Saturday, May 30, 2009

Search for clarity will make Sotomayor's hearings must-see TV

(Originally published 5/30/09)

America, meet Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

In nominating her to the Supreme Court Tuesday, President Obama emphasized her personal story, her vast experience and past bipartisan support. He didn't say it, but it's just as important: She would bring badly needed gender and ethnic diversity to the Court.

For these reasons, Sotomayor was on the short list of potential nominees from the start. So once her nomination was official, journalists and legal observers needed only to grab their nearby notes.

Interest groups reacted similarly. Within an hour of her nomination, power players across the spectrum were reaching out to their supporters for money -– never mind that those supporters were just learning Sotomayor's name.

But as these few days have unfolded, the one thing that's become clear about Sotomayor is that there are a lot of things that aren't clear.

For example, pro-life advocates reacted negatively to Sotomayor's nomination because they assume that as a justice on the high court, she will reflect President Obama's views on abortion. One group put it (in bold font) to its members this way:

"Based on her judicial philosophy, we expect her to elevate unrestricted, unregulated, and taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand to a fundamental constitutional right by reading the sweeping Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) into the Constitution."

Yikes.

But then there's this, from Wednesday's New York Times:

"When (Sotomayor) has written opinions that touched tangentially on abortion disputes, she has reached outcomes in some cases that were favorable to abortion opponents. Now, some abortion rights advocates are quietly expressing unease that Judge Sotomayor may not be a reliable vote to uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision."

The Times reports that officials with NARAL Pro-Choice America, this country's largest abortion-rights organization, don't fully support Sotomayor just yet. They are demanding that senators extract her views on privacy rights before getting behind her.

Sotomayor will be enlightening senators about her beliefs in other areas, too.

One is the now-famous "Latina woman" remark she made during a speech seven years ago. I found myself engaged with a friend in a debate about what Sotomayor must have meant by that statement. He gives her the benefit of the doubt that she was making a broader point about the need for diversity on the bench; I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I'd sure like to hear her clarify it.

And then there's the affirmative action case involving firefighters in New Haven, Conn. You may remember a column I wrote last month on that case. As it turns out, Sotomayor was one of the judges to affirm the lower court's decision in favor of the city on appeal; however, her panel did so without substantive comment on the merits. One observer wondered online this week why Sotomayor, who doesn't exactly have a record of shying away from the controversial, would "punt" on such an important case. Interestingly, since the Supreme Court heard arguments in that case last month, there is an outside chance that justices could hand down their decision on it while Sotomayor is before the Judiciary Committee.

And there's more. Thanks to Arlen Specter's recent defection from the GOP, Alabama's own Jeff Sessions is now the committee's ranking member; as such, he'll play a key role in the hearings.

Sotomayor's confirmation hearings are going to be fascinating viewing, especially for political junkies like me.

I can’t wait.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Councilman Dowdell’s actions continue to be puzzling

(Originally published 5/23/09)

I just don't get the Rev. Arthur Dowdell.

Fresh from ripping the scab off of racial wounds by unilaterally removing decorative Confederate flags from the oldest cemetery in Auburn, the city councilman has now proclaimed that city officials should redraw ward lines to get more black residents on the City Council.

He says he wants this done "at the negotiating table" and not in the courts.

(Which, apparently, is why he already had an attorney working on it by the time he brought it up with the council Tuesday. But I digress.)

I've come to expect eccentric positions from Councilman Dowdell. I wish I could say that his irresponsible actions at and ill-conceived comments about the cemetery were a surprise.

But when he said Tuesday that his position as the only black resident on the city council equates to "taxation without representation," I was bewildered.

Does Dowdell believe that only black council members can properly represent black residents? He says no.

Why, then, would new wards be necessary?

Ward 6 councilman Dick Phelan had it right: Under Dowdell's logic, women in Auburn are even more underrepresented than black citizens.

But if that gender imbalance on the council resulted in inequitable city policies, the ladies and I would have organized by now.

I know I'm not alone in my disappointment that Councilman Dowdell is threatening the city with a lawsuit about this. While such a lawsuit would almost certainly be thrown out of court, the city would have to go to the time –- and taxpayer expense -– to answer it.

I know cities face lawsuits, even frivolous ones, all the time. But you don't expect them to be led by a member of city government.

But let's assume Dowdell really just wants to advance the admirable cause of finding ways to increase the voice of minorities in city governance. His approach is still based on several assumptions that are just plain wrong:

  • That minorities can only have a voice in city affairs through council.

  • That more minorities would like to run for the city council, but the current ward map in some unknown way precludes from doing so. (This ignores, of course, the fact that the current ward plan had to –- and did -– meet with the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice, which reviewed it for fair minority representation in a process known as "pre-clearance" before it was put before voters in August 2006.)

