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After Media Matters for America drew attention to former Reagan administration education secretary and current radio host Bill Bennett's claim that "[Y]ou could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down," Bennett was widely criticized by civil rights organizations, congressional Democrats, and the White House -- but defended by some prominent conservatives.
During the September 28 broadcast of his radio show, Bennett responded to a caller who suggested a baseless link between legalized abortion and projected shortfalls in the Social Security system by claiming that aborting all black children would reduce the crime level:
BENNETT: All right, well, I mean, I just don't know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don't know. I mean, it cuts both -- you know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up. Well --
CALLER: Well, I don't think that statistic is accurate.
BENNETT: Well, I don't think it is either, I don't think it is either, because first of all, there is just too much that you don't know. But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.
But some prominent conservative commentators are standing by Bennett. National Review Online contributor Andrew McCarthy claims Bennett "was right" and calls criticism of Bennett "shameful." Landmark Legal Foundation president and National Review Online contributing editor Mark Levin accused Media Matters of "smear[ing] a thoroughly decent man who harbors no racial prejudice of any kind." The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto called Media Matters "ragemongers." Levin and Taranto made no effort to explain how simply posting audio and a transcript of Bill Bennett saying something stupid constitutes a "smear" or "rage mongering." NRO's John Podhoretz claims Bennett is the victim of a "monstrous injustice." Rush Limbaugh derided Media Matters as a "Democrat [sic] hack website" and claimed that we took Bennett out of context.
Bennett himself stands by his comments, saying he is the one who is owed an apology. Bennett and his defenders have seized on Bennett's original statement that it would be "impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible" to actually abort all black babies. But that isn't the issue; of course everyone understands that Bill Bennett doesn't want to abort all black babies. The issue is that Bennett, upon thinking "crime rate," immediately thought of black people. The issue is that Bennett thinks and speaks of crime as an issue of race. Steven D. Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics -- the book Bennett claims he was paraphrasing -- has specifically and emphatically contradicted such a link:
Race is not an important part of the abortion-crime argument that John Donohue and I have made in academic papers and that [Stephen J.] Dubner and I discuss in Freakonomics. It is true that, on average, crime involvement in the U.S. is higher among blacks than whites. Importantly, however, once you control for income, the likelihood of growing up in a female-headed household, having a teenage mother, and how urban the environment is, the importance of race disappears for all crimes except homicide. (The homicide gap is partly explained by crack markets). In other words, for most crimes a white person and a black person who grow up next door to each other with similar incomes and the same family structure would be predicted to have the same crime involvement. Empirically, what matters is the fact that abortions are disproportionately used on unwanted pregnancies, and disproportionately by teenage women and single women.
I mean it when I say that, from a purely fact-based and statistical perspective, race is not in any way central to our arguments about abortion and crime.
Bennett's defense of his comments as being based on the book Freakonomics is baseless, as the author of that book has pointed out. And the defense that he wasn't actually advocating aborting all black babies is irrelevant: The controversy surrounding his comments is largely based on the fact that he was making broad claims about race and crime rather than class and crime -- not on whether or not anyone thinks Bill Bennett wants to abort all black children.
Bennett's radio show is distributed by the Salem Radio Network, whose parent company is Salem Communications. The company's CEO, Ed Atsinger, is a Bush Pioneer (read: has raised more than $100,000 for Bush's political campaigns) and a major figure in both Republican and Christian Right circles; the company's PAC donates only to Republicans. You can read more here.
Media Matters' complete coverage of the Bennett controversy can be found here.
Following the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) on conspiracy charges, false and misleading pro-DeLay spin has dominated news coverage. The claim -- debunked long ago by Media Matters -- that prosecutor Ronnie Earle is a "partisan zealot" has resurfaced (again and again and again) despite the fact that Earle has prosecuted four times as many Democrats and Republicans. Newspapers have reported DeLay's denial of "day-to-day" involvement in the operations of the political action committee Texans for a Republican Majority, upon which the indictment is based -- but have not noted evidence, including internal emails, that suggests this denial is untrue.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, meanwhile, suggested that DeLay's replacement, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), could "loosen the [ethical] baggage on the [Republican] party" -- overlooking or ignoring the fact that Blunt faces significant ethics questions of his own. As Media Matters explained:
Many of the ethics charges against Blunt concern his dubious efforts to use his position to benefit members of his family. For example, in 2003 Blunt sought a provision to Homeland Security legislation that would have benefited a company that had contributed approximately $150,000 to his campaign committees and that employed his son and future wife as lobbyists. As Knight Ridder reported on September 28, the provision aimed at "crack[ing] down on illegal and Internet-based cigarette sales," which was eventually removed from the bill by other House leaders, would have been a "huge boon to Altria, parent of cigarette maker Philip Morris." At the time, Blunt had a "personal relationship" with Altria lobbyist Abigail Perlman, according to a September 29 Associated Press report; Blunt and Perlman later married.
Blunt's lobbyist son, Andrew, also represents the United Parcel Service, which benefited from an amendment inserted at Roy Blunt's behest into an Iraq spending bill in 2002, according to a September 29 Associated Press report.
Other ethics charges have focused on Blunt's other son, Matt, who was elected Missouri governor in 2004. For example, the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader reported on August 10, 2003, about a "series of transactions in which a campaign committee controlled by the congressman [Roy Blunt] had contributed $50,000 to a state 7th District Congressional Republican Committee, which then gave $40,000 to Matt Blunt's campaign eight days later." The News-Leader also documented that "[a]nother committee controlled by the congressman, called Rely On Your Beliefs, or ROY B., also gave money to the 7th District Congressional Republican committee," and was "eventually fined $3,000 for improperly giving money to state candidates in Missouri, according to a consent order between the committee's treasurer and the state Ethics Commission."
Further, The Washington Post reported on May 17 that Matt Blunt "awarded one of the few remaining patronage plums in the state" (franchises to collect fees for driver's license renewals, tax payments for new cars and processing motor vehicle titles and registrations that can provide recipients with as much as $1 million over four years) to the wife and brother-in-law of U.S. Attorney Todd P. Graves, whose office has jurisdiction over Roy Blunt's congressional district. The Post noted that, in response to Democratic complaints, the associate deputy attorney general determined that there was "no existing conflict of interest that requires further action at this time."
As with DeLay, there is evidence that Roy Blunt is connected to Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is currently the subject of a criminal investigation led by the Justice Department. As The Washington Post documented on March 13, Blunt joined DeLay and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) in signing a letter threatening to hold Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton accountable if she failed to benefit Abramoff's client, the Louisiana Coushatta tribe, by blocking a bid by another Native American tribe to develop a casino in Louisiana.
Media Matters' full coverage of the coverage of DeLay's indictment can be found here.
2005 hasn't been the smoothest year for the Republican Party; as an incomplete and cursory review of the past several months makes clear:
- House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been indicted.
- His replacement, Roy Blunt, "has been dogged by ethics issues."
- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and federal prosecutors for possible insider trading, lied about what he knew about his stock, and may have broken Senate ethics rules.
- The Bush administration's head of procurement was arrested at his home.
- Bush's top political aide and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff are tangled up in an investigation of the potentially illegal outing of a covert CIA operative - an outing that may have had grave consequences for national security.
- Bush's approval ratings are abysmal.
- The American people think he and his administration bungled the handling of Hurricane Katrina.
- His major second-term domestic priority, privatization of Social Security, appears to be dead, as House Republicans are "struggling on an exit strategy."
- A senior House Republican announced that he will not seek-re-election in the wake of a federal grand jury investigation of financial transactions between him and a defense contractor to whom he steered government funds.
- Another senior House Republican has been caught up in a Senate ethics investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
- Polling indicates that a significant plurality of the public plans to vote for Democratic candidates for Congress next year.
So, naturally, Newsweek's Howard Fineman looks around, assesses the political landscape ... and concludes that Democrats "are gloomy" -- with, he argues, good reason.
Yes, at a time when it seems that half the Republicans in Washington are being fitted for orange jumpsuits, Howard Fineman argues that Democrats are in trouble.
Among Fineman's reasons for this odd conclusion:
Lack of star power
These things go in cycles, I guess, and it's hard to be glamorous when you are in the minority in both houses of Congress. That said, it's incontestably true that the Democrats simply aren't blessed with much charisma in the leadership ranks -- unless you consider Angelina Jolie a Democrat.
The GOP has Rudy, Colin, Arnold, McCain and Condi -- just to name a few: big, bold, controversial characters. Good copy if nothing else. The more or less official roster of titular Democratic leaders includes Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean and 2004 nominee John Kerry. 'Nuff said.
Fineman makes a dishonest apples-to-oranges comparison: to illustrate the purported lack of "star power" among Democrats, Fineman pretends eligible Democrats are limited to the "more or less official roster of titular Democratic leaders" -- conveniently allowing him to exclude Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton (who can't be excluded on the grounds that he is ineligible to run for president; after all, Fineman included Arnold Schwarzenegger).
But to illustrate the vast array of charismatic "star" Republicans, Fineman casts a much broader net, listing (in order) someone who holds no elective office; someone who has never hold elective office and currently holds no office of any kind; a governor who holds no leadership position in the party, is out of step with the actual leadership of the Republican party on many issues, and has an approval rating even worse than Bush's; a senator despised by many in his own party; and a woman who has never held elective office.
Fineman's comparison is simply dishonest. What is the rationale for including Schwarzenegger but not Bill Clinton? McCain but not Obama? Powell but not Edwards? Rice but not Hillary Clinton? There isn't one -- or, at least, Fineman doesn't even try to offer one: He just stacks the deck.
Even Fineman seems to realize that his exclusion of Hillary Clinton is bizarre at best and dishonest at worst. The next item on his laundry list of purported reasons why Democrats' prospects are dim is an attempt to marginalize Clinton:
Hillary love and fear
The purported inevitability of Hillary Rodham Clinton excites some Democrats, but deeply depresses some others, both inside and outside the Beltway.
Her forcefulness and talent -- not to mention her well-oiled money machine -- bring respect from party insiders and outsiders alike. But there is an undercurrent of unease about the Back to the Future quality of another Clinton candidacy. Do we really want to relive the Clinton Years? Under their breath, even many Clinton acolytes tend to say "NO."
Notice the wiggle words Fineman uses in making the wholly unsubstantiated claim that that Clinton loyalists don't want to "relive the Clinton Years." "Many" Clinton acolytes "tend" to say this -- under their breath, of course.
How many are "many"? How frequently do they "tend" to do this? Basically: who are they? Fineman avoids actually naming any (or, a cynic might argue, he gets around admitting that by "many Clinton acolytes," he means "Dick Morris") by conveniently claiming they express their reluctance "under their breath."
This is an old trick of Fineman's; he has a knack for supposedly finding Democrats who will criticize their old boss - off the record, of course. As Bob Somerby pointed out on his Daily Howler weblog at the time, Fineman wrote an extraordinary 2001 column in which he claimed "some top people who worked for Al Gore privately tell me they are glad (relieved might be a better word) that George Bush -- not Bill Clinton's veep -- is in the White House now." Somerby noted that Fineman "quotes no one by name." He simply made the extraordinary claim that Al Gore's top aides were glad George Bush won the 2000 election. (See also this unrelated Somerby post about Fineman and Gore.)
Pundits like Fineman were always out of touch with the American people when it came to the Clintons. When the public stood by Clinton in 1998, during Kenneth Starr's investigation of the Lewinsky matter, Washington pundits were outraged -- Fineman included. Conservative author and former Bush aide David Frum described Fineman's reaction in a January 27, 1998, Financial Post article:
You almost have to be in Washington to appreciate the seriousness of what happened here last week. After years -- years -- of being lied to and manipulated by U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Washington press has sickened of the man. On Friday, I heard something that caused me to pull my car over to the side of the road in surprise: Howard Fineman, editor of Newsweek, on the Rush Limbaugh show, thanked Limbaugh for his work over the past five years keeping public indignation against Clinton boiling. We have to wonder, Fineman said, whether we can continue to respect ourselves as a people if a man like this remains president.
Fineman is entitled to his opinions, of course. But one has to wonder whether the throngs of former Clinton-Gore aides lined up outside his office, ready and willing to trash their old bosses, is real -- or made-up in an attempt provide support for his own opinions. And one has to wonder how it is possible to gaze upon the smoldering wreckage of the Republican Party and conclude that Democrats have good reason to be gloomy.