Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin a surprise? Shouldn’t have been

(Originally published 8/30/08)

Sarah Palin is a politician whose name you probably never heard before this week –- or maybe even yesterday.

Why would John McCain pick a former “Miss Wasilla” and first runner up in the 1984 Miss Alaska beauty pageant, even if she is the state's popular governor? She’s unknown outside the Last Frontier.

The national media is playing Palin’s pick as a surprise. But is it?

Conservatives who were unnerved at the idea of McCain picking a moderate are assured with Palin on the ticket. An avid hunter and fisherman, Palin is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. Like Joe Biden’s son, Beau, Palin’s eldest son serves in the Armed Forces and will be deployed to Iraq by the time voters decide who should lead them. And her pro-life politics are more than just talking points: In April, she delivered a son she and her husband knew would have Down syndrome.

Politically, the pick looks like a slam dunk: Voters concerned about McCain’s age? At 44, Palin is the youngest governor Alaska’s history. Running against an historic ticket that features the first African-American presidential nominee from a major party? Palin is also Alaska’s first female governor.

The pick is obviously meant to attract disaffected women who were disappointed that Barack Obama didn’t choose Hillary Clinton as his No. 2. And Palin’s personal story will likely resonate with them. A beauty queen, yes, but an athlete, too; she eloped with her high school sweetheart; her five children range in age from 19 years to just four months; a self-professed “hockey mom,” she will connect with mothers across political and generational spectra.

As an elected official, she has broken with members of her own party. Her battle to root out political corruption in Alaska nearly cost her her own political career when she exposed powerful fellow Republicans. She’s been active on energy issues, pushing for drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. As governor, she has crusaded against wasteful government spending vetoing “pork barrel projects.”

It’s no wonder McCain is comfortable with her. She’s all but a younger, female version of himself.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Palin has executive experience, something McCain, Obama and Biden don’t. And in this year of “change,” the pick leaves the McCain ticket with 22 combined years in Washington, while the Obama-Biden ticket tallies nearly 40.

The only question is whether Palin can match Biden at the vice presidential debate on Oct. 8. But even that may work in her favor: Biden will come in a heavy favorite and have to find some way to meet those astronomical expectations without coming across as too aggressive against a woman who once was named “Miss Congeniality.” In that way, McCain seems to have neutralized Biden’s well-earned reputation as a fearless attack dog: His biggest asset as a VP candidate.

When word leaked out yesterday that Palin was McCain’s pick, I was among those who had their doubts.

But considering what I’ve learned about her in the last 24 hours, I’ve come to think that it would have been folly for him to choose anyone else.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Obama VP prospects abound, but few fit the bill

(Editor's note: Major media outlets are reporting that Barack Obama has selected Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate. For more, check out the Clarion Caller Blog.)

(Originally published 8/23/08)

Barack Obama is within hours of announcing his vice presidential pick.

Of course, we’ve been hearing that since the first of this week.

So let’s take a look at the list of contenders while we still can:

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh are believed to lead the pack. Kaine is a popular Democratic governor in a suddenly-swing state that hasn’t gone for a Democrat for president since at least 1968. He could do wonders for Obama in the South. But Kaine has literally no foreign policy experience, and that would leave Obama-Kaine vulnerable on that issue all the way to November – and possibly beyond.

Biden has all the foreign policy experience Obama could want. But he would be no help to Obama in the South, and he’s been in the Senate since 1972 – 14 years longer than McCain, whom Obama attacks as a “Washington insider.” Selling as an agent of change a 65-year-old senator who’s spent half his life in Washington would require a speech beyond even Obama’s superior oratorical capabilities.

Bayh is a steady-Eddie who isn’t prone to mistakes. He wouldn’t upstage Obama on the trail, and since he supported Hillary Clinton in the primary, his selection would be seen by many of her supporters as an olive branch to unite the party. But Bayh voted for the Iraq War. Swing state or no, Democrats wouldn’t approve of Obama “rewarding” Bayh in spite of that position, and Obama would have a hard time squaring Bayh’s selection with his pledge to choose someone who shares his ideas.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is a rising star whom Democratic Party leaders tapped to give her party’s response to President Bush’s State of the Union in January. Obama-Sebelius could give a nod to the millions of women who supported Hillary Clinton for president – just without all that Clinton baggage. But Sebelius lacks the foreign policy credentials that Obama needs if he’s going to be able to respond to McCain as he campaigns on his military service throughout the fall.

