Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A few things to know about "Ten Things to Know"

James Madison wrote that a republic is "a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior" (The Federalist # 39). His fellow delegate at the Constitutional Convention, Roger Sherman, opined that "Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behavior of rulers" (Madison's Notes, June 26, 1787).

I think Madison, Sherman, and the other founders might be pleased to know that thanks to computers and the Internet, today's voters have an unrivaled opportunity to discuss and debate which men or women are best suited to lead the nation with their "good behavior." With a simple click, one can publish information about this candidate or that issue on a blog, or send thoughts to a hundred friends on one's e-mail list.

Of course, this amazing technology also enables one to check statements made by others with greater ease than ever before. If I was writing a book twenty years ago and made the comment, for example that "The Supreme Court said in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States..." if you wanted to know whether I was paraphrasing the court accurately, you would have had to go to a law library and pull out the relevant copy of U.S. Reports. Probably you wouldn't do that, because it would take time and you had other committments. But today, googling is gravy; you can call up the opinion online and read it yourself in seconds.

These twin blessings of modern democracy, sharing of thoughts about the candidates and ready access to information, collided for me this week when a family member forwarded me an e-mail from moveon.org about John McCain. Here's the text, from their own website:


Let's give credit where credit is due: moveon.org does give sources for the accusations they level against the Arizona senator seeking the White House. The problem, however--and this is where fast access to information comes in--is that just a little bit of Internet research reveals that "there was things which he stretched," as Huck Finn said (Chapter One of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

I'm not going to go over every one of moveon.org's ten points, but there are two that cry out for comment. The first is the assertion that "Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan says McCain "will make Cheney look like Gandhi." After getting over the scary mental image of Dick Cheney dressing like Gandhi and wearing a loincloth, I decided to look and see if there was a transcript of Buchanan's remarks.

There's better than a transcript; it's on youtube:


Wow, youtube is a good research tool. Take that you who thought it was useful for nothing more than laughing at sneezing pandas or frat boys igniting their own flatulence!

Okay, but here's another clip:


Buchanan said, and I quote, "We need a Nixon... who tried to get us out of Vietnam with honor." I doubt pining for a second coming of Nixon is a sentiment most people in moveon.org's fold endorse, and thus Buchanan's exclamations can hardly be considered an argument for people to vote for Clinton or Obama this fall, as MoveOn hopes.

The second point moveon.org makes about McCain that I want to address is this one: "He positions himself as pro-environment, but he scored a 0—yes, zero—from the League of Conservation Voters last year."

And here's where the red flag goes up: instead of citing the League of Conservation's own website for this nugget, moveon.org refers to a blog, one that is quite hostile to McCain. Why in the world would they direct us to someone's commentary on what an organization has done instead of citing the organization's own cyberspace home?

Well, let's go to the League of Conservation Voter's site and hunt around a bit:


The folks at moveon.org are correct; McCain did receive a score of zero during the recent Congressional session. On the other hand, in 2003-2004 he voted 56% of the time the "right" way--that is, he voted as the League would hope. If you care deeply about environmental issues, that doesn't sound very pleasant--but I would point out that McCain's '03-'04 score is comparable to Barack Obama's 67% score for the current legislative session:


If you like to vote green, obviously Hillary Clinton is the candidate for you; she's never scored less than 73%:


But wait a minute. Senator Clinton's score is a HUGE drop for her; she's never before been lower than 88%. What's caused her marks to fall?

Partly it's that she didn't show up for several votes. And that, in fact, is why McCain got a zero--he was absent at every one of the fifteen roll calls the League counts. What moveon.org is not exactly telling you in the e-mail is that the League of Conservation Voters counts a member of Congress as having voted the wrong way even if they didn't vote at all. That's their prerogative, of course--but it's also basically the same as saying "Either you're with us or you're against us," a stand taken by a President moveon.org despises and on an issue--terrorism--that most Americans find more pressing than farm subsidies.

But the problem isn't whether the League of Conservation Voters calls absenteeism a wrong vote or not. The problem is that by jeering ""He positions himself as pro-environment, but he scored a 0—yes, zero—from the League of Conservation Voters last year," moveon.org is making it sound a lot worse than it is, as though McCain is in favor of rounding up all the Florida Key deer, slaughtering them, and serving them on a bun as luncheon for Karl Rove. It would have been a lot more accurate for MoveOn to write: "McCain has consistently been given low marks by the League of Conservation Voters, and this year he did not even show up in Congress to cast votes on ANY of the fifteen votes the League follows. And if you want to give him a pass because he's been running for president, you should note that Obama and Clinton, the two Democrats involved in a much more extended battle for their party's presidential nomination, both nevertheless found time to cast votes on eleven of these fifteen matters."

