have something worthwhile to contribute to this discussion? Is there something that needs to be said but hasn’t been yet? Is this thing even worth talking about? Much as I’d like to be immune to the consideration of whether I’m doing a favor for those pushing the story for their own partisan ends by keeping the discussion going, it’s hard to avoid that question popping into your head from time to time.

There’s an objective reality out there, hard though it may sometimes be to discern—either there was or was not actual wrongdoing, and the whole matter is either trivial or momentous—but everyone’s perception of that reality is formed within the context of a partisan competition. Irrespective of any facts, Democrats would like this story to just go away, and Republicans would like it to become The Worst Scandal In History. I’ll be honest and say it’s hard to avoid thinking about that when you’re writing about it. Even doing something like refuting the latest crazy thing someone on the right is alleging does, to at least a small degree, help maintain the story’s momentum.

To step back to the big picture, a “scandal” can proceed regardless of whether any wrongdoing is ever found. If you have your own media system, you can keep talking about it (combined with, always always always, accusations that the mainstream media are ignoring it not because of a reasonable news judgment but because of their liberal bias) until the mainstream media start doing their own reporting on it, pushing the story ahead. This is a routine conservative media are practiced at, and they seem to be having some success yet again. If you have control of one house of Congress, furthermore, you can start investigations and hold hearings, which may not uncover anything incriminating, but it creates news events and produces information, which can be spun to be something nefarious even if it’s utterly mundane.

For instance, conservatives continue to froth at the mouth over whether a set of talking points the administration produced contained the words “terrorism” or “Islamic extremists” or “extremists,” as though one answer means everything was above-board and another answer means there was a cover-up so sinister that impeaching the president is the obvious response. You may be shocked to learn that talking points on national security matters are routinely edited by representatives of different agencies! Or maybe you’re not shocked, but just in case, Republicans are going to act as though it’s shocking. If you’re an Obama partisan, the fact that your opponents think that the key to the President’s undoing will be found in some Microsoft Word “track changes” should make you feel pretty secure, since those opponents are plainly a bunch of buffoons.

Trouble is, that may not stop the “scandal” from continuing to generate momentum. Brendan Nyhan just put out a paper in which he posits a theory of scandals, arguing that they are a “co-production” of the media and the opposition party. Specifically, the less popular a president is with the opposing party, the more likely a scandal is to emerge.Other factors have an impact as well, including competing news stories, the time a president has been in office, and the time since the last scandal. This is essentially what Jamelle noted yesterday, that while there may not be much of a supply of actual Obama administration wrongdoing, the demand for scandal on the right is intense and unflagging. That demand is met by the conservative media, whose coverage pushes Republican lawmakers to get involved, which generates more coverage, which generates more demand in the Republican rank and file, and on and on.

I hesitate to even use the word “scandal” to describe Benghazi, because so far we haven’t learned of anything scandalous anyone did. Conservatives themselves don’t seem to be able to say exactly what the Obama administration is supposed to have done wrong, particularly since lethal attacks on American diplomatic mission are a frequent occurrence, even under Republican administrations. “Talking points were edited to make the attack sound less terrorist-y” isn’t exactly a high crime. “Some different decisions in those first chaotic hours might have made a difference” isn’t much of an indictment either; that’s always true of any tragedy. Yes, there are some people on the right who will speculate that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton actually said, “Go ahead and let those people in Benghazi die, because even though we could save their lives, doing so might harm our re-election, so screw ’em.” But those people are obviously nuts, and everybody knows it.

It may well be that, as it was during the Clinton years, even many of the people pushing the alleged scandal realize there’s not much to it, but they find political utility in keeping the president under siege. If he’s worried about this, he’ll have less time to devote to his other priorities. Spend tens of millions investigating a failed land deal, and even if you don’t find that he did anything wrong there, maybe along the way you’ll discover that he got a blow job from an intern.

As reluctant as I am to feed that beast, in the end I suspect they’ll be punished for their obsession with Benghazi, assuming that they fail, just as they have so far, to uncover any actual wrongdoing. And that’ll happen whether people like me write about it or not.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 10, 2013

May 11, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Hearing To End All Hearings”: The Hunt For The GOP’s White Whale Will Never End

It was tempting to think the Republican obsession with the politics of last fall’s Benghazi attack had run its course this week. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had lined up one last spectacle, suggesting it would be the hearing to end all hearings, and it was a dud. After multiple reports and hearings, the story had run its course.

Except, it hasn’t.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is asking the White House and State Department to hand over emails related to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, which House committees were able to see, but not keep or share, during their investigation into the response to the attack. […]

Boehner is asking for two sets of emails, both of which are related to whether the White House tried to change the initial characterization of the attack…. The emails, according to Boehner, show a senior State Department official telling her superiors that the Libyan ambassador said the attack “was conducted by Islamic terrorists.”

