Saturday, February 28, 2009

Speech showdown indicative of long-term political outlook

(Originally published 2/28/09)

Tuesday night was billed as the battle of the big speeches. In one corner, President Obama, the reigning heavyweight champion of oratory, would deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress; in the other, the GOP tapped super middleweight and rising party star Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to skip a few divisions and give the Republican response.

Well, if we stick with the boxing analogy, this was Tyson-Saverese: It was over in a hurry.

The pundits spent Tuesday describing the near-impossible bar Obama had to clear -- he'd need tightrope-walking acrobatics to balance the stark reality of America's economy against the hope that swept him into the White House. Be real, they said, but not too gloomy; be optimistic, but not out of touch.

Obama answered the call with a typically superior speech that was more characteristic of his ability than the disappointing inaugural address he gave last month. For about an hour, he spoke about the economy, yes, but also about the rest of his ambitious agenda.

Throughout the 20-minute delay between the end of Obama's address and the beginning of Jindal's speech from the Governor's Mansion in Baton Rogue, pundits marveled at the former.

Jindal had been speaking about a minute when I realized that my face was contorted into an expression of confusion and bewilderment. The speech was so strange, its message so muddled and Jindal's delivery so amateurish, it was almost painful to watch.

In reality, Jindal was the one with the nearly unattainable bar. Opposition responses to presidential speeches are usually wonkish, their settings comparatively poor.

But in retrospect, Jindal's poor performance had more to do with the message than the messenger. Tuesday's mess notwithstanding, Jindal is an intelligent, articulate politician with a national future. But he had little raw material to work with. The GOP is still searching for its new center -- an authentic, credible message that can counter Obama's political agenda without alienating the swing voters who elected him.

The post-mortem on Obama's speech was all about the breadth of his agenda. Pundits wondered whether he would be able -- or whether it is even appropriate -- to tackle behemoths like health care and energy reform while trying to right America's foundering economy.

At the start of the 1995 movie, "The American President," President Andrew Shepherd and his staff discuss his 63 percent approval rating and whether to leverage that high public support to pursue a particularly controversial tenet of his crime bill (coincidentally, a handgun ban).

The president's domestic policy adviser encourages the president to go for it: "Let's take this 63 percent out for a spin and see what it can do," he says.

President Shepherd passed on the "spin." But in laying out his agenda Tuesday, President Obama left no doubt that he won't.

At least for the foreseeable future, the new president and the expanded Democratic majorities in Congress are going to have their way with domestic policy in this country.

Because, as they showed this week, Republicans are still down for the count.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Shelby can be powerful agent of constitutional change

(Originally published 2/21/09)

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby thinks Alabama should have a new constitution.

He told me so in a quick conversation we had as he left his town hall meeting in Auburn on Tuesday.

But our short exchange on the sidewalk in front of his waiting car left me with mixed feelings.

On one hand, I was pleasantly surprised to find not only that he supports the constitutional reform movement, but that he is passionate about it.

"Oh, we should have done that a long time ago," Shelby said. "That thing is this big," he said, raising his right hand and stretching his thumb and index finger apart to illustrate the massive size of the 108-year-old document and its 800-plus amendments. He reached into his jacket for the pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution he had been carrying for comparison.

But when I asked him if he would support the joint resolutions pending in the State Legislature that would allow Alabamians to vote on organizing a constitutional convention, I was disappointed that he took a pass.

"That's a state issue," he said, delivering the line politicians give when they are simply trying to steer clear of someone else’s mess.

Richard Shelby has spent nearly 40 years in politics. He served in the State Senate before being elected to the U.S. House in 1978 and the U.S. Senate in 1986. He's established a national profile on financial issues and brought billions back to this state in education and infrastructure funding.

He is perhaps this state's most prominent conservative, with the possible current exception of Gov. Bob Riley. He has contacts and influence with conservative groups that is unmatched by any other GOP leader.

Imagine the difference Shelby's persistent, public support for constitutional reform could make.

If Shelby believes in reform so strongly, why won't he throw his full political weight behind making it happen?

I suspect it's because he doesn’t want to ruffle the feathers of influential conservative groups that oppose constitutional reform.

But the reality is that, his political prominence aside, Shelby is an Alabamian, too. He is underserved and misrepresented by the shortcomings of the current constitution as much as the rest of us.

I hope that as reform proponents continue to spread the word about the need for a new constitution, Shelby will have a change of heart and decide to lend his significant political clout to our efforts. He is uniquely equipped to assuage the fears of many new-constitution opponents -- individuals, not special-interest groups, who oppose reform for their own reasons –- who misunderstand the reform movement. He could play a unique and irreplaceable role in reshaping state government.

He could leave a legacy beyond Washington by making Montgomery more accountable to the people.

As we parted, Shelby apparently felt that he needed to clarify himself, so he added one last comment.

"I trust the people," he said, raising his voice above the noise from the street.

He can demonstrate that trust by supporting the joint resolutions that will empower them to decide for themselves whether their governing document should be rewritten.

Sen. Shelby, be a leader on this issue. Trust the people. Help us get the vote.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mock convention will put pressure on reform opponents

(Originally published 2/14/09)

At 9 a.m. today in Prattville, former Alabama Chief Justice Gorman Houston will swear in the 105 delegates to the first session of Alabama's mock constitutional convention, sponsored by Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

Yes, the convention is only for show. But it is a powerful visual symbol that the constitutional reform movement, nine years in the making, is getting some serious legs.

It's about time. Alabama's current constitution, ratified in 1901 even though almost half of the state's counties opposed it, is riddled with historical anachronisms, racist language and inefficiencies. It strangles local governments and restricts the ability of our city councilors, county commissioners and anyone else outside Montgomery to respond to local needs.

In his column last week, Anniston Star editor Bob Davis adapted the Facebook "25 things about you" phenomenon to the Alabama Constitution. As with those ubiquitous notes authored by my friends, I learned some things.

For example, did you know that in the original state constitution, American citizenship was not an absolute requirement for voting? One's "intention to become a citizen of the United States" was enough.

Did you know that the rallying cry for the 1901 document was, "White Supremacy, Honest Elections and the New Constitution, One and Inseparable"? Talk about your political sound bites.

Did you know that three Black Belt counties voted 17,475 to 508 for the new Constitution? Never mind that the three counties' combined eligible-voter population at the time was 5,623.

And what about the 800-plus amendments to the 108-year-old charter? In the 2008 general election alone, Alabamians approved 25 amendments –- almost as many as the 27 amendments that have been ratified over the entire 220 years of the U.S. Constitution.

Reform opponents use fear tactics and slippery-slope arguments to defend the woefully inadequate status quo. A new constitution would bring increased taxes! Gambling! Haphazard government land grabs!

Well, local governments are having to raise taxes and fees anyway to make up for the state's antiquated tax structure that is, among other things, simply starving schools of the resources they need. I don't know if reform opponents have driven down I-85 toward Montgomery lately, but gambling is already here –- and it's expanding. And as for government land grabs, have they heard of Kelo v. City of New London?

Reform opponents embrace a high-browed skepticism of the convention process. Delegates would surely be unduly influenced and the new constitution permeated with special-interest giveaways if we were to rewrite it, they say.

Really? If they oppose a constitutional convention on those grounds, do they also support the immediate and indefinite suspension of all activities of the Alabama Legislature? Because if the final products of any place are infected with favoritism, influence-peddling and special-interest taint, it's Goat Hill.

State Sen. Ted Little (D-Auburn) and State Rep. Demetrius Newton (D-Birmingham) filed bills this week that would allow Alabamians to vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention to write a new legal document and clean up this mess.

Your legislators presumably trust your judgment to elect them to office. If they won't trust your judgment when it comes to the State Constitution -- if they don't support these resolutions -- you should demand to know why.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Difficult week serves up important lesson for Obama

(Originally published 2/7/09)

Last week I told you that idealists scored a victory with the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

I also mentioned how idealism often struggles in the ugly muck of Washington.

President Obama got a sobering lesson this week on the latter.

Remember just after the election when Obama's transition team made waves with a detailed, 63-item questionnaire required of all potential appointees and job applicants? Nine questions –- a whole section –- dealt specifically with taxes; four concerned domestic help. And just in case they missed anything, the final question of the application was a catch-all: "Please provide any information, including information about other members of your family, that could ... be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the President-Elect," it read.

A lot of good that did.

As of this writing, five of Obama's nominees have had confirmation problems. Four of the five (or their spouses) admitted to not paying taxes, including the man who now heads the Treasury Department and is charged with ensuring that you pay your taxes; three of the five dropped out; and confirmation hearings for one are on hold pending "further investigation" of allegations involving her spouse.

What did this mean about the vetting process? White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs scrambled to assure the public that none of these revelations came as any surprise to the president. And given the scope of the questionnaire, I'm inclined to believe him.

But if Obama was aware of his prospective nominees' various tax issues and chose to nominate them anyway, then that leaves only one explanation: He didn't think the tax issues were serious enough to scuttle their confirmation bids.

This is what led the president of the United States to face cable news anchors on Tuesday and say repeatedly, "I screwed up."

I watched several of those interviews, and every one left me with the same feeling: How positively curious to see someone of such power admit an error so plainly.

So it was against this backdrop that the Senate received the stimulus package from the House with something less than exuberance.

In the House, the president had tried gentle prodding. He'd courted Republicans. He’d leaned on House leadership to drop provisions targeted by the GOP.

As the bill went on life support in the Senate, Obama ratcheted up the rhetoric and even sounded an alarum bell or two, using words like "catastrophe" to describe what awaits the economy if the bill fails.

Yawn, they replied.

At some point, Obama remembered the definition of "bully pulpit." His speech Thursday was sharp and unapologetic, spiked with urgency and peppered with sarcasm.

There were even hand gestures.

"Tensions running high, patience wearing thin," observed CNN's Anderson Cooper.

By the time you read this, the fate of the stimulus package will likely be sealed. Whatever happens, Obama will keep plugging away on the economy, most notably with a rollout of a revamped TARP program Monday.

And he will do so having learned an important lesson over this difficult week: He'll face plenty of political slings and arrows as president without inflicting them on himself.