My way is a bit longer, but we're not cutting down trees to send e-mails. If moveon.org had phrased it as I do it would have given the recipients of their e-mail a picture far more fair, accurate, and informative.

Let me conclude this by laying aside moveon.org for a minute and talking about the League of Conservation Voters. Always remember that when ANY organization says that such and such a politician gets this or that score on issue A, it isn't just that the group is scoring the representative on his votes, they are saying that issue A is a part of what the organization considers relevant to their mission.

And on the League's scorecard for members of Congress this term, you get a marvelous example of this. Note one of the votes that McCain didn't make because he was out telling us that he deserved the presidency more than Mitt, Huck, Rudi, or the guy from Law & Order:



"Rejected: 41-53 (see complete tally)
By 41 yeas to 53 nays (Vote No. 320), Brownback Amendment No. 2708, to prevent contributions to organizations that perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning."

Here's where the League, like moveon.org, is guilty of not giving sufficient information and thus making something sound a hell of a lot worse than it is. "Wow," a reader of the League's page on this vote who doesn't know better might exclaim, "Congress tried to prevent We the People from contributing to Planned Parenthood and the like? I didn't think they could do that."

And of course, they can't. This is America; you can contribute your dollars to legal organizations as you please, within some limits. But that's not what the Brownback Amendment was about; it was about whether federal funds--your tax dollars--should go to abortion performers. Senate Amendment 2708 was an unsuccessful attempt to put that restricition on an appropriations bill that later was passed and became Public Law 110-161. Here's the relevant pages on that legislation:


The title and purpose of the bill is: "Making appropriations for the Department of State, foreign operations, and related programs for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2008, and for other purposes." If you scroll down a bit, you'll see that among these appropriations are:

"Title II: Conservation Programs - Appropriates funds for the following: (1) Office of the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment; and (2) Natural Resources Conservation Service."

Sounds like a conservation issue, right? One that the League of Conservation Voters would take a position on and score Congressmen and Senators based on their votes?

Guess what: they don't. From the Library of Congress summary we learn that the Senate passed this on September 6, 2007 by a vote of 81 to 12 (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:HR02764:@@@R). McCain, alas, was not there.

Of course he wasn't. September 6, 2007 is the very same day that the Brownback Amendment was rejected 53 to 41. (Which, by the way, shows us that a bunch of Senators who voted for the Brownback amendment and lost nevertheless supported the bill as it finally stood. This is an object lesson on how debate in Congress is often simply engaged in to make political points.)

So why does the League of Conservation voters report the vote on the Brownback Amendment but not the vote on the bill as a whole, passed the same day? The amendment was simply about whether funding should go to abortion advocacy organizations, while the bill in its entirety expressly provided funds for conservation. Why is the League counting one vote and not the other? (And no, they aren't fudging the data to make McCain appear worse. There is no record on the League's website of this appropriations vote for Obama or Clinton either.)

To me, it surely seems that the League is counting abortion as a conservation issue, but not counting appropriations for conservation as a conservation issue. What is the basis for that?

Now let me be clear. I'm not arguing that family planning is not a conservation issue; I believe it is. It's pretty obvious that one of the problems Mother Earth has with providing fresh air, water, and food, is that there are over six billion people on the planet. Certainly it would be good for conservation of land and nonhuman organisms if we could keep that number from rising and maybe even causing it to gradually decline a bit.

But forgive my bluntness: we don't give Hitler high marks for conservation because of the Holocaust. And while few would argue that abortion is as foul as Nazi atrocities, there are nevertheless a good number of people who agree that conservation is important, and who concede the planet is overpopulated, but who also are opposed to abortion.

But the Brownback Amendment wasn't about whether abortion is an acceptable or not; it only concerned whether public funds should go to organizations that believe it is. And there is a huge gray area there, by which I mean there are people who think women have a right to abortions but there is no obligation for the government to pay for them. I'd call your attention to the fact that three of the Supreme Court Justices who were in the majority in Roe v. Wade--Burger, Stewart, and Powell--took that postion just four years later in Maher v. Roe 432 U.S. 464 (1977) ) http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1976/1976_75_1440/).

All in all, I think the League of Conservation voters would be better off if they didn't count votes having anything to do with abortion. Why tick off potential members who are devout Catholics opposed to abortion but who also think we should hold Congress responsible for making sure we have pure drinking water? Why not stick to the core issues the League stands for rather than risk alienating folks with something really controversial and at the fringe of the green movement?

So by doing all this research--all inspired by an e-mail blasting John McCain--I came to the conclusion that moveon.org and the League of Conservation Voters have basically told the truth in these instances--but as Huck Finn would say, "there was things which he stretched."

I have no doubt that Mark Twain, were he alive today, would spend a lot of time on the Internet.

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