Saturday, June 28, 2008

Young people: Voting is your right -- and your responsibility

(Originally published 6/28/08)

Is Election Day voter registration a good idea?

Yes, says Tim Russert’s son, Luke –- especially as a means of increasing young voter turnout.

Luke argued this week on CNN that if it was easier for young people to vote, more of them would do it.

Yes, they would. But would that necessarily be a good thing for the country?

I say no.

I once believed that Americans should be required to vote. Regular readers out there know how I feel about citizens’ responsibility to participate in their government.

But I no longer believe in compulsory voting – and it’s because of how I feel about citizens’ responsibility to participate in their government.

Voting isn’t like going to the corner store to pick up milk (or, in the case of some college students, beer), or downloading this week’s No. 1 song to your iPod.

Voting is a solemn responsibility that Americans have an obligation to take seriously. We’re not voting for Student Council when we choose our local, state and federal officials, and we’re not picking a Homecoming Queen or Prom King when we elect a president.

At least, we shouldn't be.

And that’s why we should invest time and effort in making our choices – and if we won’t take the time and make the effort on our own, our system should encourage us to do so. Early registration, which requires voters to be deliberate about their intention to vote, is a reasonable component of that system.

Luke Russert said he believes the youth vote has increased over the last three election cycles because the Internet has made political information more accessible to his generation and allowed young voters the opportunity to “be very engaged in the political process.”

“Even kids who went into business who are only interested – or just interested in art or other aspects of – in college life, they would read up on politics, more so this election than in the past,” he said.

(What? Even business students are reading up on this election? Wow, it is exciting!)

So why won’t young non-voters engage?

“I think, one, you’re going to have kids who are just apathetic, who really don’t care, who would rather go to a party or think about a sports game rather than actually voting,” he said. “…You can almost say that the motto for kids in politics is ‘Whatever.’ What you hear a lot amongst college kids is, ‘Whatever, man, whatever, I don’t care, it’s not that big a deal to me.’”

Luke lauded Election Day voter registration as “one of the best things individual states can do to get young people to the polls.”

“If you’re in college and there’s a ticket party, there’s always more kids at the ticket party who buy at the door than having to buy it in advance,” Luke said. “I think that could translate into young people voting.”

But polling places aren’t ticket parties, or keggers or anything else cavalier. So why should America make it easier for those who haven’t made their government a priority – and who actually actively avoid political issues and debate – to have a stake in picking her leaders?

I agree with Luke on the endgame: "It’s so, so important for young people to have a stake in this election right now and just in their democracy,” he said.

Yes, it is – important enough for them to prepare and educate themselves to participate in that democracy. And not just “right now,” but all the time.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Well-behaved wives rob voters of authenticity

(Originally published 6/21/08)

The national media must be sick of writing about John McCain and Barack Obama, because this week, it was all about the ladies.

Michelle Obama appeared on The View Thursday to talk, among other things, about panty hose, whether Barack still takes out the trash (he doesn’t) and what she meant by that infamous proud-of-my-country remark.

Politicos nodded in knowing approval at the “remodeling” of Michelle Obama, like she’s some sort of rental house that needs to be updated.

Meanwhile, Cindy McCain traveled to Vietnam as part of her work with Operation Smile, a non-profit medical charity for needy children in developing nations. She clarified her remarks about Michelle’s proud-of-my-country statement, still insisting she wasn’t trying to start a catfight.

It took a sound bite from ubiquitous political talking head Larry Sabato to shock me into understanding how much this bothers me – and why.

Asked about the move to “remodel” Michelle, Sabato said, “If you’re a candidate for first lady, probably the best thing you can be is innocuous.”

First of all, since First Ladies are not elected, there is no such thing as a “candidate for first lady.”

Secondly, “the best thing you can be is innocuous?”

Excuse me?

Is this 2008, or 1908?

If Hillary had won, would Sabato advise Bill Clinton to be innocuous?

“The idea is to let (the candidate’s wife) get known in a softer form,” Sabato said.

A “softer form?”

Is this guy married?

More Sabato: “The less (Michelle Obama) says and does, the better it will be. The less she is on the front pages, the less she is profiled, the better it will be for the Obama campaign.”


Michelle Obama is a well-educated, highly accomplished businesswoman, a wife and working mother who is passionate and eloquent about the things she believes in.

So is Cindy McCain.

One of these women will wield tremendous influence in the White House while her husband leads the free world.

And that is nothing new. Remember Abigail Adams’ letters to her husband, the future president, wherein she beseeched him to “remember the ladies” when writing this country’s laws?

So why should Mrs. Obama and Mrs. McCain be innocuous?

Why should Americans see a “softer form” of them? (And who decided they needed to be “softened,” anyway?)

Why would voters be better served by hearing from them less, and not more?

I know that campaigns try to make candidates’ wives more Jackie, less Hillary. But it wasn’t until I heard Sabato’s comments that I realized what that really means: They’re trying to make the wives more palatable, as it were – as if the default versions are somehow defective, unacceptable or crude.

That is so incredibly offensive to me – as a woman, yes, but also as a mother, as a wife, as a voter and as an American.

Their husbands are hammering out the details of joint appearances. Michelle and Cindy should be doing the same.

Far from standing dutifully quiet with their pearls in the corners, they should unite and stand together in their passion for this country and their spouses.

Instead of attacking each other, they should work together to get Americans involved with their government.

Think about the level of interest their joint appearances would generate.

I wonder what Larry Sabato would say.

But then again, perhaps the less he says and does, the better it will be.

