Thursday, March 29, 2012


A SCOTUS Gift To Romney?

The conventional wisdom on Mitt Romney in a general election contest is that his creation of a broad health-care program in Massachusetts makes it difficult to make the case against "ObamaCare." Indeed, Rick Santorum calls him the "worst candidate" to take that fight to the president.

But that's the case now.

What happens if -- as seems likely after arguments this week -- the individual mandate is struck down? And, with it, possibly the entire ObamaCare structure? What then?

Democrats make the case that if the entire law is struck down, it could blow up in the face of the GOP:
I’d argue, however, that on the margins at least, a decision invalidating the individual mandate would change the dynamics of the general election in ways that might prove uncomfortable to the GOP. Currently the Republicans “Repeal!” position is attractive, or at least not repellent, to a wide range of people with a wide range of concerns about ObamaCare, including those who would strongly support for more aggressive federal efforts to expand health care coverage or ban discrimination by private health insurers. If the individual mandate goes down, and with it prospective prohibitions on prexisting condition exclusions, the health care debate during the general election campaign will shift from scrutiny of ObamaCare from what, if anything, Republicans are prepared to offer. In effect, the much-dreaded and highly divisive intra-GOP debate on the “Replace” part of its “Repeal-and-Replace” agenda will be accelerated into the present tense. And at the same time, Republicans will be denied the base-energizing power of the passionate desire to repeal ObamaCare, which has become the default-drive unifying force among conservatives of every hue.
The corollary to this view is that liberals would be energized and furious at the Court for striking down the law. They'd turn out to vent their fury on the GOP.

The problem with this view, however, is that it works from a framework that the entire law is popular. It's not. Indeed, the individual mandate is the most unpopular part of the entire structure. Thus, the groundswell to "fix" it just might not be there. And, after the contentious nature of the original health care fight, there's not going to be enough will in Congress to revisit this in the middle of a presidential election year.

Conversely, a Supreme Court invalidation puts President Obama in an awkward position -- and Mitt Romney able to make an argument that he hasn't been able to clearly articulate during the GOP primary. And that may change the political "dynamics," as Ed Kilgore puts it.

Mitt Romney can say, repeatedly, "I brought broad health-care reform to the state of Massachusetts -- and I did it constitutionally. President Obama, a constitutional law professor, spent 18 months of the nation's time, while the economy was collapsing and millions were losing their job on an ideological scheme that has been proven unconstitutional. Is the economy slowly getting better? Yes, but think how much further we would have been if President Obama and Democrats in Congress hadn't been obsessed with pushing an unconstitutional agenda that the American people clearly didn't want?"

That's a powerful argument and it puts the responsibility for the uncertainty over coverage and pre-existing conditions that would follow with the loss of the individual mandate squarely on the president. The chaos wouldn't exist if he hadn't pursued, again, an unconstitutional path.

Combine that framing with conservatives energized over having won a major fight over the policy that helped bring forth the Tea Party and you have a completely transformed political framework going into the fall. The right will be just as -- if not moreso -- pumped to turn out than the left. Yes, broader factors like the overall economy and job creation will play into the election calculus, but there probably hasn't been an election upon which one major piece of legislation has played such a major role since the 1960s (Civil Rights Act) -- or perhaps the Great Depression.

It may not have seemed it at the time, but if Mitt Romney somehow squeaks out an upset win over Barack Obama in the fall, observers may look back at this week as the moment when everything changed.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012


More Jason & Robert on Trayvon

The WSJ's Jason Riley and I continue our chat on the developing Trayvon Martin story.  This time, we address the leaking of George Zimmerman's police testimony, President Obama's statement and the media hotdogging of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson helping to poison the national atmosphere around the case:

Some trenchant further commentary on the saga -- an excellent post by Julian Sanchez, trying to look at events from Martin and Zimmerman's perspectives -- and notes the inability of reality to conform to the human need for clear narratives.

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Monday, March 26, 2012


My Trayvon Moment

So, about 25 years ago, I was living in Annapolis, capital of Maryland, sitting right on the Chesapeake Bay. It has a distinction of being one of the early capitals of young America AND a major port for the US slave trade. Yes, down by the docks, there's even a plaque commemorating Kunta Kinte's arrival. 

Today, Annapolis' great claim to fame is being home to both the US Naval Academy and St. John's College, a liberal arts institution of which I am a proud graduate. 

At the time of this anecdote, it was either the summer before or after my graduation. I was walking down Prince George Street, which runs up from the docks toward the college, to visit friends living off-campus. My friends lived in the back half of a house -- with, alas, a non-functioning doorbell. This particular day, the residents in the front half (the landlord/renting family, as I recall) weren't home. 

After several minutes of fruitless knocking/banging on the front door,  I walked around the side of the house, tried a back gate, yelled up to my friends -- ultimately to no avail.  (Yes, kids, this is what life was like before cellphones!) 

After finally giving up, I headed down to the above-mentioned city dock about two blocks away, figuring to kill some time until I'd try to see if my friends were home later. 

After a few minutes, I'm on the sidewalk near one of the dock shopping areas. Suddenly I had this odd feeling ("sixth sense"? Cliche, yeah, but the only way I can explain it) and noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I turn to see a rather burly white man glaring at me -- with a baseball bat in his hand. 

"You! Don't move!" He yells.  "I saw you! Don't move!" I immediately start backing away. He continues advancing toward me. I turn and run, quickly ducking into a nearby confection/ice cream store. 

With Burly Man right behind me, I yell to the person behind the counter to call the police. Burly Man says, "Yeah, call 'em.  You're not going anywhere."

So, we wait for a few (seemingly interminable) minutes -- me standing almost behind the counter, while Burly stands, bat in hand, near the door.  Finally, a (white) police officer arrives.  Burly Man evidently lived in a house facing the back yard of my friends' place. He claims he saw me trying to break into their back entrance.  I explain what happened, why I was there, my friends not being home and how Burly started following me with his bat.

Happily, the story didn't play out as might be stereotypically presumed. 

The police officer asked me if I was harmed or felt any need to press charges. I said no. I was told I was free to go. He  took Burly Man aside, seemingly trying to calm him down. I didn't stick around to listen to their conversation. 

Was I angry after this altercation? Damn straight. Later that day, I related it to one of the other few black students at St. John's. He was even angrier than I was; he wanted to go and exact some righteous justice on Burly Man. I said, let it go. 

Looking back, free of the vivid emotion of the moment (as is obvious, the incident stays in my memory like it happened just, well, if not yesterday, but "last month" or so), things worked out right. 

Upside: No one was harmed, no one arrested. Downside: Did Burly Man learn anything? Probably not. Did he try anything like that again? Who knows. 

But why was there a favorable outcome? Primarily, because there was a cop who made a judgment and figured out on the spot whose account seemed more plausible.  

Unlike other racially-charged situations, the young black man was being given the benefit of the doubt. 

But, "what if"? 

What if Burly Man had a gun, instead of a bat -- and it had never gotten to that point? What if I wasn't wearing geeky black frame glasses and looking as non-threatening as I could be (with a still mildly noticeable Island/UK accent at the time)? What if I hadn't ducked into the store and initiated the call to the police -- and instead kept on running?

If a young black man is running through the streets with a big white guy behind him brandishing a bat, who looks in the right and who in the wrong? Another way of asking this question is who would be deemed "suspicious" and who "righteous"? 

It's an experience like this -- and these questions it provokes that make me realize why conservatives need to take a look at the specific statutes associated with Florida's Stand Your Ground law. 

And the full reasons for that will be delved into in my next post. Hint: It's the lesson gained from the police officer in this story.  

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Sunday, March 25, 2012


Appropriate, Not Appalling

After letting the White House spokesman make an initial statement on the killing of Trayvon Martin earlier in the week, President Obama weighed in personally on Friday, in a statement that concluded:.
But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.
While most applauded Obama's comments (delivered following an unrelated Rose Garden event), they didn't completely escape controversy.  Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin calls the words, "cloying," adding, "Why is it always about him? I thought the president — like all of us — is supposed to care about those who look like his kids and those who don’t."

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich -- surprise! -- went even further:
“What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful,” Gingrich said on the Hannity Radio show. “It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background.
“Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him. That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. It is a tragedy this young man was shot. It would have been a tragedy if he had been Puerto Rican or Cuban or if he had been white or if he had been Asian American of if he’d been a Native American. At some point, we ought to talk about being Americans. When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.”
Appalling? Disgraceful? Absurd.

Sorry, but this is one of the most frustratingly disappointing statements I've ever heard my former boss utter (and there've been more than a few over the last year leading into and including the presidential campaign season).

Obama's statement was completely appropriate. To the extent that anyone felt them overly personal and racial, it's because they didn't read/hear the entire statement! The president said, in full:
Well, I'm the head of the executive branch, and the attorney general reports to me, so I've got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we're not impairing any investigation that's taking place right now.

But obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together - federal, state and local - to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.

So I'm glad that not only is the Justice Department looking into it, I understand now that the governor of the state of Florida has formed a task force to investigate what's taking place. I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.

But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.
Obama begins with a cautionary observation about not saying too much so as not to interfere with either Justice Department or ongoing state investigations into the killing. So, he is thus recognizing who he is as national leader -- not as a black man.

He then uses a word that everyone can agree on to describe what occurred: "Tragedy" carries moral weight, but not legal. So, again, he's not mucking up the investigative part of the episode.

Then, most importantly, he gets as universal as is possible: "I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together - federal, state and local - to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.'

He speaks as father and explicitly of "every parent in America should be able to understand" the need for an explanation of "how this tragedy happened." How on earth can anyone not see that as the president addressing the universal nature of what happened -- speaking to white, black, Asian parents and letting them know that they have a stake in this as well?

It is only at the very end that Obama, offering a "main message to Trayvon Martin's parents" that he invokes the personal. He is, at that point, speaking as a black man to black parents who have lost a child in a tragedy, that may not have been a racist act, but in which Trayvon's race almost definitely played a role.

President Obama spoke in three roles Friday: as chief executive of the nation's laws, as president noting the universal nature of the tragedy -- and only at the end as a public leader speaking empathetically to those whom the tragedy has hit closest. Yes, Obama went further than the generic "I feel your pain" stance, because, frankly the circumstances called for it.

as Newt Gingrich himself seemingly recognized earlier this year,
saying “I’m prepared if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."

Again, after first speaking to all American parents, Obama then stepped out as an empathetic black  parent addressing grieving black parents. Besides being a factual statement (not just because of race, one could picture a son of Barack Obama resembling the slender athletic Trayvon Martin), he helped universalize the special fears that black parents have of losing sons prematurely to random violence (no matter the race of a potential assailant).

While that's one community's unique pain (specific), the particular way it manifested itself in a Florida  town one month ago, is nonetheless -- for reasons already articulated -- one that "all of us as Americans" (universal) take seriously enough to demand resolution.

Far from appalling, that's an essential message that hopefully all Americans heard.

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