Saturday, April 19, 2008

OPEC and oil prices

So, you saw in the "From the Column -- More About Gas Prices" post below that the cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is up 51 cents over this time last year, and a gallon of diesel is up $1.18 over the same period.

That is unbelievable.

Here's something else it is: Inexcusable. It's inexcusable for the world -- especially the United States -- to be held over a barrel (sorry) by OPEC. They are doing this to us because they can, and because we put up with it. The question shouldn't be, "How do we get OPEC to increase production?" The question should be, "How long are we going to put up with this?"

The failure of leadership that has put us in this position is the fault of politicians of both parties, along with the president and the Congress (which, I might add, has been led by both parties during Bush's administration). Yes, Bush and the Republicans are responsible for instituting and defending multi-billion tax breaks for Big Oil. But so are Pelosi, Reid & Co. responsible for blocking efforts to cope with the crude crisis -- efforts that would include drilling, at least temporarily, in the much-ballyhooed Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and tapping this country's strategic oil reserves. If Bush and the Republicans are the lap dogs of Big Oil, so are Democrats held hostage by unreasonable environmental advocacy groups.

So what are we going to do about it? It's time to tap the reserves, drill in ANWAR, drill in the Gulf of Mexico, do whatever we can to tell OPEC that we'll be happy to buy as much oil from them as we can get for the equivalent of, say, $40 a barrel (maybe $45 if we're feeling generous), a respectable increase from the $31 a barrel oil cost when Bush took office in 2001. We'll make up the difference with domestic supply. In the meantime, let's put every available scientist (and reassign a bunch more) on developing an alternative to oil-based gasoline. Auburn University is a leader in this area with its research into switchgrass. It's not hard to imagine the gains we could make if we emphasized this area of research as a national priority.

My guess is that it wouldn't take long for OPEC to re-evaluate supply and demand -- as in, a lot more supply and a lot less demand -- and next month's Monthly Oil Report would read a lot differently.

Incidentally, it was all but forgotten in the excitement about the Pope's visit to the United States this week, but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was also in Washington on Wednesday to meet with President Bush. According to the Montreal Gazette, Brown planned "to discuss collective action to bring down oil prices."

What does that mean? Brown said this in a press availability at the White House on Thursday:

We agreed to work, and President Bush has just referred to this, for an early world trade deal that will give new confidence to the international economy at this time. An enhanced dialogue between oil consumers and oil producers, with rising output from the oil-producing countries, should help stabilize and then cut the price of oil, now at over $110 a barrel.
Um, yeah, except OPEC doesn't intend to increase production, what with those obscene profits being what they are and all.

So, we're on our own.

From the column: Iraqi information minister

If you read the post below about gas prices, you will need a good laugh. Never fear. Ask yourself, "What would MSS do?"

MSS is Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf -- better known in Western circles as "Baghdad Bob." He made a name for himself by holding press conferences in the runup to the invasion of Iraq wherein he would make statements that were directly contrary to obvious reality. As coalition soldiers invaded Iraq and American soldiers were taking over Baghdad, MSS continued to declare things like, "I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad!" and his insistence that American soldiers were committing suicide by the hundreds at the city gates.

Ummmmm ... no.

If he was still giving news conferences, he would likely say something along the lines of, "Gasoline does not cost $3.39 a gallon! That is a fabrication of the American infidels! Gasoline is very affordable at just 40 cents a gallon! Gasoline has never cost more than 40 cents a gallon!"

MSS came to be known as "Comical Ali" -- a takeoff on the very not-funny nickname of "Chemical Ali," an Iraqi official charged with the development of chemical weapons in the Saddam Hussein regime -- and developed a fan following on the Internet. For a good laugh, check out either of two fan sites (the appropriately named " and something called Croque Fan).

Why love MSS? One fan writes:

"In an age of spin, al-Sahaf offers feeling and authenticity. His message is consistent -- unshakable, in fact, no matter the evidence ... His lunatic counterfactual art is more appealing than the banal awfulness of the Reliable Sources ... He stands superior to truth."
MSS is living in the United Arab Emirates with his family. A bio of him says he studied journalism.

Wait ... does ABC need a correspondent in the UAE? I have just the guy for them ...

Friday, April 18, 2008

From the column: More about gas prices

I found a great web site this week that provides all kinds of information about oil and gas prices.

For everything you ever wanted to know about the price points of petroleum products but were petrified to pursue (pretty peppy prose, eh?), check out "This Week in Petroleum," a project of the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration.

