Mother Nature has grabbed the spotlight for the third week in a row, with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma occupying much of the news space this week. Even though Irma wasn’t quite as bad as expected by the time it hit the U.S. mainland, the U.S. Virgin Islands and parts of Florida were still hit very badly. Those locations are now in the cleanup & recovery phase, but for those who were hit with the worst of the storm this difficult phase can last for weeks or even months or years. And of course, for anyone who lost more than just property to this natural disaster – think of the 8 people who died in just one nursing home in Florida – the damage from the storm is irrevocable.
The only bright side, if there can be one here, is that in most of the affected spots, neighbors are banding together. And the country as a whole seems to be embracing the victims and trying to help in every way we can, which is a really nice change of pace after a couple of long years in which the country has seemed more divided than ever. Aside from Irma, there was lots of other news happening this week. So what else happened that you might have missed?
1. Trump’s so-called “election integrity commission” held its second meeting this week. And this week brought further reason for concern about the commission’s true mission. A non-profit voting rights group obtained an email that showed a prominent member of the commission complaining that Democrats and “moderate Republicans” should not be permitted as members. The email’s author objected to them being members of the commission because he didn’t think they would be adamant enough about wanting to eliminate “vote fraud.”
The name of the email’s author was redacted in the document (which was obtained through a Freedom of Information of Act request) but was later revealed to be Hans Von Spakovsky, one of the country’s foremost purveyors of the voter fraud myth. When asked by reporters if he had written the email, Von Spakovsky denied it. But the think tank he is affiliated with, the Heritage Foundation, later confirmed he was the author.
2. And one of the witnesses invited to testify at this week’s meeting of the commission suggested that the same background check system used for gun purchases (which he has a history of opposing) should be used to vet people before they’re permitted to vote:
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) screens such things as criminal history, dishonorably military discharges, and mental health or substance abuse issues. Not only could NICS erroneously flag someone as ineligible to vote, it could also deter people from voting who are distrustful of law enforcement and want to stay away from a criminal background check. And background checks cost money, which would have to be paid by the voter or the state.
The witness, John Lott Jr. is a specialist in gun ownership and crime, who once wrote an article on vote fraud, so apparently that’s enough to get him invited to testify before a “voter integrity” commission. In addition to claiming that his research shows that increased gun ownership reduces crime, he also claims that voter ID requirements increase voter turnout. So he seems like maybe not the most reliable witness.
3. And on the topic of voting, Democrats flipped two seats in special elections this week – one in New Hampshire and one in Oklahoma. They were both state House seats, which may not seem like a big deal, but they were part of a bigger pattern this year. In both of these elections, the Democrat outperformed the Dem 2016 presidential result by a huge margin. And overall, in special elections since Trump won the presidency, Democrats have outperformed their 2016 presidential result in about two-thirds of the races held. They’re even outperforming their 2012 presidential results in most of those races.
According to DailyKos elections, which has been doing great work tracking election results this year, on average Democrats are beating their 2016 results by 13 points and their 2012 results by 8 points. Compare this to special elections held in the year following Obama’s second election (2013), where Dems trailed their presidential results by 12 points.
With the caveat that 2018 is of course still far away and a lot can change, so far this bodes well for Democrats for the upcoming mid-term elections. Election expert Sam Wang actually points to four indicators that all look good for Dems:
1) Trump’s low approval numbers 2) Dems doing well on the generic congressional ballot (poll) 3) Dems outperforming ’16 in special elections 4) Republican retirements from congress
4. And here’s something else that might help Democrats in the mid-term elections: ousted White House aide Steve Bannon is plotting primary challenges against incumbent Republicans. I mentioned in last week’s “What Did I Miss?” that Bannon/Breitbart is going all in behind far-right Roy Moore in Alabama, who’s challenging incumbent Senator Luther Strange for the old Sessions Senate seat. In that case, Moore was already looking good to beat Strange even before Bannon got involved. But if Bannon inspires (and makes financially viable) a bunch of other challenges to other GOP incumbents, that could really shake things up:
The activity has alarmed senior Republicans, who worry it will drain millions of dollars from the party’s coffers to take on Democrats in the general election. McConnell has repeatedly expressed concern to the White House about the danger primaries pose to his members, stressing that it could imperil his narrow four-seat majority . . .
Bannon’s likely targets include: Nevada’s Dean Heller, Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Tennessee’s Bob Corker and Mississippi’s Roger Wicker.