But we know what the email says, and we know it’s different from Boehner’s claim — it said “extremists,” not “terrorists.” As the New York Times reported, “The distinction is important, administration officials said, because while the White House did not initially characterize the attack as terrorism, senior officials, including Ambassador Susan E. Rice, acknowledged the possibility that extremists had been involved in the assault.”

So why is Boehner pursuing this at all? Perhaps because he’s dealing with pressure from his own members to create another special committee to investigate the attack, on top of the other congressional committees that have already investigated the attack, which complemented an independent panel that also already investigated the attack.

Meanwhile, it’s also becoming increasingly obvious that the GOP’s preoccupation with Hillary Clinton is once again reaching unhealthy levels.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Fox News yesterday to argue the former Secretary of State needs to testify to answer congressional questions on Benghazi, and she “should be subpoenaed if necessary.” This is of interest because Clinton has already testified — was Cheney not paying attention? — and because when Cheney was vice president, he believed congressional requests for testimony should be ignored.

Of course, that didn’t stop Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) from quickly endorsing Cheney’s line.

As Jonathan Bernstein explained yesterday, this isn’t what congressional oversight is supposed to look like.

With Obama, there’s no need for these scandals to make sense; the conservative press will run with them either way. And there might even be an advantage to incoherence. After all, if the accusations are gibberish, the neutral reporters will tend to ignore them — and then conservatives can go on conservative talk radio and Fox News and charge the rest of the press of ignoring these extremely important charges.

All of which means that Republican politicians have little incentive, and perhaps even some real disincentives, for doing the hard work of government oversight — or even the hard work of first-rate scandal-mongering. No wonder they get lazy!

Unfortunately, that leaves us with hyped-up accusations, but no real government oversight — no one really probing for real mistakes, or even real malfeasance, from the Obama Administration. There’s just no reason to bother. And that leaves everyone worse off — except perhaps those reaping profits in the conservative marketplace.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 10, 2013

May 11, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An End To The NRA’s Angry Swagger”: Republicans Who Voted Against Manchin-Toomey Scrambling For Excuses And Political Cover

When the National Rifle Association gathered in Houston last weekend for its annual confab, the theme was “Stand and Fight.” The rhetoric ranged from truculent (“Let them be damned,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said of the group’s adversaries) to weird (Glenn Beck adopting the mantel of Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King for the gun movement). This is what passed for moderation: The group asked a vendor to stop displaying a target-range dummy (they “bleed when you shoot them” the manufacturer advertises) bearing an unmistakable resemblance to a zombie-fied President Obama; the target was still for sale, mind you, just not on display.

The group welcomed a new president, Alabama attorney James Porter who declared the struggle over guns part of a broader “culture war.” And that was tame for Porter, who has called Barack Obama a “fake” president, Attorney General Eric Holder “rabidly un-American” and the Civil War “the war of Northern aggression,” while proclaiming the need for universal arms training so that citizens can resist “tyranny.” That’s the NRA’s public face months after Sandy Hook.

As recently as 1999 – after Columbine – the NRA deployed the slogan “be reasonable,” while supporting universal background checks. But the group and its allies have dropped “reasonable” from their lexicon, assuming a belligerent, swaggering posture while stopping a bill last month to institute … universal background checks.

It was a big week all around for the weapons movement. The world’s first printable, plastic gun was unveiled, holding the promise of every household potentially becoming its own arms manufacturer (the schematics were downloaded 50,000 times on the first alone day but by week’s end the blueprints had been taken offline by order of the State Department). Meanwhile a self-described “revolution czar” named Adam Kokesh announced he would lead a group of gun activists with loaded rifles on a July 4 march from Virginia into Washington, D.C. (where guns are generally illegal). “This will be a nonviolent event, unless the government chooses to make it violent,” he wrote. It would be the cheapest sort of political intimidation but for the possibility of it being the most costly sort.

Gun fanatics seem to fancy themselves as enjoying the kind of political invulnerability that comes from being in synch with an overwhelming majority of the public. They are way off the mark.

It’s true that since the 1994 elections the NRA has possessed (and cultivated) such a reputation. But that was then. The group dropped more than $11 million in the 2012 elections, yet only 0.83 percent was spent on races where it got its desired outcome, according to the Sunlight Foundation. And while gun safety advocates mounted relatively little resistance in recent years (the NRA spent 73 times more on lobbying in the 112th Congress than the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and more than 3,000 times as much on the 2012 elections, notes Sunlight), a new anti-NRA infrastructure has developed. Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, raised $11 million in it first four months of existence, while Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been running television ads against key senators who helped kill the background check bill.