Although its title conjures up images of bespectacled, pocket protector-wearing bean counters, the site is written in a conversational style, and the data is laid out in an approachable and easily understandable way.

For example, this week's report says that "while gasoline prices have risen above $3 per gallon mostly due to high crude oil prices, increasing gasoline demand will likely take retail gasoline prices to $3.50 per gallon and above, even if year-over-year gasoline demand is negative."

I said it was approachable and easily understandable. I didn't say it was pleasant to hear.

A glance at comparison charts on the site shows that the average retail price (ARP) for a gallon of regular gasoline is just under $3.39 this week, up 5.7 cents from last week and a staggering 51.3 cents from this time last year. Similarly, the ARP for a gallon of diesel fuel is just under $4.06, up 10.4 cents from last week and -- get this -- a nauseating $1.18 from this time last year.

Something has to be done about this. Check back for more on that point later today.

Someone get Howard an aspirin

Pennsylvania or no Pennsylvania, Howard Dean has had about enough of the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. According to CNN:

An increasingly firm Howard Dean told CNN again Thursday that he needs superdelegates to say who they’re for – and “I need them to say who they’re for starting now.”

“We cannot give up two or three months of active campaigning and healing time,” the Democratic National Committee Chairman told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “We’ve got to know who our nominee is.”
So, Michigan and Florida are in the corner for having their primaries too early ... Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana and South Dakota apparently have theirs scheduled too late ... the majority of the contests fell in between and found themselves well timed by luck alone. So, here's my question: For scheduling purposes, when is the time for a presidential primary "just right?"

Watch out, Howard. We might start calling you Goldilocks.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

'Shared prosperity'

When Hillary Clinton said what she did last night about getting "back to shared prosperity," I thought that it was a slip of the tongue for which Clinton would surely suffer GOP slings and arrows in the general election.

I've since looked into Clinton's use of the phrase, and it seems that while the latter is almost certainly true, the former is anything but.

Far from running from the idea of a "shared prosperity," Clinton has abided there for nearly a year. After Clinton's remarks in New Hampshire in May 2007, the Associated Press noted this:

Sen. Hillary Clinton outlined a broad economic vision on Tuesday, saying it's time to replace an "on your own" society with one based on shared responsibility and prosperity.

The Democratic presidential hopeful said what the Bush administration touts as an "ownership society" really is an "on your own" society that has widened the gap between rich and poor.

"I prefer a 'we're all in it together' society," she said. "I believe our government can once again work for all Americans. It can promote the great American tradition of opportunity for all and special privileges for none." That means pairing growth with fairness, she said, to ensure that the middle class succeeds in the global economy, not just corporate CEOs.
It's been a continuing theme throughout her campaign. She has publicized the plan through countless online outlets, most recently pitching it in the Wall Street Journal:

Shared prosperity means providing greater economic security and opportunity for middleclass families.

American families don't need new government bureaucracies; they need new tools to help them climb the economic ladder. This begins with health care, because rising costs erode workers' savings, make insurance less affordable, put businesses at a competitive disadvantage, and threaten our fiscal future.
Not everyone thinks The Plan is a good idea. Dr. Gary Wolfram, a political economy professor at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich., writes this about Clinton's grand plan:

Candidates for president of the United States are being judged on their “plans” for the economy, health care, retirement, housing, etc.

However, in 1920 the renowned Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises published “Socialism,” in which he pointed out that central planning cannot result in a prosperous economy ...

The failure of planned societies such as the former Soviet Union, Maoist China, socialist India and those in sub-Saharan Africa -- and the new prosperity of Estonia, China and India as they move to market reforms -- should have made it rather obvious that Mises was correct. Yet Clinton assures us that she "will have a long-term economic plan that creates jobs, strengthens the middle class, and allows everyone to share in our economic growth."

It will find that a corporate income tax above the rest of the world will result in a depressed level of the capital that is essential for economic growth. It will find that a K-12 education system based on government monopoly of production and provision leads to poverty for the underclass. And it will find that as the rest of the world realizes the wisdom of Mises and Hayek, it will be increasingly difficult to compete in a global market economy.
Read the rest here.

Interested in Mises or libertarian political theory? You have to visit the Ludwig von Mises Institute, headquartered right here in Auburn, Alabama. Click here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The last question

Charlie Gibson displays his ignorance by saying that the nomination could come down to superdelegates. Actually, Clinton has made it clear that she intends to go after pledged delegates, too, because they are not bound to vote for the person to whom they are "pledged."