As for Hillary herself, some have suggested that Obama may be orchestrating a masterful head fake by focusing the attention on Kaine, Biden and Bayh to deflect it from his plans to select her. But as I said back in June, 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. The poisonous darts of the primary are just too much to forget.

Other names have cropped up, including U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed and even Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel – a Republican. But none of these prospects offers the whole package.

That leaves us with former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Neither has led pundits’ speculation as they have reached fever pitch.

But beyond having what Obama needs to round out the ticket, both men have what it takes to be president.

And that’s what should drive Obama’s decision in the end.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Conventions, protestors and peaceful assembly

(Originally published 8/16/08)

The conventions are right around the corner, and you know what that means: Long-winded speeches with painfully predictable sound bites. Goofy pins and hats that look more at home in the Disney costume collection. The hackneyed balloon-and-confetti drop.

And ... protestors!

CBS 4 in Denver got an inside look at the holding facility city officials have prepared for use in the (unlikely? inevitable?) event the demonstrations become violent during the Democratic National Convention. Denver’s jails are already beyond capacity, and putting protestors there isn’t an option. So the facility is a city-owned warehouse that’s been – shall we say, repurposed.

The reporter described the “dozens (of) metal cages” “made out of chain link fence material and topped by rolls of barbed wire. Each of the fenced areas is about 5 yards by 5 yards and there is a lock on the door. A sign on the wall reads ‘Warning! Electric stun devices used in this facility.’”

Naturally, protestors who may end up in the lockup weren’t impressed by their potential accommodations. They’ve already calling it “Gitmo on the Platte.”

Zoe Williams of Code Pink – an organization that considers Nancy Pelosi to be too conservative – remarked that the temporary jail was “very bare bones and very reminiscent of a political prisoner camp or a concentration camp.”

Williams knows a little something about jail; CBS says she was arrested at the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004. But that woman compared this warehouse with a place like Auschwitz.

Outrage, anyone?

Then there’s this genius: “That’s how you treat cattle,” said Tent State University organizer Adam Jung. “You showed the sign where it said, ‘Stun gun in use,’ and you just change the word ‘gun’ for ‘bolt’ and it’s a meat processing plant.”

And they wonder why the majority of Americans can’t take them seriously.

But Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper still felt the need to explain “the purpose of the holding facility” through “community outreach.”

It could have been the shortest press release ever: “The purpose of the facility is to detain protestors who choose not to adhere to the rule of law in Denver.”

But Hickenlooper said that the “temporary arrestee processing center” (as the city calls it) is meant to provide “additional processing capability to reduce the time that arrestees will have to wait to be processed, post bond and/or appear in court.”
Denver Sheriff’s Department officials added that the facility “will not be used for long-term detention” and that people will only be there for “the few hours it requires for processing.”

Hickenlooper assures protestors that the city “does not anticipate the need for widespread arrests during the Convention” but “it is obligated to plan and prepare for that possibility given the volume of people anticipated to attend and the intention of some organizations to deliberately get arrested.

“To this end, the temporary arrest processing center will be operational as needed.”

So there’s a simple solution for the protestors who don’t care for Denver’s digs. To paraphrase the First Amendment: Peaceable assembly.

And that should be easy. After all, they are all about peace, right?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Equality isn't achieved through unequal laws

(Originally published 8/9/08)

The case of Luis Ramirez is the latest incident that has civil rights advocates calling for an expansion in the federal hate crimes law.

Ramirez, a 25-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant, had been at a friend’s house on July 12. While walking his fiancee’s sister home around 11 p.m., Ramirez encountered three white teenaged boys. Words were exchanged and epithets reportedly used. A fight ensued. When it was over, Ramirez had been beaten into unconsciousness. He died two days later.

The three young men face murder charges, and the federal government has opened a civil rights investigation into the matter. But prosecutors have already labeled the incident a hate crime and have charged the three teens – star students and football players in the small town of Shenandoah, Pa. – with ethnic intimidation.

Hate crimes are specific bias-motivated acts that are defined as distinct crimes and punished with harsher criminal penalties. In addition to the federal provision, all but five states have some form of hate crimes law.

I have always had a hard time understanding the idea that society can create or foster equality by treating its citizens in unequal ways.

Hate crimes laws echo existing provisions outlawing murder, assault and battery, intimidation and property destruction – they just create and designate "protected classes." A murder, for example, can be punished more severely if the victim belonged to a "protected class."

Of course, by definition, if some classes are "protected," that must mean others are not.

Are you one of the lucky ones?

In Wisconsin v. Mitchell, the case that set the precedent for hate crimes law, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that bias-inspired conduct is more harshly punished because it "is thought to inflict greater individual and societal harm. For example ... bias-motivated crimes are more likely to provoke retaliatory crimes, inflict distinct emotional harms on their victims, and incite community unrest."

But if the likelihood of spawning distinct emotional harms and community unrest is the standard, then physical, sexual and mental abuse of children must be hate crimes against kids. Rape must be a hate crime against women.

You see the problem here? Who deserves to be especially protected, and who has to settle for being just plain old regular protected?

And is it even fair to draw such a distinction? Isn’t the life of a person in a non-protected group just as affected as an attack on someone in a protected class? Why should one perpetrator be punished less severely than the other?

And the law already provides “penalty-enhancement provisions:” They’re called aggravating circumstances. Taken into consideration at sentencing, they allow harsher punishment for crimes that are especially heinous or outrageous.

It’s ironic that political liberals are most often the ones supporting the expansion of hate crimes laws. Liberals typically jealously guard their privacy – and rightfully so. Their opposition to the government’s warrantless wiretapping program is one example. But how much more than scanning your call lists is the government invading your privacy when it ascribes motives to your deeds – literally concerning itself more with your thoughts than your actions?

Regardless of whether his killers were racists, Luis Ramirez was beaten to death in the middle of the street.

How can that be any worse?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Should your vote still count if you're dead?

(Originally published 8/2/08)

The stories we’ve all heard about dead people voting are generally linked to allegations of fraud in tight races. Some locales have developed enduring reputations for, shall we say, high postmortem voter turnout.

But those anecdotes usually involve people who have long since passed away. The Associated Press recently examined an oft-overlooked flaw in mail-in ballot programs: What should be done with a vote if the person who cast it dies before it’s counted?

Every state has an absentee ballot program, and they are increasingly popular. But as the laws governing absentee ballot programs differ among the states, so do the rules relating to voters who die between casting the ballot and Election Day – and many state statutes are silent on the issue altogether.

The AP reported that laws in at least 12 states are evenly split between counting and tossing out the votes.

The argument against counting the votes of the recently dead centers on the guidelines that qualify voters to participate in elections. As South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson told the AP, “You have to be a qualified voter on Election Day. I don’t know how someone can say you’re a qualified voter if you’re deceased.”

But for a voter casting an absentee ballot, his election day is the day he marks the ballot – not the day he doesn’t show up at the poll.

But if being alive on traditional Election Day is the standard, then we’ve just added a new qualifier: Must be 18, must be a citizen of the U.S., must be alive on Nov. 4.

Kathy Krause, whose mother’s absentee ballot was tossed out because she died shortly before her state’s primary, argues that the alive-on-Election-Day argument has unintended consequences: “What if (soldiers) vote and they’re killed in action, God forbid? Should we take away their vote because they died for their country?” Krause said.

There should be some recognition of the intention of an American citizen to make his or her voice heard in an election, especially when that intention is expressed through the completion of an absentee ballot that was received and is returned in compliance with state statutes.

But since elections management falls to the people running America’s individual voting jurisdictions – and there are more than 7,000 of them – it seems a too-heavy burden to place on local elections officials to determine on Election Night whether an absentee voter is still alive when they are ready to run his ballot through the machine.

It’s likely the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually provide some guidance on this. It’s just a matter of time before someone argues that the 14th Amendment forbids states from discounting properly-cast votes of citizens who happened to die before their votes could be counted: Tossing out such votes is an abridgement of “the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States;” in addition, the willy-nilly, haphazard system we have now, in which votes of the recently deceased are counted in some states but not others, constitutes a violation of the “equal protection of the laws” the amendment guarantees.

And the Court may get its chance sooner rather than later: The AP reported that election experts expect as many as 25 percent of voters to vote by mail in November.