The NRA has also eased its opponents’ task by taking uncompromising positions (the group voted unanimously last weekend to oppose “any and all new restrictions” on gun ownership). Polls show that overwhelming majorities of Americans, and even of NRA members, favor universal background checks. NRA extremism is creating an exploitable common-sense gap. Giffords and her husband, for example, aren’t talking about handgun bans or (as people like LaPierre fantasize) confiscation – they’re gun owners and Second Amendment supporters themselves.

All of which helps explain why some senators who voted against the background-check bill returned this week from their states sounding more conciliatory on the issue. GOP Sens. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jeff Flake of Arizona, for example, have expressed willingness to revisit the bill, while New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte felt compelled to pen an op-ed asserting that she supports some other universal background checks (putting her in favor of checks after she was against them). All of this prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to tell reporters that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the leading sponsors of the bipartisan background-check bill, “thinks he has a couple of more votes.”

And it belies the NRA’s smug bombast. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted this week, if the pro-gun forces were as unassailable as they think they are, then these Republicans would defiantly brandish the Second Amendment and be done with it. Instead they’re scrambling for excuses and political cover. That isn’t to say that universal checks will be enacted this year. The Giffords-Bloomberg forces, for example, must still exact measurable ballot box punishment before the NRA’s fearsome reputation is truly neutralized. It will take time.

But time is on their side: A recent study by the Center for American Progress noted that the percentage of households owning guns has declined steadily for three decades. And a steady drop in gun ownership among young Americans specifically has driven this trend. The most vocal gun control opponents are aging and diminishing, in other words.

Future political scholars may mark this moment as when the NRA started the decline from swagger to stagger.

 

By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, May 10, 2013

May 11, 2013 Posted by | Background Checks, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reverse Revolving Door”: Lobbyists Snag Top Staff Positions On Capitol Hill

In January shortly after being sworn into office, Congressman Rodney Davis, a freshman Republican who eked out a win with a margin of less than a thousand votes in Illinois last year, announced that he had received several plum committee assignments. His legislative portfolio includes subcommittees that oversee commodity regulations, nutritional programs, biotechnology, and, most importantly, the 2013 Farm Bill, which sets agriculture policy for the next five years.

One of his first steps in office? Davis hired Jen Daulby, the director of federal affairs for Land O’Lakes, one of the largest producers of milk and cheese in the country, to be his chief of staff. Disclosures show that just months ago, Daulby led a Land O’Lakes lobbying team that worked on the Farm Bill, genetically modified foods labeling, rules concerning pesticides and hazardous dust, and the new commodity regulations enacted by President Obama’s financial reform law, Dodd-Frank.

What a match.

In other words, Daulby’s past lobbying portfolio perfectly reflects the new responsibilities for Davis’ committee assignments, where he will have wide sway over policy. A former Monsanto lobbyist with previous experience on Capitol Hill for several other lawmakers, Daulby is one of many staffers who rotate back and forth between public service and influence peddling.

On Monday, The Nation posted an investigation of the “reverse revolving door” in Congress, by which lobbyists hired as senior-level congressional staffers receive substantial exit bonuses or other financial rewards from their employers shortly before they assume their new Congressional positions.

In Daulby’s case, Land O’Lakes provided a parting gift of a $35,772 bonus (in addition to her 2012 bonus) in the first few weeks of January. The Davis-Daulby story isn’t all that unusual.

The members of Congress who hire former lobbyists are often outspoken supporters of legislation also heartily endorsed by their new staffers’ previous employers.

Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), chair of the Homeland Security Committee, hired IBM lobbyist Alex Manning as his cybersecurity subcommittee staff director this year. On behalf of IBM last year, Manning worked to pass the Cybersecurity and Information Sharing Effectiveness Act (CISPA), legislation that provides broad powers to the government and to private corporations to gather private Internet user data. The ACLU—which has rallied against CISPA along with EFF, and many other civil liberties groups—called the bill a “flagrant violation of every American’s right to privacy.”

IBM, which sent nearly 200 executives to Washington to advocate on behalf of stronger cyber security laws like CISPA, has been one of the bill’s strongest supporters. CISPA passed the House in April. Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL) recently hired Katherine McGuire, a CISPA-supporting lobbyist for the Business Software Alliance, as his chief of staff. Hultgren voted for the bill that passed last month.

Representative Fred Upton (R-MI), who is in his second term as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has a long history of employing lobbyists to staff his committee. When he gained the gavel after the midterm elections, Upton hired Gary Andres, a lobbyist for UnitedHealth Group and other corporate interests, as his staff director. In 2012, Upton announced that America’s Natural Gas Alliance lobbyist Tom Hassenboehler would be his new chief counsel to a subcommittee that oversees environmental regulations. As DeSmogBlog’s Steve Horn noted, Hassenboehler is a climate change denier who worked in previous years to block cap and trade legislation. Disclosures show Hassenboehler was paid by his former employer, a trade group for fracking and natural gas companies, to lobby on a number of environmental regulations, including EPA rules concerning fracking.