"We need a fighter back in the White House," Clinton says, adding that she'll take back the tax giveaways to corporations, and give it back to the middle class, they feel invisible. "We will get back to shared prosperity," she says. Whoa -- dollars to doughnuts, we'll be hearing that quote a lot more this fall: It could end up being her "$87 billion" sound bite. Right-leaning moderates already wonder whether she's too liberal; channeling Marx isn't going to do her any favors.

Obama says he's speaking for people who are disillusioned, that people don't want spin and PR, but an honest conversation. Change doesn't happen from the top down, but from the bottom up, he says. He hits Clinton on the PAC money and special interest money that he isn't taking (insinuating that, of course, she is) and notes that people are participating because his message is resonating. If we are going to deliver on health care and other issues, Obama says, "it's vital that we form a new political coalition in this country," and that's what his campaign is all about.

No surprises; a couple of birdies here and there to even out the occasional bogey by both competitors, but overall, they both shot par.

The First Amendment

Will this question be about the polygamous cult?

Using former presidents

How would you use President Bush?

Hillary says she appreciated Bush using her husband and Bush I in the fundraising efforts after Katrina. When they are all together, representing our country, that sends a strong message, but how to use George W. "will take some careful thought on my part," she says. (Didn't she just compliment him on some policy initiative earlier in this debate?)

A "council" of presidents is a good idea, Obama says, and adds that he would be more likely to seek counsel from Bush I than Bush II, giving the exit from the Cold War as an example of why. I missed the rest because my three-year-old is whining about Chap-Stick.

Gas prices

Hillary says "market manipulation" is going on, and that she would tap the Strategic Oil Reserves for the time being to drive down prices, and then she said something about the gas tax that I missed because my girls were asking me a question about Band-Aids. Hillary seems to have hit her stride here in these last five minutes.

Jimmy Carter is brought up, but it's in the context of America's dependence on foreign oil. Carter said that the country's dependence on foreign oil will come to an end "here and now" -- in 1979. Obama says that is why people are cynical.

Affirmative action

What does Obama think about affirmative action?

I'm not sure I'm following Obama here. He says he still believes in it as a means of overcoming historic and potentially current discrimination, but it can't be applied without looking at the entire person. That was a better answer as a summary.

"Here's how I would prefer to think about it," Hillary begins. Now she's talking about Head Start. "We have to look at what we're trying to achieve here somewhat differently," she says. This is one of the best answers I've heard her give on anything. She's even tying in health care. "Let's affirmatively invest in our young people," she says. That was a great sound bite.

Second Amendment

Gibson notes that today is the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings. We'll tie that to the discussion about guns here in the presidential debate. Good job, Charlie Gibson, for making sure that that crazy gunman lives on in infamy.

Back to business.

What can the feds do to combat the crime wave in Philly? Hillary goes first. Um, wait -- I didn't see a cheesy transition with anything from the Constitution about the crime wave in Philly -- or the cops program, or any "public relations" program. She supports reinstituting the assault weapons ban. Now we're talking about mental health issues. She says we can balance gun owners' rights to own and use their guns with making sure that we keep those guns out of the hands of the wrong people; current policy "doesn't respect the common sense of the American people," she says.

Obama is asked about the D.C. weapons ban; is it constitutional? As a general principle, Obama says he believes that the Constitution confers an individual right to bear arms, but that local governments can constrict it, much as zoning ordinances are constrictions on the right to own property. Good example. (Hey, Barack; how about a constriction on the right to privacy -- for the unborn???? ANYWAY ...) Obama says he's never favored an all-out ban on handguns. "Mentally deranged?" Of course those folks shouldn't have guns ... but how to institute that policy? Therein lies the rub, as they say. That's where the rubber meets the road.

Clinton is asked about the D.C. ban: "You know, George," blah blah blah. She doesn't answer the question. It's a simple yes or no; does she support the ban or not? "What I support is sensible regulation that is consistent with the constitutional right to bear arms." She says that "a total ban with no exceptions might not be, but I don't think that should blow open a hole in the idea that local government can't make rules governing ownership." She can't even answer the question about whether she supports registration of handguns. She can't answer a simple, direct question. Thank goodness I never had to diagram a Hillary Clinton response when I was in grammar school.

Capital gains

An increase in capital gains taxes? Blech; goodbye, crossover votes!

Why raise it when the government brings in more when it's lower?

Obama says he would look at raising it for purposes of fairness. Now he's talking about hedge fund managers and what they make. Good sound bite about them paying from a lower tax bracket than their secretaries. Is that true? If so, it's a great argument. I like that line, too, about "taking out a credit card from the Bank of China in the name of our children and grandchildren."

Obama says collections may go up or may note, depending on what happens on Wall Street. "Pay as you go?" That's downright conservative -- or, at least, it used to be.

Hillary says we need an economy that "works for everyone." She's casting tax increases in terms of "smart investments," including green energy jobs and -- of course -- "good union jobs." (We are in Pennsylvania, after all!) A chicken in every pot! By jove, it's a New DEAL!

McCain and taxes

Here we go with the general election issue, taxes!! Too bad he flubbed that sound bite. That's embarrassing.

"Read my lips?" Stephey, get your own sound bites!! This is ridiculous. Hillary goes first, and she says that she will roll back the Bush tax cuts, no matter the economy next year, because she is convinced that it will not "detrimentally affect" people's wallets. That's an unfortunate adverb. No middle class tax increases of any kind, she said it! Now, define middle class.

Obama makes the commitment and raises Clinton one: He will move a tax cut for the middle class and for seniors earning less than $50,000. Populism + middle class tax cut = a tough road for the Republican campaign.

Whoo hoo! Obama gets a gold star for the phrase, "lobbyists and special interests writing these laws." That's how it's done, folks.


WATCH OUT! Should it be the policy of the U.S. to treat an attack on Israel as an attack on the U.S., Stephey asks?

First, it should be the policy of the U.S. to keep nukes away from Iran, offering them "carrots and sticks," Obama says, adding that it should be their belief that it will take "no options off the table" when it comes to them using or getting nukes against Israel. An attack on Israel is an attack on our strongest ally in the region, one whose security we consider paramount, one that I would ... take appropriate actions," he said. That is one of the strongest statements he's made on the subject. (I wonder when he'll get asked about Carter meeting with Hamas?)

Hillary says that we are in a very dangerous position with Iran, and she proposes a "security agreement" in the area vis-a-vis Iran. Hmm, a NATO-type deal? What are the prerequisites for membership? What if the leadership of those countries change? What if the provisions of the agreement change? What if someone backs out?

She's using "massive retaliation" a lot ... "We cannot permit Iran to become a nuclear power," she says. "Security umbrella:" Interesting. Lots to talk about there.


You knew it was coming, and here it is. Is Hillary going to stick to her plan to withdraw a brigade or two a month? Hillary answers ... that she sticks to her 60-day plan to "begin withdrawing" and that she will withdraw slowly because it is dangerous. Isn't she saying she knows better than military commanders, Gibson asks? No, she says (but she is), turning the question into a response about the U.S.'s standing in the world. "We don't know what will happen if we withdraw, but we do know what will happen if we remain mired in Iraq," she says.

Obama is asked about the date that David Plouffe gave, the 16-month commitment. He says that the president should set the mission, which the military should carry out. This is a better tack, in my opinion, on this question than Hillary took. "I will always listen to the commanders on the ground," he says, and that's an important statement to make. He leaves the door open to "taking into consideration the adjustments" that commanders may suggest, but "the buck stops with me."


What's with these cheesy transition quotes and the goofy voiceover?

The American Flag

Obama is asked by a regular Pennsylvanian about whether he "believes in the American flag." This is an important moment, because nearly everyone who has heard his name has heard the rumors that he doesn't support the flag, he doesn't wear the politician uniform -- i.e., the flag lapel pin. He recounts his familiar phrase that his story would only be possible in America. He says he will fight for issues that are good for Americans, and that's how he shows his patriotism. I'm not sure how well this explanation works, because I think most people think that it's not a big deal to wear a pin. But he's right about it being "a manufactured issue."

Who is William Ayers? And why is Stephanopoulos asking about his relationship with Obama? Obama says it's another example of a manufactured issue. He's having to back away from someone no one has ever heard of. Good line about him being eight years old when this happened. Obama is good at this; he says he's also good friends with Coburn, one of the most conservative members of the Senate. Stephanopoulos, that question is stuipd. Stop trying to be Chris Mathews.

Hillary is broad, as usual, but she's obviously prepared to talk about Ayers and his relationship with Obama. Was this prepped by her campaign and Stephanopoulos, the former press secretary for Bill Clinton? Hillary isn't even credible when she says things like, "I know Sen. Obama is a good man," but then brings up how "everyone else" will be asking about it. Republicans shouldn't even run anyone for president? Goodbye, potential crossover votes! And people wonder why she's polarizing!