  • That minorities would be more inclined to support minority challengers over their current council member simply because they're minorities, regardless of the challenger's ability or experience.

  • That city policies would be substantively different with more minorities on the council than they are with the current council. This last point, sadly, assumes the ugliest things about those men and women with whom Dowdell currently serves.

    There are plenty of avenues for minorities –- and everyone else, for that matter –- to be involved with city government.

    In fact, since municipal elections are just over a year away, a diverse and robust field of candidates in Ward 1 would be a great place to start.

    Over the past two months, Dowdell has shown a disturbing proclivity to play the race card.

    By doing so, he's failing his constituents –- black, white and everyone else.

  • Saturday, May 16, 2009

    This Obama flip-flop in best interest of American people

    (Originally published 5/16/09)

    In a stunning about-face this week, President Obama decided that his administration will fight the release of more photographs related to allegations of torture by members of the U.S. military, after all.

    It is common knowledge that military commanders have serious –- and well-founded, if not openly voiced –- concerns about the impact those photos could have on recruitment efforts by terrorist organizations. But White House officials didn't want anyone to confuse strategizing with shot-calling. So in announcing the president's change of heart, they were quick to emphasize that although he had intently considered their counsel, military brass had not "pressured" him into the move.

    Those on the left reacted Obama's reversal with a level of scorn, disdain and fury previously reserved only George W. Bush. They say Obama is breaking a promise to hold culpable soldiers accountable for their conduct. But the military has already conducted investigations into these activities and punished those responsible. In this case, accountability does not require full public disclosure of all the evidence –- in this case, the photos –- because American soldiers would face very real risks if they were released.

    The left stubbornly dismisses this reality. Worse, they seem to tacitly consider those risks a tolerable cost, dead and wounded American servicemen and women collateral damage, in their reckless pursuit of a principle that has no basis in reality.

    But there is something else to note here: The growth that President Obama is showing in his ability to collaborate with, listen to and create effective policy with American military commanders.

    As a candidate for president, Obama showed little promise on military matters. His opponents seized on his lack of military experience, charging that Obama would be, at best, a weak and unpredictable commander-in-chief.

    Within 48 hours of becoming president, Obama kept a campaign promise to the left by announcing that he would close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year. Since then, he has learned that signing that executive order was a lot easier than following through. Foreign leaders who denounced the detention facility are unwilling to accept displaced detainees; in addition, most lawmakers of both political parties want no part of those detainees reaching American soil.

    Perhaps that experience -– delivering the promise without developing the plan –- taught Obama to take a more deliberative approach to military affairs. He extended his timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq based on advice from military leaders, and White House officials announced yesterday that although they will be tweaked to include expanded due-process rights for detainees, Obama will retain the military tribunals begun by President Bush. Both of these moves stand in stark opposition to Obama's often-heated rhetoric against them on the campaign trail.

    In short, the president is showing an admirable willingness to break campaign promises if he comes to believe he was wrong to make them in the first place. And that's good news; the only thing worse than a bad campaign promise is a bad campaign promise that's kept.

    Legal observers believe that the photos will eventually be made public anyway, so some observers are suggesting that the president is maneuvering -– enough to be able to say he opposed the release in case it does have lethal consequences for American troops abroad, but not enough, and not in time, to be able to stop it completely.

    That debate -– principle or politics -– will continue. But regardless of the motive or timing, President Obama has done the right thing on this issue. This is one case where a politician-s flip-flop was in the best interest of the people he serves.

    Saturday, May 9, 2009

    New Republican Party looks a lot like the old one

    (Originally published 5/9/09)

    The National Council for a New America was all over the news this week.

    Haven't heard of them? Maybe you know them by their informal name: The GOP Makeover Squad.

    OK, so that's just what I call them. But you get the idea.

    Anyway, the group held its initial event last week in Arlington, Va. I tuned in out of curiosity: Just how extreme might this makeover be?

    Let's put it this way: If this was a home project, it would be the equivalent of updating circa-1990 wallpaper with ... circa-2000 wallpaper.

    After repeated beatings at the polls over the past four years, Republicans —- well, the 21 percent of Americans who now identify themselves as Republicans, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll —- are setting about the unpleasant tasks of peering into the looking-glass, assessing the problems and figuring out how to fix them.

    They are wondering: Have they included too few, or have they included too many? Those who believe the former argue that the tent simply isn't big enough anymore to accommodate modern American political thought; those in the latter camp believe that even the biggest tent isn't worth much if it's full of philosophical holes.

    Enter the National Council for a New America.

    The effort is led by U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who also serves as the House minority whip.

    Let's stop right there.

    First of all, House Republicans have made pitiful showings in the last two election cycles. Why would the GOP want anyone in their leadership as the new face of the party?