This phenomenon isn’t new. In the beginning of the last Congress, at least thirteen freshman lawmakers hired lobbyists as their chiefs of staff. The chiefs of staff for Senators Ron Johnson and Marco Rubio even came from the same lobbying firm.

How, exactly, are these lobbyists-turned-staffers influencing policy? While it is difficult to discern what goes on behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, it is part of the job description of lobbyists-turned-staffers to help lawmakers draft legislation, and the bills they produce reliably include big giveaways to corporate interests. Representative Davis’ office did not respond to a request for comment about his new chief, former Land O’Lakes lobbyist Jen Daulby. But in March, Davis signed onto a bill currently pushed by Land O’Lakes to roll back federal oversight of pesticide use.

 

By: Lee Fang, The Nation, May 9, 2013

May 11, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Lobbyists | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Bigoted Heritage”: At Right-Wing Think Tanks, Racism As Usual

The exposure of a Heritage Foundation research analyst as a proponent of racist theories reopens a troubling intellectual history that the right-wing think tank and its Republican allies would rather not discuss. This fresh embarrassment poses yet another obstacle for Republican leaders who are supposedly seeking to erase their party’s polarizing reputation and to connect with non-white voters.

Now led by former South Carolina Republican senator Jim DeMint, the team at Heritage – a lavishly funded Washington outfit long known for propagandistic research studies – certainly didn’t advance the Republican outreach effort last week. With a thinly sourced new study that claimed immigration reform would bankrupt the country with trillions of dollars in additional social welfare costs, they undermined Heritage’s fragile integrity and offended the Latino voting bloc.

However flimsy, the report certainly reflected a deep split within Republican ranks over immigration policy. What made matters far worse was the subsequent revelation in The Washington Post that Jason Richwine, the study’s co-author, had asserted in his 2009 Harvard doctoral dissertation that Latino immigrants are not only less intelligent than America’s “white native population,” but that their descendants can be expected to suffer from “low average IQ” – a condition he described as “effectively permanent.”

Following the Post article on Richwine’s dissertation, Yahoo News reported that he has posted inflammatory articles on a “white nationalist” website, Alternative Right, comparing crime rates among Hispanics, whites, and blacks. “The reality of Hispanic crime,” he concludes, “should be one of the many factors we consider when setting immigration policy.”

Seeking to control the damage from these revelations, Heritage quickly released a statement disowning Richwine’s racial theories. “This is not a work product of The Heritage Foundation. Its findings in no way reflect the positions of The Heritage Foundation,” said Heritage official Mike Gonzalez in a statement. “Nor do the findings affect the conclusions of our study on the cost of amnesty to the U.S. taxpayer.”

But the true history of the Heritage Foundation – and of the American Enterprise Institute, the other major think tank where Richwine enjoyed a sinecure – reflects the ugly racial bias that has long disfigured the right in this country.

Scandalous links between the racist far right and allegedly respectable conservative institutions date back to Heritage’s earliest days in the 1970s, when the editorial board of Policy Review, its monthly publication, featured the notorious racial theorist Roger Pearson. Shortly after the Post reported Pearson’s role at Heritage, the think tank dumped him. But in the decades that followed, Heritage still lionized racially divisive politicians like Jesse Helms, the late Republican senator from North Carolina, awarding him its “highest honor” in 2002 and depicting him as an “indispensable patriot” when he died in 2008.

Over at the American Enterprise Institute, where Richwine’s anti-Hispanic essay still adorns its website, racist “scholarship” is likewise encouraged and disseminated. Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, an infamous work of pseudo-science that argues the genetic inferiority of blacks and Latinos, has been based at AEI for more than 20 years. Dinesh D’Souza held a fellowship there when he wrote The End of Racism, a book-length screed urging the repeal of basic civil rights statutes and endorsing racial discrimination by businesses, landlords, and private citizens. While D’Souza’s work provoked the resignations from AEI of black conservatives Robert Woodson and Glenn Loury, he eventually moved on to yet another conservative think tank, the Hoover Institution.

These dubious organizations — which continue to provide the intellectual ballast for the Republican Party – have emitted a spreading cesspool of academic and political racism for decades. When I published Big Lies in 2003, I examined how the arguments of Murray and D’Souza had defined a “mainstream conservative position on race” that promoted bigotry and undermined civil rights. Ten years on, despite all the talk of a kinder, gentler GOP, nothing has really changed.

 

By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, May 10, 2013

May 11, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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