ZING! Obama says that Bill Clinton pardoned two other members of the "Weather Underground." He says that he's taken "some pretty good" punches from Hillary. He is so good in debate. She's just hoping to keep it close.

Fourth question

I didn't really understand the question Stephanopoulos asked. Was it about errors? Once again, Obama takes the high road, saying that it's a "mistake" to "obsess" about the errors, like his about bitterness and Hillary's about Bosnia.

(That reminds me: Hillary acknowledged in her response that 1) she knew what she said about Bosnia was wrong when she said it, and 2) she acnkowledged about people are bitter! Hello??)

More Wright

I missed the third question -- putting the baby to bed -- but I heard what was said, and this question actually leads into the next one. It's hilarious that Hillary Clinton takes Obama to task for the Wright statements when she herself has made statements that don't mesh with the truth -- i.e., the Bosnia issue that "Tom" brings up. Once again, what's good for the goose isn't good for the gander when it comes to the Clintons. Hillary said that "everything" should be subject to exploration when it comes to a presidential campaign, yet she and her husband have not opened all the documents about her involvement in his administration to public scrutiny. More double standard doubletalk from a Clinton.

Jeremiah Wright

Why are we back on Jeremiah Wright again? Are there no other issues that Pennsylvanians care about?

Out of the gate, Obama reiterates that he never heard the comments that were brought up that caused the recent furor, then he pivots to talking about the work the church has done over the past 30 years. (By the way, if you didn't see Obama's speech on race, you have to see it. It was tremendous, a watershed moment in American history that history will recount as such. Invest the time so that you can tell your grandkids about it!)

I'm sick of Jeremiah Wright. He's not an issue in this campaign. Charlie Gibson, so far, you're demonstrating why evening cable news is increasingly irrelevant.

Oh boy, now Gibson is getting Clinton into this mess again. "'He would not have been my pastor,'" he said she said. Do you think 8,000 people should have walked out, he asked? OOoooh! Good one! Clinton says that she was asked a personal question and she gave a personal answer, which, of course, is not an answer to the question Gibson asked.

Here it is

Well, that didn't take long. Barack Obama, did you really mean what you said about people being bitter? He's been well prepped for this, but it still doesn't sound right. Now he's talking about wedge issues. There's the "frustration" word again. That's a good strategy, to substitute a new word for the old one.

Ugh, "I'm the granddaughter of a factory worker from Scranton." Blech. Clinton is back on the bitterness bandwagon. I think it's funny how she's all over Obama for the bitterness comment, but it was just a couple of weeks ago when she made that completely erroneous statement about Bosnia. So she's allowed to "misremember" and "misspeak," but Obama is vilified for his slip? Typical Clinton double standard.

Oh, no ... I didn't know George Stephanopoulos is involved here. Blech again. He shouldn't be there since he worked in the first Clinton Administration. This is interesting, getting her on the record on whether Obama can beat McCain. She's making the question about McCain, but she said that he can win, "Yes, yes, yes, but I think I can do a better job." There you go, superdelegates. Let's see if that matches what you've been told by the Clinton campaign behind closed doors. Any superdelegates out there, post in comments and let us know!

Obama says directly that he thinks Hillary can win but, of course, he thinks he's the better candidate. I think it's a mistake to repeat Clinton's charges against him about being "elitist." Just say that she's made charges, but don't repeat them. You are trying to play the word substitution game, remember? You're not doing yourself any favors by repeating it. He's taking the high road by recounting his thoughts to defend her when she made the famous "making cookies" comment in 1992. That is well done. There is the frustration word again. I'd like to have a word count on that when this is all over. I might look for that when a transcript is released.

Hillary is making a mistake by hammering on the issue again. Just make the point, and move on. She still hasn't mastered that concept. Apparently, getting booed at the manufacturing meeting the other day wasn't enough to convince her of it. Hillary would be a better candidate if she would just learn what is enough, and what is too much. Make the point, and move on. Otherwise, you look -- dare I say it? -- bitter.

Vice president

Charlie Gibson, who wrote these questions? This is the biggest waste of time, asking them why each won't commit to choosing the other for VP. (Oh, Chelsea is there. Maybe they should ask her about the Monica deal. I forgot -- it's none of our business, right, Chelsea?)

Anyway, this question is second only to that dumb question that Des Moines Register editor asked the candidates about their New Year's resolutions. Useless! Although bringing up the original wording of the Constitution is a nice touch. I'm surprised Obama didn't do more with that, since he's a constitutional law scholar.

Democratic debate in Philly

I'll be live blogging the debate tonight ... I'm a little late getting going because I had to wrestle my eight-month-old into her PJs. She's not a fan of getting into her clothes!

Opening statements: Obama obviously is going to try to substitute the word "frustrated" for the dreaded "bitter" he used in his much-maligned private statements in California. I'm sure we'll hear more about this later -- unfortunately. Overall, as Obama's oratories go, this one was one of his weaker offerings.

For her part, Hillary Clinton was unremarkable, which is par for the course with her. Nothing new, nothing surprising, nothing exciting; just vanilla bean here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Reid: Democratic race will end 'very soon'

You might have read this post on Monday about the behind-the-scenes preparations Democratic Party leaders are making to confront Hillary Clinton about her continued pursuit of the presidential nomination.

The story, which originally appeared in a Scottish newspaper, noted that congressional leaders are the engines driving the reality train, and that party leaders had chosen Jimmy Carter and Al Gore as its engineers.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Source and lent the story some credibility:

Reid said he believed the Democratic nomination "is all going to be over very soon," and he contended that "it has been healthy for our party."
It was unclear what Reid meant by the comment; there was no mention in the Politico story about a follow-up question.

Maybe Campbell Brown has moved from CNN to the Politico ...

Gas prices

The price of light sweet crude oil is now over $113 a barrel.

This has been an issue in the presidential campaign, but only to the extent that the candidates have paid lip service to the idea of "energy independence" and "reducing our dependence on foreign oil" and casting blame for high gasoline prices. It's not clear what those phrases mean -- or, more importantly, how any of the candidates, once president, would get an "energy independence" agenda through Congress.

What is clear is that there seems to be no end in sight to the astronomical increase in the price of oil, and it's beginning to affect everything else in the market, from food costs to airline tickets.

And it could get much, much worse:

If peak oil theorists are correct, crude oil at $100 per barrel would seem ridiculously cheap. Rapidly rising oil demand from the developing world coupled with shrinking supplies would likely produce an oil spike of epic proportions.
Meanwhile, OPEC continues to refuse to increase production:
"Current OPEC production at more than 32 million barrels per day will be sufficient to both meet demand growth and contribute to further stockbuilds," the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said in its latest Monthly Oil Market Report.
There are plenty of things the United States can be doing to deal with this crisis. Conservation is one important side of the equation, but new drilling is the other.

It's time to put our foot down with this madness before it destroys our economy.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The biggest child-welfare case in American history?

I just want to say a word about the latest stories coming out about the investigation into the polygamous sect in Texas. You no doubt have heard about the 416 children who were taken from the retreat belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on April 3. Salacious details, including reports of a "marriage bed" found in the sect's temple and believed to have been used to consummate "spiritual marriages" between adult men and underage girls, have kept this story on the front pages.

But the women of the sect have gone on the offensive, beginning to talk to the media this weekend about their concerns for the treatment of their children -- many of whom are very young -- as the investigation continues.

While I believe Texas officials did the right thing by initiating the investigation, raiding the compound and removing the women and children as the investigation continues, details of this story have me concerned for the children all over again:

Of the 139 women who voluntarily left the compound with their children since an April 3 raid, only those with children 4 or younger were allowed to continue staying with them Monday, said Marissa Gonzales, spokeswoman for the state Children's Protective Services agency. She did not know how many women stayed ...

On Monday night, about three dozen women, many of them mothers, sobbed and held onto each other outside a log cabin on the sect's ranch, recounting the way police officers encircled them in a room and told them that they could not stay.

One woman, Marie, said the women weren't allowed to say goodbye to their crying children.

"They said, 'your children are ours,'" said the sobbing 32-year-old whose three sons are aged 9, 7 and 5 and who would not give her last name. "We could not even ask a question."

Attorneys began meeting with the women over the weekend. She said it was vital that the mothers be represented by lawyers. Otherwise, they could lose their children — "what we call kind of the death penalty of family law cases," she said.

A church lawyer, Rod Parker, said the 60 or so men remaining on the 1,700-acre (688-hectare) ranch have offered to leave the compound if the state would allow the women and children to return to the place with child welfare monitors. But the state Children's Protective Services agency said it had not yet seen the offer and had no comment on it.