On the blog this weekend, Abigail Adams’ most famous letter, and my take on State Sen. Ted Little’s recent column.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Free advice for vice presidential search teams

(Originally published 6/14/08)

John McCain and Barack Obama are turning their attention to what John Adams once called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived:” the vice presidency.

And the focus isn’t limited to potential VPs themselves. This week, even the search teams have drawn scrutiny.

McCain sniffed that Obama veepster Eric Holder “recommended the pardoning of Mr. [Marc] Rich.”

Rich is an international commodities trader/financier/man of mystery who was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton shot back, “I’m rubber; you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks on you.”

Well, I paraphrased.

“We don’t need any lectures from a campaign that waited 15 months to purge the lobbyists from their staff, and only did so because they said it was a ‘perception problem,’” Burton said.

I’ve never advocated for a presidential pardon or engaged in any high-powered D.C. lobbying. (Actually, I’m not sure at this point whether that qualifies or disqualifies me.) But if I was advising our intrepid candidates, here’s what I would say:

  • You need someone who complements you. McCain, find someone who knows the economy. Obama, find someone with a strong foreign affairs background. Like Jerry McGuire, you need to be able to look at your VP and say, “You complete me.”
  • While you’re at it, find someone who is strong enough on his own to not just be a yes man. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, one of you will be the leader of the free world in seven months and a few days. Ask yourselves: When you’re faced with an international crisis, the potential for war, a sagging economy or any one of the dozens of difficult issues you’ll tackle over the next four and a half years, how useful is a bobblehead, really?
  • I know it’s tempting to consider someone from a swing state. But this person is going to be your partner in governing long after the polls have closed. He’s not just an A-I-S to bring you a few votes in November. (And while we’re on that subject, readers, if anyone out there has voted for president based on the his VP, please e-mail me. Otherwise, I’ll continue to regard that idea as ludicrous.)
  • Find someone you’re comfortable with, someone whose loyalty you don’t have to question. Look your potential choice in the eye, and ask yourselves: Can I trust this person? Can we work together?
  • To that point, steer clear of the big-name candidates currently topping the veep sweepstakes. You need a partner, not a competitor. Choosing someone who will settle for No. 2 just because he (or she) couldn’t be No. 1 is a recipe for disaster. Remember that arranged political marriages begin in estrangement, and go instead with tested — if little-known – spotlight — eschewing public servants.

Obviously, the foremost concern in choosing a vice president is being preparing for a potential moment’s-notice presidency: Your pick must be able to be president himself. Since 1901, presidents have lived under a thick blanket of Secret Service protection. But lest we forget that bright Dallas day in 1963, that blanket is no impenetrable shield. Above all else, give your country the assurance that if tragedy strikes, your successor will have the depth and breadth of experience to step in.

Finally, remember that although the next five months will be all about politics, four years of policy will follow. Be mindful that what appears to be a politically expedient choice in the short term could result in headaches in the long term.

Check out the blog this weekend.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Actions have consequences, for better or worse

(Originally published 6/7/08)

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ve read about the three little girls my husband and I have running around at our house.

One of the primary things we’re trying to teach them is that actions have consequences. Sometimes their actions have positive consequences; when they work together and cooperate with each other, for example, we’re able to reward them with fun things. But lately, the lesson is learned the harder way: Fights over the remote result in them losing their TV privileges; their all-too-common physical confrontations result in sister separation.

It seems the lessons of childhood really do follow you all your life.

Nationally, Hillary Clinton is learning the consequences of being on the losing end of an intense race for president of the United States. The key to understanding Clinton’s next moves, her closest advisers say, is to consider the psychological effects of coming farther in a presidential campaign than any woman in U.S. history – and finishing second.

Barack Obama is learning the consequences of defeating a Clinton in a political battle. He’s being pressured from nearly every front to choose his former foe as his No. 2. But along with Hillary comes the former president, and it can’t be a good thing that more than one pundit has used the phrase “food taster” in describing what Obama would need to make that partnership work.

Closer to home, the Alabama Legislature is learning this week that its actions have consequences. The State Senate passed a budget in legislative overtime a week ago that slashes next year’s appropriations to the universities by 11 percent.

They did it over the urgent (but polite) objections of higher education advocates, including Auburn University President Jay Gogue and University of Alabama System Chancellor Dr. Malcolm Portera. Gogue and Portera told lawmakers in a joint statement at the end of the regular session that forcing universities to shoulder a disproportionate share of the nearly $370 million in cuts across the board would result in “staggering tuition hikes.”

“That is not an option,” the men wrote.

Well, thanks to the egos in the Alabama Senate, it’s not an option. It’s a reality.

Auburn officials will pursue a 12 percent tuition increase, in addition to possible cuts in non-academic areas, academic support and academics.

The University of West Alabama has already agreed to a 12 percent tuition hike.

But even those stark numbers pale in comparison to what’s on tap for the UA system: In addition to near-certain tuition and fee increases and the cancellation or delay of pending construction projects, the system will cut about 300 jobs.

Three hundred jobs.

In addition, Portera said Wednesday that his system will step up recruitment of out-of-state students, because they pay higher tuition than in-state students.

Thanks, Alabama Senate, for making it harder for your constituents to go to college. Way to look out for your people!

Finally, we, the people of Alabama, are also learning that there are consequences to our actions – or, as in the case of primary this week, our inaction. The turnout of Lee County voters on Tuesday was an inexcusably pathetic 5 percent.

Incomprehensibly, state officials expect turnout of half that for the runoff on July 15.

People, if you wonder why your government doesn’t think twice about sticking it to you, just look in the mirror.

We have only ourselves to blame.

Check out the blog this weekend: