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Death penalty in the Colorado gubernatorial race

Over the past few election cycles, Colorado has become an important "battleground state" and a bellwether for larger electoral trends. Featuring contested races for both a Senate seat and the Governor's mansion, it is arguably the most important site of the upcoming midterm elections. The gubernatorial contest has Bob Beauprez, an established figure in the Colorado Republican party, attempting to unseat (the previously very popular) Gov. Hickenlooper.

Social issues have entered the two campaigns in some expected ways -- abortion, health care coverage, gun safety laws, and marijuana legalization. But during these gubernatorial debates, the issue of the death penalty has also briefly held the spotlight.

Back in May, Beauprez made a campaign promise that surprised many, since he presents himself as a faithful Roman Catholic. "When I'm governor," he said during a GOP debate, "Nathan Dunlap will be executed." Or, in a headline offered by Mother Jones, "Elect Me, and I'll Kill that Guy."

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All in a night's work for Ruth Bader Ginsburg

You’re permitted to cast a ballot in Texas (where early voting began Monday) if you show a concealed-handgun license at the polling place, but not if you present a student, veteran, or federally recognized Indian tribe ID card. Of course, that eligible voters (in Texas and elsewhere) would suddenly need specific types of photo identification or meet any variety of strict new requirements was foreseeable when the Supreme Court last year struck down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorably dissented at the time: “Throwing out preclearance when it has 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.” The umbrella discarded, Texas duly implemented measures making it indisputably harder for many people to vote—precisely the kind of maneuver the preclearance provision had many times since the civil rights era forestalled.

Just how hard was made clear by Ginsburg (who else?) in her quickly-becoming-famous, wee-hours dissent in the Court’s weekend decision allowing Texas’s voter identification law to stand—this despite an earlier federal ruling striking it down explicitly for its discriminatory intent. Ginsburg noted that more than 400,000 eligible voters face round-trip travel times of three hours or more to the nearest government office issuing the allowable forms of ID, where they will likely have to present a certified birth certificate. Those normally cost $22; though the state offers certificates for election purposes at $2 or $3, this information isn’t available on relevant websites or forms. Taken together, Ginsburg logically concluded, it amounts to a poll tax, and those were outlawed with ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment.

Texas has justified its strict new requirements as a safeguard against voter fraud. Two instances of voter impersonation were confirmed in all of the elections held in Texas between 2001 and 2011, so clearly there is a problem—though fraud isn’t it.

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Tracking Syria's Cultural Heritage

It goes without saying that the worst tragedy of Syria's war is the loss of life and liberty. Those with the power to ameliorate suffering must do so. But academics and other scholars of the region don't have that power, and instead they have been developing their own means of trying to help Syria. The past two years have seen a dramatic expansion in efforts to track Syria's cultural heritage.

Cultural property -- monuments, buildings, artifacts, museums -- is not superficial ornamentation of a nation's identity. Rather, nations use cultural heritage to understand their pasts, bolster their spirits during times of conflict, and imagine their futures. For these reasons, archaeologists and historians of Syria, whether professional or amateur, have built up an impressive infrastructure for the acquisition and dissemination of information.

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Meanwhile, back at the war

Perhaps you have been distracted by doings at the Vatican and the fear-filled news of Ebola (Although, there's this: Nina Pham, a critical-care nurse who cared for Mr. Duncan, the Ebola victim,  is now in isolation herself at Texas Presbyterians. She has been described as a compassionate and caring person [I felt proud reading that she grew up in a Vietnamese Catholic family]). NYTimes

But back to the ME: Things seem to be falling apart. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who always sees the dark side of things (he may be right this time), writes today that the Shiite militias who are the only real fighting force protecting Baghdad are also busy kidnapping and killing Sunnis. (So much for a coalition government.) Meanwhile ISIS has moved further south in Anbar province and are now due west of the Baghdad International Airport. They have moved up their artillerly. (Do U.S. advisors now in Baghdad have an alternate departure route?) Juan Cole has much the same news with the addition that ISIL has looted heavy weapons from the Iraqi army base it captured in the Anbar province of Hit.

Turkey is dragging its feet on cooperating with the U.S. and its "coalition," while it is also reported that the Turkish Air Force is bombing Turkish Kurds while Turkish Kurds are leading protests against President Erdogans's foot dragging.  Here is an analysis of the Turkish/Kurdish struggles from a Turkish source.

The Day George Mitchell Saved American Patriotism From Oliver North

(When Sen. George Mitchell receives Commonweal's Catholic in the Public Square Award later this month, there will be little---and perhaps no---mention of his work on the Iran-contra committee and his July 13, 1987 statement to Col. Oliver North.  (There's no mention of it in the lengthy biographical entries about Mitchell on Wikipedia and the Academy of Achievement.) And that is probably as it should be.  Mitchell's more recent work as an international peacemaker, and particularly his work in Northern Ireland, will rightly take center stage.  All the more reason then, to remember it here.)

It was the summer of 1987 and the Iran-contra hearings were in full swing. As Congress came back from its Independence Day recess the man in the middle of the scandal, NSC aide Lt. Col. Oliver North, began his testimony...and a folk hero was born.

With his erect bearing, immaculate uniform, beribboned chest, and puppy-dog eyes, North embodied an American patriotic ideal.  A man of action who loves his country and will do what it takes to get the job done.  A man alternately bewildered at and defiant of those who would besmirch the honor of his good name.

Meanwhile the Congressional investigators looked like...members of Congress.  Mostly older, graying, paunchy, suited men who sounded like...well, members of Congress, speaking the orotund dialect peculiar to that body.

To the evident delight of some Republicans (e.g., Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming) on the 26 man (yes, all men) combined House and Senate select committees, North's reputation soared overnight as he cleverly exploited the committee's own rules to make soaring speeches in defense of himself and of the secret and illegal policies he had carried out---selling arms (despite an arms embargo) to Iran for the release of American hostages (thus providing a further incentive for kidnappers) and secretly funneling the funds raised to the contras in Nicaragua (despite the Boland Amendment).  "I didn't think it was wrong; I thought it was a neat idea," said North.  Most Americans watching the televised hearings cheered him on.

It was different on radio.

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Paul Ryan, America & the Option for the Poor

Well, kudos to America magazine and to Rep. Paul Ryan for their mutual engagement---with each other and with Pope Francis---on the issue of poverty.

That said, it appears Rep. Ryan's "big idea" for how the federal government can help the poor is by blockgranting federal aid to the poor and letting state governments "try different ways of providing aid and then to test the results—in other words, more flexibility in exchange for more accountability".  Not only is this an old conservative policy idea; it's one that doesn't help the poor.  (It can, on the other hand, be helpful to state governments that want to cut their own spending on the poor.)

There's also no mention in Ryan's America essay of his fervent desire to cut taxes for wealthy Americans.  In an August interview with The Weekly Standard, Ryan stated that cutting the top marginal income tax rate is "even more pressing now" than it was during the Reagan administration.  Tax cuts---especially for the rich---are in Ryan's view "the secret sauce" that yields "faster economic growth, more upward mobility, and faster job creation".

Ryan does engage with the Church's teachings on subsidiarity and solidarity in his America piece.  Opinions will vary as to how successfully; but given that Ryan will take over budget and tax policy for House Republicans in January, it's worth paying attention to what he's thinking and doing.

What would a deal with Iran mean? And no deal?

The negotiations on Iran's nuclear development with the U.S. and five major powers are coming up against a November 24 deadline. Charles Freeman, retired diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, offers an assessment of the central issues in reaching a deal--or failing to.

Should the negotiaitons fail, he notes at least three serious consequences: 1. the sanctions will seriously weaken (the sword the U.S. believes it holds over Iran); Iran could proceed with its program without international monitoring; nuclear proliferation woud increase in the Middle East. All of this, he argues, needs to be measured against the current upheval in Syria and Iraq.

At LobLog. Iran Nuclear Talks: Ironies, Observations, and a Bottom Line.

George Mitchell: A Profile in Political Courage

There's a nice little story in our local paper about the Kennedy family delivering its Profile in Courage award to former president George H. W. Bush for his role in the 1990 budget compromise that cut spending, raised taxes and---along with the 1993 Clinton budget---laid the foundation for the federal budget surpluses of the late 1990s.

Unfortunately for both the Kennedys and the Bushes, the historical record undercuts the notion that Bush acted courageously.  As his granddaughter pointed out when accepting the award on his behalf back in May, "Candidly speaking, my grandfather didn’t want to raise taxes in 1990...".  Well then, with all due respect, it's hard to conclude it was an act of political courage on his part to do so, isn't it?

Especially because Bush had painted himself into that particular political corner with his craven (and unnecessary) "Read my lips; no new taxes" pledge at the 1988 Republican national convention.  "The Pledge" didn't get him elected in 1988; and breaking it was not the cause of his defeat in 1992.

No, if any politician deserves a profile in courage award for the 1990 budget deal it's then-Senate Majority Leader---and Commonweal's 2014 "Catholics in the Public Square" honoree---George Mitchell.

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What Next? Who Benefits?

What is the U.S. doing in the Middle East? A senior retired diplomat, Robert Hunter, looks back on U.S. policy after 9/11 and looks forward to the effort to degrade ISIL. He argues that U.S. presidents have failed to ask two questions: What follows? Who benefits? He points to the cross-purposes and their conseuqences as the U.S. once again tries to lead a grand coalition against ISIS/ISIL.

"The US has committed several key errors, some out of lack of knowledge, some out of the felt need to respond to external events, and some in misguided response to the desires of US partners in the region.

"After 9/11, the US chose not only to extirpate those responsible for the first attack on the continental United States since 1814, but also to overthrow the Taliban regime, occupy the country, pull in all 27 other NATO allies to help, and try—but fail—to create a New Afghanistan. Then in 2003, a small group of advisors around President George W. Bush leveraged popular reaction to 9/11 to invade Iraq, one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in US history....

"With the invasion of Iraq, the US blundered into the midst of civil war in the Middle East. It overthrew a Sunni regime that dominated a Shia majority population. Most of the troubles the US now faces in the Middle East flow from that fact. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have sought to “redress the balance,” in particular by getting the US to overthrow the minority Alawite (Shia) regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.... Thus the United States became an active party in a Sunni-Shia civil war, first unwittingly on the Shia side (invasion of Iraq) and subsequently on the Sunni side. It has also been supporting the geopolitical interests of states that oppose Iran, among other countries, which are competing for power among themselves, thus double-binding the US in support of others’ regional agendas that should mean little or nothing to the United States and its interests.....

And it goes on, check out Hunter's analysis at LobeLog.

The racist dirge of America

When I commute by bus, I am often the only white person on it. I've been to diversity training many times and absorbed its lessons. I've had my classroom secretly subjected to a race audit -- a student who was tracking how many non-white voices were in the syllabus or cited as authorities in class. I know what redlining is.

In short, as a student and a teacher, I've been confronted about my white privilege quite consistently.

But I still needed Ferguson.

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Parsing Pew: Did gay-marriage foes' row just get tougher to hoe?

Yesterday Pew Research released the results of a new survey of public attitudes on the place of religion in political life. The major finding, as you may have seen, is that nearly three-quarters of Americans now say the influence of religion is waning. That figure is up more than twenty points--from 51 percent to 71--since 2001, when Pew first began measuring the trend. At the same time, growing numbers of Americans want religion to play a more prominant role in politics. In advance of the 2010 midterm elections, 43 percent of Americans said houses of worship should express their view on social and political issies--today 49 percent agree. A growing minority of Americans (32 percent) even said churches should endorse political candidates. Naturally, those who hold such views tend to believe society benefits from religion; they lean more Republican than Democratic.

But that's not the only interesting material in the survey. Pew's research turned up a bunch of interesting findings related to same-sex marriage. Some of that data may surprise you, as it may prove frustrating to leading opponents of gay marriage.

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Rev. Bruce Shipman

Rev. Bruce Shipman, the Episcopal priest and former Chaplain at Yale, lives in a neighboring town. The controversy that surrounded his letter to the New York Times (August 21. 2014) concerning the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe caused his resignation from the Yale chaplaincy—and much by way of accusation and defense. Not surprisingly the issue has played out with prominence in the local newspaper, the Day of New London.

I must admit when I read his Times letter on the day it was published I thought that it would cause some strong responses, but I could not then see anything that could be construed as anti-Semitic. I read and re-read the letter once the controversy broke, and even after puzzling over the Day’s editorial taking Shipman to task, I could only just comprehend the nature of the outcry. Frankly, I worried over my own sensitivity to concerns for social and political justice. What was I missing?

In the letter written last Sunday in the Day,  Shipman points to the First Amendment issues clearly involved and, of course, the specific related concern for academic freedom. He also explains the effect that “the furor” he faces has upon his life and vocation. Likewise, regarding his vocation, Shipman makes clear the fundamental issue of “prophetic witness” that is part of his ministry. I think it only fair to honor his concern that “that subject” be brought into the light.

Why Obama's strategy won't work

Two pieces (somewhat long) lay out the reasons 1. there will be no grand coalition gathered against ISIS and 2. the competing goals of the relevant Middle Eastern nations.

Raghida Dergam The World Post   The US president may decide in the end that this is not his war, and that it is best to return to his country to fortify it against terrorism, and let ISIS unleash itself on everyone until it commits suicide or until it is slayed eventually. This is perhaps the course he might choose if it appears to him that all those who want him to fight their wars on their behalf will meet his war with ingratitude and petulance.   

David Stockman Contra Corner  In truth, the whole thing is a giant, pathetic farce. There will be no coalition, no strategy, no boots, no ISIS degradation, no gain in genuine safety and security for the American homeland. This is an utterly misbegotten war against an enemy that has more urgent targets than America, but a war which will nonetheless fire-up the already boiling cauldron of Middle Eastern tribal, religious and political conflict like never before. There is no name for what Obama is attempting except utter folly.

Compared to the furrowed brow of American newscasters and journalists, these two pieces have a distant skepticism about the ISIS situation and the U.S. response so far. Note the competing and incompatible Sunni/ Shiite interests at stake. These make a grand coalition unlikely and as Dergam suggests it might also be the key to any small local coalition that would "degrade" ISIS.

Abortion coverage on the health-care exchanges: still a fine mess.

Several health-insurance companies across ten states are not in compliance with the Affordable Care Act when it comes to handling elective abortion coverage, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. The investigation, which was requested last winter by several members of the U.S. House of Representatives—including Speaker John Boehner—did not set out to measure whether insurance companies were following the law. Rather, it was intended to discover which health plans on the exchanges cover elective abortions, how they charge for that coverage, and how enrollees can determine whether the plans they’re considering cover such abortions. But over the course of its research, the GAO discovered that many of the insurance companies they surveyed—eighteen total—fell significantly short of the law's requirements. And some of them didn’t even realize it.

The Department of Health and Human Services has promised that it will soon issue further guidance to bring insurance companies into full compliance with the law.

The ACA allows insurers to sell policies that cover elective abortion on the state health-care exchanges—unless state law says otherwise—but it governs key aspects of those policies. The law and its implementing regulations prohibit the use of federal subsidies to pay for elective abortion coverage. To make sure that doesn’t happen, insurers selling such plans on the health-care exchanges must do three things: They have to estimate the monthly cost of elective abortion coverage on an average actuarial basis, which cannot be less than $1 (that prevents insurers from giving it away). Then they must collect from enrollees a separate payment equal to that cost. Finally, after they receive that payment, issuers have to segregate it from any other premiums collected from the enrollee. But before the insurer even gets to the billing stage, regulations require that customers be able to tell whether the policy they’re considering covers elective abortions. That was the plan, anyway. But it doesn't look like things are proceeding according to plan.

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Using 'Hobby Lobby' to refuse a subpoena about child labor

During oral arguments in Hobby Lobby v. Sibelius and subsequent written opinions, the Supreme Court debated the case's unintended consequences.

Would laws requiring vaccinations or prohibiting child labor, for example, now be affected by the new interpretation of RFRA? Or would the "parade of horribles" never come to pass?

A new case from Utah provides a surprising early glimpse: a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has successfully refused a federal subpoena based on his religious belief in secrecy.

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Salaita says he isn't going away; U of I apparently offers a financial settlement

Nathan Guttman at the Jewish Daily Forward has a round-up of the Salaita case at the University of Illinois. dotCommonweal has had a discussion about the free speech aspect; Guttman gives a run down of the ups and downs with the conclusion that Salaita says he will take his case to court if his job offer is not honored. Apparently he is turning down a university offer for a financial settlement, paying him to go away, it appears.

Two of Guttman's key points: "It is a university’s nightmare scenario, involving almost every possible mess an academic institution could encounter: choosing between free speech and the need to maintain civil discourse; balancing academic faculty hiring prerogatives with donor pressure; defining the role of social media in academic settings; distinguishing between what’s personal and what’s fair game for professional review and treading the fine line of tenure and the protection it provides.

"For Jewish students seeking to defend Israel and other pro-Israel activists, the Salaita debate also means finding the right balance between fighting anti-Israel sentiments on campus and framing the case as one that affects all students, not just supporters of the Jewish state."

Now They Tell Us UPDATE

Three knowledgable and connected Times reporters, Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Landler, write today:

....Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East.

Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser during Mr. Obama’s first term, said the public discussion about the ISIS threat has been a “farce,” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”

Should that story have been written a week ago? They note one element that I have thought and argued about over the last few weeks: What are "the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East." Story here, NYTimes, 9/11!

UPDATE: Can Obama's plan work? Skeptics right and left. Lobe Log

Salaita, the Free Speech Movement, and the Occupation of "Civility"

Depending on which metaphor one prefers, the American left’s obsession with identity politics has become either a dead-end or an ironic u-turn. I have written about this issue before, in the context of contemporary conservatives stealing the liberal political playbook and deploying the imagery of oppression in the context of Christians who face “discrimination” in an allegedly secularist society. There’s now another manifestation to contemplate, made clear in the Salaita affair and a discussion of “civility" in its wake.

A summary of events so far looks something like this:

1. Prospective faculty member at U Illinois gets “unhired” because of some critical comments made on social media.
2. University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise makes a public statement defending her decision on that unhiring, focusing especially on the importance and priority of “civility.”
3. University of California Chancellor Nicholas Dirks turns the discussion of civility in an unexpected direction, claiming to find relevant lessons about civil discourse in the Free Speech Movement.

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What Is George Mitchell Up To?

For those who've watched his public career over the years, the three-part essay just published by the Boston Globe on the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, and the importance of America's role in achieving that peaceful resolution, is classic George Mitchell.

He begins by acknowledging the complexity of the situation and the legitimacy of the deeply felt emotions experienced by all parties.

"Conflicts in the Middle East are many and overlapping: Arabs and Jews; Israelis and Palestinians; Persians and Arabs; Sunni and Shiite Muslims; fundamentalists and moderates; Sunni-led governments and Sunni opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In this highly complex and volatile region, what should the United States do? What can we do?"

See what he did there?  Having acknowledged the complexity and seeming intractability of the problem, Mitchell immediately frames the discussion in terms of his own country's moral and pragmatic responses, and responsibilities.  He's intensely interested in dealing with the world as it is...but always in the context of thinking about the world as it should be.

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Someone linked to Fordham will be New York governor

Well, someone already is, and he’ll probably keep his job. But if Andrew Cuomo (class of ’79) manages to lose, New York’s Jesuit university will still be represented. His Democratic primary opponent Zephyr Teachout is on the faculty of Fordham’s law school, while Republican challenger Rob Astorino is a 1989 graduate.

Fordham has noted the connection (“We’re pleased, if not surprised that our alumni are represented in the governor’s race,” says Fordham spokesman Robert Howe), and a group of students had already tried to raise support for a debate among the candidates on campus. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out—though even the candidates are learning, firsthand, how aloof, to put it politely, Cuomo can be: just watch the brush-off Teachout gets from the governor at the weekend’s Labor Day parade in the video below. Not very collegial!

Ducking debates isn’t all that uncommon a maneuver for incumbents, though Cuomo’s defense—that they’re “a disservice to democracy”—is new. One could reasonably counter that the governor’s unilateral, premature dissolution of a commission he formed to investigate political corruption performs a similar disservice, whether or not that investigation might have led in the direction of the governor (which it did, and now there is a federal investigation into possible obstruction of justice). It was a move that cost Cuomo the presumptive endorsement of the New York Times and helped win Teachout the outright backing of, among others, the state chapters of the National Organization for Women and the Sierra Club, the Public Employees Federation, and The Nation—which compares her progressivism favorably to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s. Even if, as likely, Cuomo wins Tuesday’s primary, that progressivism could still find representation in Albany via Teachout’s running mate Tim Wu (McGill ‘95, alas): the lieutenant governor is elected separately in New York, and Cuomo’s choice, former congresswoman Kathy Hochul, is not quite the lock that he is. Regardless of what happens, writes John Cassidy, Cuomo will emerge “a diminished figure." Even a respectable finish for Teachout, The Nation says, “could illustrate the strength of the progressive base and keep the proposals that Teachout and Wu have been fighting for alive.”

Oh yes – Astorino. He won elective office even before graduating Fordham, taking a board of education seat in suburban Mount Pleasant, New York, and he’s held a number of other offices since, including, currently, Westchester County Executive. But did you know he was the first program director at the Catholic Channel on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio, where he also hosted a weekly radio show from St. Patrick’s Cathedral with Cardinal Edward Egan and, later, Timothy Dolan? "I think it's a great opportunity not just for the archdiocese but for the Catholic Church as a whole to reach out to people across the country with a message, and have a two-way conversation," Astorino said in a 2006 interview about the Catholic Channel. If (let’s say when) Cuomo and Astorino meet in the general, perhaps the governor will by then have reconsidered what constitutes a disservice to democracy and agree to have a two-way conversation in the form of a debate, if not several. It’s the least he could do for a fellow alum, not to mention fellow New Yorkers.