5. Now on to the policy front: during the election, one of the areas where Trump tried to distinguish himself (aside from his nationalism/nativism) was his focus on the opioid epidemic. And last month, he appeared to be making good on his campaign promises on that issue when he announced that he’d be declaring the epidemic a state of emergency. But now, a month has passed, and there’s been no action taken. So what’s going on?
While the president’s aides say they are pursuing an expedited process, it remains to be seen how and by what mechanism Mr. Trump plans to direct government resources . . .
As with many of his campaign promises, Mr. Trump is discovering the realities of limited government resources, slow-moving agencies and the competing agendas of cabinet members, even as they try to push in the same general direction. The hurricanes that have struck Texas and Florida, and the costly recovery that will follow, appear to have complicated the process.
6. And while the media is all aflutter over the idea that Trump made an agreement with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over DACA (or did he?), don’t worry, you don’t have to rewrite your entire Trump field guide – Trump is still fundamentally Trump: his administration is considering reducing the number of refugees admitted the U.S. next year to less than 50,000. That would be the lowest number since at least 1980 and less than half of what Barack Obama had recommended for 2016.
Stephen Miller, the Trump aide who’s become infamous for being behind some of Trump’s most extreme anti-immigrant policies and statements had at one point suggested the number be as low as 15,000.
The prospect of capping refugee admissions below 50,000 has alarmed people both inside and outside the administration, given the refugee crisis unfolding around the world and the United States’ history of taking a leadership position in accepting people fleeing violence and persecution.
7. And for something a little more entertaining, yet no less thought-provoking – author Teddy Wayne has an excellent piece in the NY Times about Trump’s bizarre speech patterns:
Another chief tactic in his speech is repetition, which amplifies his sentiment and creates the appearance of some order by lending his sentences a little initial ballast (“a big, big dilemma”) before flying out of control.
Wayne explains the effect of our collective impulse to mimic Trump’s unusual way with words:
The president may not have permanently altered the connotations of these everyday words, but by imitating him, we are trafficking in the discourse of his choosing. As an example of how pernicious this can be, it is now common for liberals to jokingly call something they dislike “fake news.”
It may seem (mildly) subversive to mock the president, but doing so reinforces Mr. Trump’s definition of the words . . .
I think this is exactly right. This is why I try very hard to resist the urge to mock Trump by imitating him. It’s tough, because his odd manner of speaking just lodges in your head, and then his awkward phrases and overloaded words seem to want to pop out of your mouth before you can stop them. At times, I’ve probably given in to it without even realizing. But as much as I’m able to, I resist it. Because I feel like, even when we’re joking, by speaking like him, that’s just another area of our lives and our minds where we’ve ceded control to him.
8. You probably remember this funny story from years ago, when a macaque monkey pressed the button on a camera that a photographer had left mounted on a tripod. The monkey ended up taking a pretty perfect selfie, and the photo ended up all over the media. It was a great, funny story until it resulted in a lawsuit over who owned the rights to the photo: the (human) photographer or the monkey??
But this week, PETA (who was behind the monkey side of the lawsuit) finally settled with the photographer, David Slater:
Under the deal, Slater agreed to donate 25 percent of future revenue from the photos to groups that protect crested macaques and their habitat in Indonesia. Both sides also asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “to dismiss the case and throw out a lower court decision that said animals cannot own copyrights,” The Associated Press reports.
9. As long as we’re (sort of) on the topic, check out the finalists for this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. They’re pretty awe-inspiring.
10. And while we’re showing animals some love here, neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Barnes wanted to know what his dog was thinking. So he used an MRI simulator to train his dog how to climb into the real machine and lie there motionless. Next, the testing began . . .
We did an experiment where we gave [the dogs] hot dogs some of the time and praise some of the time. When we compared their responses and looked at the rewards center of their brains, the vast number of dogs responded to praise and food equally.
Now, about 20 percent had stronger responses to praise than to food. From that, we conclude that the vast majority of dogs love us at least as much as food.
11. And one last thing, even though this is news most of you probably did not miss, I just wanted to mention the passing of Edie Windsor, who was the plaintiff in the case that led to the Supreme Court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013. That was a huge victory in the fight for same sex marriage rights – it required the federal government to recognize same-sex married partners (as defined by the individual states) and grant them the same rights any other married couple would have. It ultimately paved the way for same-sex marriage to be legalized nationwide a couple years later in Obergfell v. Hodges.