    Secondly, it is strange, to say the least, for a whip to be charged with ferreting out new ideas for the foundation of the remodeled party.

    Whips, as you may know, are responsible for keeping their members in line, especially on difficult votes. If you're a legislator planning to break with your party on a bill or amendment that's heavily supported by the other side, expect a call -— or, more likely, a visit —- from your whip. He'll share with you in no uncertain terms that he's no fan of your independent streak.

    And then there is the National Council itself.

    If you visit the group's web site (http://www.wethepeopleplan.org), you'll see a lot of familiar faces on the leadership team —- and by familiar, I mean that almost everyone there has an established national presence.

    Looking for new blood? Move along, folks; nothing to see here.

    You also won't find much diversity. Out of the 20 members pictured on the site, 16 are white men, and only three are women (and, yes, that includes the governor of Alaska).

    This confounds me. If national Republican leaders want innovation, energy, fresh leadership and a new direction, there are plenty of GOP leaders out there in local government —- and a few in state capitals around the country -— who have managed to govern successfully without betraying either their principles or their voters in the process.

    Where are they in this effort?

    Barack Obama won the presidency last year by telling Americans that it's unreasonable to keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

    If they want to re-establish themselves as a viable alternative to the president's policies, Republicans would do well to begin their rebuilding process by taking his argument to heart.

    Saturday, May 2, 2009

    Specter’s switch illustrates two big problems in politics

    (Originally published 5/2/09)

    It's not often that one event encapsulates all the big things wrong with politics in Washington.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, former Republican, now Democrat, of Pennsylvania.

    Tuesday's news of Specter's party switch was greeted with breathless glee among Democrats in Washington. One pundit yammered on about how Specter's new party ID would "liberate" him to vote his conscience.

    My head actually hurt from rolling my eyes at that one.

    In his statement released Tuesday afternoon, Specter made continuing reference to his "independent" nature and his "independent" judgment.

    Sounds like he would make a pretty good independent, right?

    This brings us to big problem No. 1: Big money in politics.

    All his high-minded, philosophical protestations to the contrary, this move was all about power and the money it takes to keep it. Even Democrats accept as general knowledge that Specter's move was not nearly as much self-realization as it was self-preservation. Specter all but admitted that he can't win a Pennsylvania Senate primary as a Republican: In talking to GOP leaders and office-holders and supporters across the Keystone State, "it has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable," he said in his statement.

    But independents don't get party money, and it's going to take money -– a lot of money -– to win that Senate seat next year.

    Thus, Specter's sudden realization that he has so much in common with Democrats.

    But that's only part of the story. Specter's announcement commanded an entire day's news cycle and cast a long shadow over the 100-day mark of President Obama's administration. With Al Franken's win over Norm Coleman nearly finalized in Minnesota, Specter makes 60 -– as in, 60 Democrats in the United States Senate.

    Sixty: The magical, mystical supermajority that renders minority members powerless to filibuster.

    Specter was quick to point out that no one should consider him an automatic vote for cloture, though. You know, because he's ... independent.

    Pundits peppered their 100-day analysis Wednesday with speculation about what Specter the Democrat will mean for Obama's ambitious legislative agenda. How much will Specter assert himself and seek to impact policy? Will Obama lean on him as a matter of course, or will he try to convert other Republicans on individual issues?
    If it's the former, Arlen Specter has just become America's most powerful lawmaker.

    This brings us to big problem No. 2.

    I've written frequently in this space about this country's need for a genuine third-party. Because of America's either/or political system, Specter may now hold life-or-death power over some of the most profound legislation this country has seen in its modern age.

    The Founders didn't mind concentrating a lot of political power in one citizen. They just called him "president."

    Rich Galen is one of this country's foremost Republican pundits. He agrees that we need to have more parties at the party.

    "Perhaps it is time to form a real, no kidding around, third party ... A real third party would allow the Democrats to be the Liberals; the Republicans to be the Conservatives; and the Moderates to be everyone who does not believe that ideological perfection –- on the left or right –- is a prerequisite to holding public office," Galen wrote.

    A mechanism for ideologically imperfect citizens to participate in their government?

    Now that would be liberating.

    Saturday, April 25, 2009

    High court grapples again with race-based preference policies

    (Originally published 4/25/09)

    The national tug of war between affirmative action and reverse discrimination wound its way back to the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

    The case was filed by 20 New Haven, Conn., firefighters who were among dozens who took oral and written promotional exams for lieutenant and captain positions in the state's second-largest city in 2003.

    But when the test results came back, city officials threw them out –- not because no one passed, but because of who didn't: None of the black firefighters and only one Latino who took the exam made the grade.

    So ... no one was promoted.

    As CNN explains, "at issue is whether the city intentionally discriminated, in violation of both federal law and the Constitution's equal protection clause.

