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Karl Frisch

Karl Frisch

Posted March 2, 2009 | 09:33 AM (EST)

Down for the Count: The Real Fight for 2012


The fight for 2012 is here. Beltway media insiders rejoice!

Who's it going to be? Spunky Sarah? Moneyed Mitt? Holy Huckabee? Some dark-horse candidate flying under the radar? One thing is for sure: While the media clamors for every tiny detail in the looming battle for the Republican presidential nomination, the real fight for 2012 is taking place right before their very eyes.

Conventional-wisdom channelers in Washington, wittingly or not, have already been put to use by conservatives so determined to win that few facts remain untwisted. The fight over the 2010 census, which will ultimately dictate how congressional districts are drawn in 2012 and potentially influence party control of Congress for years to come, has already started.

We've seen the battle lines drawn in recent weeks, most notably with Sen. Judd Gregg's decision to step down as President Obama's nominee for Commerce secretary. Despite Gregg's statements to the contrary, many media reports have continued to suggest the New Hampshire Republican's decision to withdraw his nomination was based primarily on purported White House plans to be more deeply involved in next year's census.

Though Gregg has said the census was "not a major issue" in his decision to step aside, conservatives in the media have trumped up the controversy to hype misleading and, at times, outright false talking points designed to poison the well of public opinion surrounding the decennial census.

So, did the White House take the census out of the Commerce Department in a maddening display of partisan politics? If you watch cable news programs like MSNBC's Morning Joe, you'd be inclined to think so. Host Joe Scarborough recently said on the show: "[T]his is the rawest of raw politics, where you're going to take the census out of the Commerce Department, where as you said, they're professionals who have done this forever, and bring it inside the White House."

For all of his self-righteous indignation, Scarborough couldn't be more wrong.

In fact, while the White House has reportedly assured progressives that it will be directly involved in the census, it has repeatedly denied right-wing claims that the Commerce secretary will no longer oversee the Census Bureau. Earlier this month, spokesman Ben LaBolt stated that the administration intends to "return" to the "historical precedent for the director of the Census, who works for the commerce secretary and the president, to work closely with White House senior management." Following continued right-wing fury over the White House's census strategy, LaBolt later said "[t]his administration has not proposed removing the census from the Department of Commerce and the same congressional committees that had oversight during the previous administration will retain that authority."

This faux controversy -- sparked by the right-wing-fueled false notion that the Obama administration planned to take control of the census away from the Commerce Department, resting it entirely within the White House -- is far from the only front in this fight.

Back in 1997, as things were beginning to heat up for the 2000 census, conservatives were hell-bent on prohibiting the Clinton administration from using statistical sampling to count those who slipped through the cracks during the mail and door-to-door count of Americans. True to form, this line of attack is making a return.

Echoing right-wing science-haters, supposed MSNBC liberal Chris Matthews recently described the statistical sampling method as the "loosey-goosey census approach."

"Loosey-goosey," or more accurate?

In the years leading up to the last census, a host of scientific associations came out in support of statistical sampling. The Center for Science, Technology and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science stated that "statistical sampling is widely regarded by the science community as an effective and accurate tool" while the American Statistical Association (ASA) argued that "statistically designed sampling" is "a valid, important, and generally accepted scientific method for gaining accurate knowledge about widely dispersed human populations" and that "properly designed sampling is often a better and more accurate method of gaining such knowledge than an inevitably incomplete survey of all members of such a population." The ASA further noted in its brief, "There are no sound scientific grounds for rejecting all use of statistical sampling in the 2000 census."

Confront conservatives with sound scientific opinion such as this, and, after their heads stop spinning, they'll likely offer up the canard that the Supreme Court has ruled that statistical sampling for the apportionment of congressional districts is unconstitutional.

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon's notoriously conservative Washington Times did just that in reporting that "[m]inority groups, quietly encouraged by Democrats, led a charge in 2000 to challenge the census, urging that statistical sampling and computer models -- not the head-count 'actual enumeration' mandated by the Constitution -- should be employed. That despite a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that sampling could not be used to apportion congressional seats."

Those darned activist judges! Or is it the newspapers?

Let's get something straight. In the case so often cited by the right, Department of Commerce v. United States House of Representatives, the Supreme Court did not consider nor did they decide whether the Constitution barred the use of sampling in congressional apportionment. The Supreme Court actually said that a congressional statute barred such sampling and explicitly said it was not deciding the constitutional issue. So, if Congress were to change said statute, statistical sampling could very well become a viable option.

Fights with such high political stakes often end up in the mud of spin and conjecture. In the weeks and months ahead, we're likely see more scientific, legalistic, and otherwise baseless wrangling from the right. After all, their ability to regain a congressional majority may hang in the balance. That is why the media's role of informing the public debate with facts and sound reason is so important.

Thus far, however, their record to that end has been spotty at best.

Karl Frisch is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog, research, and information center in Washington, D.C. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Digg or sign-up to receive his columns by email.