Sunday, June 30, 2013

June Month in Review: Let it Snowden, Let it Snowden, Let it Snowden...Too Much Else Going On...Immigration, Syria, The Court...(June 30, 2013)

You can just envision President Obama sitting in the Oval Office a month ago, hoping that June would bring some “page turners” to get the American people past the trifecta of messy May controversies:  the IRS “targeting” Tea Party-esque organizations, the Justice Department pulling phone records of AP journalists and, of course, Benghazi, yet again.

Beware of what you wish for?  It was quite a month, with more consequential actions, perhaps, than the rest of 2013 to date.

It did not take long for Edward Snowden to change the dialogue in a hurry. Snowden, of course, is the 29-year old contractor hired by the NSA, who suddenly had access to all sorts of secrets on their anti-terrorist programs, which he proceeded to document and reveal.  Most damaging was the existence of a massive “data mining” NSA project to collect and analyze phone calls of virtually all Americans, sifting for calls to anyone on the terrorist watch list or any other suspicious patterns.

Ironically, this was not really a revelation.  Check out this story from the USA Today:

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.  The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

This story was published on May 11, 2006.  Imagine someone telling Nixon that someone had already leaked the Pentagon Papers seven years before Daniel Ellsburg, so what’s the big deal?

But the Snowden story sparked a brief national dialogue on the trade-offs inherent in battling terrorists versus preserving our civil liberties.  Gallup found that 53% of Americans disapproved of the program versus only 37% that approved.  But when broken down by party, this one was not the norm, in which both Republicans and Democrats have overwhelming (say, 80/20 or even 90/10) margins.  Democrats favored the program 49/40 whereas Republicans opposed by 63/32.  But this dialogue drifted, in part due to the bi-partisan support of the program for many years, with lots of votes cast…no one had a stake in making this a political issue.

The story turned instead to the micro-issue of whether Snowden was a “whistleblower,” “traitor,” “civil disobedience hero” or “felon” and it might have died out right there.  But it was given new legs by Snowden’s exotic global escape plan, which took him from Hong Kong to a Moscow Airport, embarrassing President Obama and roiling the diplomatic waters with both China and Russia.  Snowden remains there as I write this, attempting to seek political asylum in Ecuador, his every move (and non-move) breathlessly reported by virtually every media outlet.  But while the Snowden story lurched awkwardly to stalemate, other major happenings on the political scene pushed him off the front pages.

The Senate overwhelmingly (68 to 32) passed a major immigration reform bill, led by a bi-partisan “Gang of Eight” Senators, a disparate and star-studded group including John McCain, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin and Marco Rubio.  Schumer and McCain have high hopes that such a margin will put pressure on the House to follow suit.  Because the House always seems to bend to such pressure….oh wait, actually they never do.  The House thus far is refusing to even consider the Senate version, working on their own bill that ignores the crucial issue of finding a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in America right now.  The political stakes are huge: Obama wants this one for his legacy, forward thinking Republicans believe the future of their party is at stake given the rapid rise of the Latino community in population growth and political power, and the House Republicans believe…well, it remains to be seen whether they continue to want to score philosophical points and win local elections, or doom themselves to minority status for decades.

Bypassing Congress entirely, President Obama announced a comprehensive program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions via a set of executive actions.  Expect the courts to be busy as Obama is relying on decades old legislation (like Nixon’s landmark Clean Air Act) as the basis for setting tough new standards on coal.  And while Obama’s leadership is welcome on this front, our emissions are already declining…the real threat is from China and the Far East where they grow alarmingly and virtually unchecked.

President Obama also overcame his long resistance to providing arms to the Syrian rebels in their deadly war with President Assad, disappointing those who considered his restraint to date to be a welcome change from prior drifts into Mideast wars.  But the documented use of chemical weapons on the part of Assad forced Obama’s hand, having draw a bright line for some action in that event.  Now to be seen:  whether the slope of intervention is as slippery as the many precedents would suggest.

The month ended with a trio of Supreme Court decisions that illustrate the Roberts’ Court’s nimbleness, if nothing else, in crafting opinions that accomplish the intended objectives of the Chief: to give a bit today in the hopes of winning even bigger tomorrow, or the next decade.  Obama’s time to burnish his legacy is growing short, but Roberts has 20+ years with which to work.

  • The Court ruled that affirmative action can stay, but the standards for using race as a defining variable must be stricter, and sent the case back to a lower court to re-adjudicate against that direction.

  • Then the Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 also can stay, but in virtually denuded form, as they proclaimed Section 4 unconstitutional, thereby rendering Section 5, the enforcement provision, to be unenforceable.  Section 4 was the portion that determined which states or counties must submit any potential voting changes to the Justice Department for review.  The Court ruled that though Congress had extended the law by 25 years in 2006, they relied on simply continuing the use of 40-year old data to make those determinations, and that part was unconstitutional.  This allowed Roberts to say the ball was in Congress’s court to redress the data issue, knowing full well that ice cubes have better chances of surviving July 4th than Congress does of agreeing to the required revisions. I love Ruth Bader Ginsberg's line as she took the unusual step of reading her strong dissent from the bench:  “Throwing out the preclearance when it was worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” 

  • Finally, the Court decided the two gay marriage cases in non-surprising ways, throwing out the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which denied federal marriage benefits to gay couples, even those legally married (now these couples can indeed get those benefits), and refusing on a technicality to consider Prop 8 in California, which had the effect of legalizing gay marriage in California yet again.  The Court thus refused to get either ahead or behind on this issue by not pronouncing on the constitutionality of gay marriage, and instead letting the remaining 37 states decide its legality on their own. 
And then there was some election news:

  • Chris Christie attempted to thread a narrow needle in making a very public decision on the timing of the special election required to fill the seat of the recently deceased Democratic Senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg.  Christie quickly decided to hold the special election just three weeks before the general election, rather than on the day itself, basically to prevent the Senatorial election from boosting Democratic turnout on Election Day.  This is because popular Democrat Newark Mayor Cory Booker will likely be on the ticket, which will indeed create excitement, and, more to the point, Christie himself is on the ballot seeking reelection for Governor.  So, Christie put the special election just a few weeks earlier, simply to ensure his own victory will be the landslide victory he wants to take into his Presidential run.  So what, it’s just $24 million extra bucks to be charged to New Jerseyians… 

It has been quite a month, indeed.  I’ll be back next week with a look at the political implications) of all this (that is, the numbers).  Comments welcome!

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