Read the rest of the story, and you'll find that the state of Texas is having a difficult time just organizing the lawyers to represent these children and their mothers, so it's unlikely that they are capable of caring for these kids in an atmosphere completely unknown to them -- and especially without their mothers -- in a way that is not damaging to the children's psyche.

The offer by the church men to leave the compound to allow for the women and children to return -- even with child welfare monitors -- seems to be a reasonable offer and one that Texas officials cannot afford to ignore.

But at the very least, it is unconscionable to separate these children, especially the ones ages 10 and under, from their mothers. Texas officials are inspiring no confidence with this move. Whatever is revealed about the compound, there is one constant, and that is that children need their mothers, even when they are raised in unconventional circumstances that are unfamiliar and even incomprehensible to the rest of us.

This case is destined to provide landmark rulings about where the freedom of religion ends and the reach of the government begins. But as the lawyers hash it out and judges try to make sense of all the testimony, legal precedents and constitutional challenges, these little boys and girls will need reassurances that things will be OK.

They will need their mothers.

Sex offenders and the presidential campaign

It won't be an issue during this presidential campaign, but it should be: What is this country going to do with the growing number of sex offenders, both violent and "nonviolent?"

As awareness and enforcement of sex crimes picks up, so does the prison population. There's been talk about mental health counseling and behavior modification programs for "nonviolent" sex offenders, but as you'll see in a moment, the effectiveness of those diversionary programs, as defined by the successful release of an offender back into society without a repeat offense, is sketchy, at best.

Yes, I know that this is a state issue. But I also know that there is a security component to it. Presidential candidates could provide leadership on this issue by using their platforms to talk with the nation's governors about how the federal government can be good partners with the states as they grapple with this worsening problem -- and I would bet that better funding of law enforcement, courts and corrections facilities would be at the top of the governors' wish lists.

With that said, I give you this story about 49-year-old Freddie Johnson, who was recently picked up in New York City for groping a woman on the subway.

Johnson has served time in prison for persistent sexual abuse and has been labeled by district attorney staff as a "recidivist transit grinder."

Nothing remarkable yet. But then again, I haven't yet told you that the arrest mentioned above was Johnson's 53rd collar.

Yes, you read that right: Johnson has been arrested 53 times for groping women on the subway.

Johnson, a registered sex offender, has been convicted at least twice of persistent sexual abuse within the last decade, prosecutors said. And he has a lengthy rap sheet, with 30 arrests for sex abuse, 13 for jostling and two for grand larceny, police said.

He was released from prison on March 25 after serving four years for persistent sexual abuse, according to correctional records. The state attorney general's office had argued that the 49-year-old should be confined under the state's civil commitment law for sex offenders, which went into effect last year, because he was at risk for repeat offenses.

But a Manhattan Supreme Court Judge disagreed and instead placed Johnson on strict court-ordered supervision and electronic monitoring.

Whether he should have been confined speaks to a larger issue about what authorities should do with criminals who are habitual offenders, but aren't violent.
For the rest, check out the story at the link above.

What do you think?

Caption contest

OK, folks, I know there are some witty readers out there just looking for a place to share their sarcasm. Far be it from me to deny you an opportunity to put your talents to good use! So ...

I give you the First Edition of the Clarion Caller Blog Caption Contest. I'll give you a picture, you give me a caption, and we'll acknowledge the winner in a future post.

Today's offering comes to us from the Associated Press:

Yeah, I thought I would give you an easy one for the first round. :)

Take your shots in comments!

'It's Obama, stupid'

That's the headline under which a Scottish newspaper (aptly called 'The Scotsman') reports that it's just a matter of time until "Democrat grandees" Jimmy Carter and Al Gore team up to deliver the bad news to Hillary Clinton: For the good of the party, it's time to drop out.

The story notes that the recent string of missteps and mistakes by the Clinton campaign, beginning with the "I-was-nearly-shot-to-death-by-a-sniper-in-Bosnia" flap and including the conflict-of-interest concerns surrounding demoted former strategist Mark Penn, have simply put too many holes in the hull of the Good Ship Hillary for it to remain seaworthy, and if Clinton can't -- or won't -- see it, party fathers are now ready to point it out to her.

Combined with reports that the campaign is now too short on money to even pay the bills for campaign events, "These issues have undermined Clinton's claim to be more 'electable,' with her own stormy campaign contrasting with the disciplined control of Obama's organisation," the story notes.

As for how Hillary will be confronted:

A number of options are being considered by the higher echelons of the Democrats, but they fall roughly into two categories. One is for Carter and Gore to go to Clinton privately and ask her to step down. The other is for both men to appear in public and endorse Obama -– a move which would see a majority of superdelegates go with them.
And if Clinton still refuses to drop out and insists on maintaining her death grip on the superdelegate theory, party leaders seem willing to arrange an early showdown:

The campaign to force Clinton to make an early exit is being masterminded in Congress, home to the most influential of the superdelegates. Senate Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have called on superdelegates to hold an unofficial congress in early June to anoint a winner, rather than waiting for the convention in Denver.
Once again, everything for Hillary Clinton rides on a win in Pennsylvania. But as she's shown before, most recently with Ws in her self-described firewall states of Texas and Ohio, she's often at her best when her back's against the wall.

... In other words, watch out, Obama.

Read the rest of the Scotsman story here.

Monday head-scratcher

Welcome to Monday! There's nothing like starting the week off with a good laugh (or cry, depending on how you look at it).

This photo comes to us courtesy of columnist and pundit Rich Galen, who got it from a Foreign Service officer in Iraq:

The prevailing theory of this photo, Galen explains, is that someone called to order a going-away cake for Suzanne with the instructions that it be inscribed: "'Best Wishes Suzanne,' and underneath that 'We Will Miss You.'"

Oh boy.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wow ...

If I thought Hillary Clinton was bad on the abortion question, I should have waited for Barack Obama's answer.


It's amazing to me that someone as eloquent and intelligent as Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton, as a matter of fact) can become a verbal puddle when asked a simple question about abortion. The question couldn't have been simpler: Do you believe that life begins at conception? The answer is either yes, I do, or no, I don't. Anything between these responses is not an answer.

To his credit, Newsweek editor Jon Meachem asked Obama the follow-up that Campbell Brown missed with Clinton: If you don't believe that life begins at conception, then where does it begin?

Obama dodged the question and spent somewhere between 60 and 90 very uncomfortable seconds blubbering and stuttering through an unintelligible sentence that bore no resemblance to a coherent thought.

I guess this is what happens to politicians when they try to square head knowledge -- that life cannot begin at any time other than conception -- with political reality -- acknowledging it would alienate powerful supporters that both candidates need.

It's unfortunate that in a setting wherein both candidates talked about finding "common ground" on abortion, neither one would acknowledge even the most basic (and scientifically irrefutable) premise about it.

Author Michael Gershon made an excellent point in CNN's debriefing following the forum when he said that although abortion is a religious issue for many Americans, there are many more who see it through lenses of human rights and human dignity. Neither candidate, he said, acknowledged this reality or had much to offer regarding non-religious concerns about abortion.

Gershon is right, and he demonstrated why there can be no "common ground" between two groups when one is firmly on the land and the another is in the middle of the ocean, continuing to drift away.

I'm back

Got back this afternoon from a quick weekend trip to Nashville, where I attended an amazing event: the taping of two DVDs by Christian singer David Phelps.

If you've never heard of David, take a minute and check out his web site. Listen to the clips. Pick up a CD or two. You'll find that David possesses a talent that can only be described as otherworldly, but he is as approachable and down-to-earth as your neighbor. His message is of the hope and peace that is found in the love of Jesus Christ -- and that's a message that needs to be heard in our world today.

I've followed David for more than 10 years now, and all I can say about this weekend is that it was unlike any event I've ever attended. I can't wait for November, when the DVDs will be available!

So I've been out of the political loop a bit over the last couple of days, but I'm sitting here watching the replay of CNN's Compassion Forum, which I missed earlier. They're at the halfway point right now, with Hillary Clinton just having wrapped up. My first impressions from her stint on the stage is that she had some good moments (her response when asked whether God wanted her to be president was particularly good), but overall she seemed as though she was choosing her words carefully. It's unclear whether she was trying to say the right thing or trying to avoid saying the wrong thing. But to me, much of it seemed forced.

Of course, I was particularly interested in Clinton's response when she was asked whether she believes life begins at conception. She responded that she believes "the potential for life begins at conception." The obvious follow-up question would be, "So when do you believe life begins?" But Campbell Brown asked the initial question; unfortunately, she can always been counted on to either ask a useless follow-up question when it isn't necessary or, as in this case, not ask the obvious ones when they are crucial. She was true to form, and that rendered the rest of Clinton's answer -- something about children in Romania who were abandoned after the government followed women around and made them bear as many children as they could? -- irrelevant.

We'll see how Barack Obama does.