    "The high court is being asked to decide whether there is a continued need for special treatment for minorities, or whether enough progress has been made to make existing laws obsolete, especially in a political atmosphere where an African-American occupies the White House."

    The Court has staked out differing standards for race-based preference policies, generally protecting them more in higher education than in the workplace. And that is reasonable; profound resource and performance disparities persist along racial lines in America's schools, and the Court provides race-based preference policies to help ensure that every child has a fair shot at the advantages of higher education.

    But the workplace isn't school -– and a burning building isn't the grassy quad.

    We've all heard stories about public safety agencies that have lowered their standards to achieve racial, ethnic and/or gender diversity in enrollment or employment.

    And diversity isn't some feel-good, disposable luxury. Cohesion and confidence follow when the men and women of public safety reflect the community they serve.

    The problems occur when those elements -– high standards and pursuit of diversity -– get out of balance. Dropping standards to improve inclusion does a disservice both to the person seeking the position and the community that person seeks to protect: It dismisses the applicant's potential by assuming he simply can't measure up and endangers the community by assuming they don't need him to.

    The key to the New Haven case could be the justices' interpretation of a federal civil rights law known as Title VII, which requires employers to ban actions, such as promotion tests, that would have a "disparate impact" on a protected class.

    CNN notes that during arguments this week, Justice David Souter observed that a ruling against New Haven could leave city officials stuck in a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" situation, subject to lawsuits from both minority and majority employees.

    This, along with the perpetuation of inequality and discrimination for new generations of Americans, is what happens when government "protects" some groups of its citizens over others.

    The Court has a chance in the New Haven case to poke a big hole in the misconception that exacting standards and diversity are incompatible.

    I hope, for the sake of safety and equality alike, that they do.

  • This week marks the two-year anniversary of my columns for the Opelika-Auburn News. Thank you to everyone who has written or spoken to me about a piece; I appreciate your comments, whatever your politics. And to all my readers, I know your time is valuable; thank you for spending a few minutes of your Saturday mornings with me.
  • Saturday, April 18, 2009

    Tea parties, dissent and political polarization

    (Originally published 4/18/09)

    You can learn a lot from a tea party.

    Organizers meant the parties, held nationwide on Wednesday, as a visible demonstration of taxpayer anger with massive government spending and mounting federal debt.

    But for me, the lesson was about unity –- and whether this country has any of it left.

    Tea partiers carried all sorts of signs, some witty, some profound.

    But others, including those with slogans rejecting President Obama as this country's leader, were downright disturbing. "Obama is not my president," they read.

    These Americans demonize and reject the leadership of the candidate for whom they did not vote -– ironically, echoing the sentiment of many Democrats throughout President George W. Bush's administration, especially after the 2000 election.

    It's disappointing to me that so many people who lamented that treatment of President Bush are now doing the same to President Obama.

    As I've discussed in this space before, there is a difference between disagreeing with someone politically and disrespecting the office that person holds. Yes, it's true that free speech protects both. But useful political discourse restricts itself to the former.

    Just as disturbing as those signs disowning the president was the media coverage of the tea parties themselves. Cable news anchors peppered their reports with barely-concealed sexual references and a disdain for the participants that they didn't bother to conceal at all.

    And liberals scoff at conservatives' outrage over mainstream media bias.

    How did it come to this?

    It's simple: Americans have forgotten how to respectfully disagree with each other.

    This is partially a function of the way we do elections. We start with two major parties, hold primaries that empower those on the edges of those parties and make it nearly impossible for third-party candidates to gain traction in general elections.

    And we wonder why governing is so contentious and why we have so many disaffected citizens.

    But the polarization of America is also a function of individual Americans who have determined that there is no value or truth in the arguments of those on the other side.

    This is dangerous territory, and not only because they're dead wrong.

    This is the thought process that opens the door for secessionists. Once the mysterious realm reserved only for obscure Alaskan ├╝ber-conservatives and extreme liberals in Vermont, the group was joined this week by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who used a tea party in Austin to remind everyone that the Lone Star State didn't have to stay a part of the USA if it didn't want to.

    But more disturbing than the movement of secession talk into the mainstream were the assents Perry's comments found among Americans left of center: "Let 'em go, and take the rest of the Bible Belt with 'em," one person in a chorus of others wrote.

    What if this had been Lincoln's attitude?

    History has shown us what happens when Americans lose confidence and give up on elections as the ultimate arbiter of ideas.

    But what if the only thing Americans on the left and right can agree on is that our Union isn't worth saving?

    Partisan arrogance is poisoning our people and tearing this country apart.

    Americans, do your nation a favor: Listen to your neighbor. Respect his opinion.

    You'll do your part to save this country, and you just might find that your "enemy" –- your fellow citizen –- can actually be your friend.