Civil liberties: never count on the man

May 27th, 2009 by Steve

Like most liberals, I’m disappointed by Barack Obama’s early track record on civil liberties issues — disappointed, yes, but not all that surprised. He isn’t, after all, the same person he was as a candidate a year ago. And he certainly isn’t the same person he was as a community organizer, a law professor, a state senator or even a US senator from a fairly bluish state.

No, he’s now the man. And since when do we look to the man to go to the wall on civil liberties issues? Isn’t that a job that more often falls to outsiders, to “ugly” people who offend polite company — you know, the damn pointy-headed liberal intellectuals, sipping their lattes, and those beer guzzling libertarians with the Live Free or Die bumper stickers on the back of their pickup trucks? 

Sure, Obama needs to be held accountable for his constitutional failings. Accountability goes with the territory, or at least it’s supposed to. He took the oath of office, after all — placed his hand on the bible — Abraham Lincoln’s bible no less — and swore to uphold the constitution. But he’s also the man. And it’s worth remembering that it was Abraham Lincoln himself, back when he was the man, who suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. And he stretched the constitution in other ways as well. He had a war to win and a union to save, and if that required cutting a few corners so be it.

Like most things in life, it comes down to perspective. And being the man changes your perspective. High minded civil liberty concerns seem less important: keeping America safe more so. Is that an excuse for ignoring the constitution? Of course not. But the reality is that it’s naïve to expect the man to be the person leading the charge in the defense of civil liberties. That’s just not how it works. 

Franklin Roosevelt, for example, the ultimate liberal hero, committed one of the worst civil liberties offenses in the nation’s history, the internment of Japanese Americans. How could he have done it? How could the great man have stooped so low? Beyond question, it was an unforgivable act — one of the most shameful moments in American history. But the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. FDR was the man. Protecting civil liberties wasn’t his highest priority at the time.

Rocket ahead 60 plus years. Barack Obama, who wants more than anything to concentrate on issues like finally bringing the United States into the 20th century (one century too late) by adopting universal health insurance, finds himself facing a God awful mess not of his own making. The gulag at Guantanamo Bay has to be shut down. But what to do with the prisoners still held there, many of whom are extremely dangerous people — folks who really do want to kill us in our sleep — or in our wakefulness, for that matter (they’re not that picky)?

And that’s only the beginning of his troubles. It turns out that due to the incompetence and misconduct of the preceding administration some of these presumptive bad guys can’t be convicted in a court of law. So what to do? Let them go free. That’s certainly the correct answer legally, at least if viewed from the perspective of criminal justice: if you don’t have evidence to prove guilt they’re presumed innocent, right? That sounds fine, or at least unavoidable, to a civil libertarian. It might even have sounded fine to a liberal law professor in Chicago a few years back. But to the man? Not so much.

The man looks past the principles to the consequences, for the nation and, yes, for himself as well. What would it mean if a terrorism suspect released by the Obama Administration led a successful attack against the United States? The damage that would do the nation, to our cohesion as a society, would be immeasurable. And for Obama and the Democratic Party it would likely become a political apocalypse. It might be enough to return the torturers to office. God knows that’s what they’re counting on.

When you’re the man you think about things like that. The man always will. 

I have no doubt Barack Obama will be a much more law abiding president than was George W. Bush, and one much more respectful of constitutional rights. Liberals who have given up on him are jumping way too quickly. But he’s not going to push the envelope in protecting civil liberties. He’s the man. That isn’t what the man does.

So sometimes we’ll have to fight him. That’s our job — every latte sipping and pickup truck driving one of us.

Speaking of not knowing when to shut up

May 26th, 2009 by Steve

John Yoo — torture lawyer extraordinaire — comes out against Sonia Sotomayor. It seems he’s concerned she may be too result oriented, you know, as opposed to Yoo himself who, of course, never gave a second thought the result his bosses wanted when he wrote his little ditties upholding the legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

As Eric Kleefeld notes over at TPM,

“In other breaking news, John Yoo has absolutely no sense of self-awareness.”

Welcome back Max

May 26th, 2009 by Steve

I’m glad to see that President Obama has nominated Max Cleland to serve as Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. While obviously not a high level policy post, this will provide Cleland with a fulltime office where he can once again serve this nation as a public official.

As most will remember, Cleland, who was left a triple amputee as a result of injuries he received in the Vietnam War, formally served as a Senator from Georgia. He was defeated in 2002 in a campaign that featured despicable attacks on his patriotism.

I was becoming worried that he’d been passed over in the Obama appointment process. I’m glad to see that didn’t happen.

Oh, just shut up

May 26th, 2009 by Steve

Wouldn’t it be nice if — as a small thank you for our not sticking their sorry asses in jail — the people who did so much damage to this nation during the Bush years would just shut the fu*k up. Seriously, we don’t need their advice (take this latest saber rattling John Bolton column as an example). We’ve been there and done that — and, strangely enough, we don’t want to go there again.

Go figure.

Now, please just go away.

Bloggery introspection: Memorial weekend edition

May 22nd, 2009 by Steve

I wonder if the fact that going to the lake with 40,000 other people for the holiday weekend (which I won’t be doing), to await the arrival of the inevitable holiday thunderstorm, strikes me as about the most unappealing thing (short of an enhanced interrogation technique) imaginable is a sign:

(1) That I’ve grown lazy with age: or

(2) That I’ve grown wise with age.

Barack Obama’s “just words” do matter

May 22nd, 2009 by Steve

The response by many liberals to Barack Obama’s speech on detention policies for terrorism suspects has been dismissive: “Nice words,” we’ve said, “but where’s the meat.”

It’s a fair question, certainly. I haven’t been shy myself in expressing discomfort, even anger, over Obama’s recent backsliding on civil liberties issues. Without a doubt, the president’s actions haven’t always lived up to the lofty words he spoke in his May 21, 2009 speech. And that’s extremely disappointing. But to suggest, as many have, that this makes the words themselves meaningless is, I think, terribly mistaken.

Words do matter. They define the terms of debate and set the stage for decision. In the end, they can change the course of a nation. Words are the stuff of democracy — sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. And God knows we’ve seen our share of the latter of late. For eight long and miserable years we were governed by people who specialized in using words as weapons of fear. And they were skillful technicians.

We had eight years of a presidency that insisted that we had to watch what we say, lest we give aid and comfort to our enemies; eight years of slander directed against anyone who dared oppose Bush Administration policies; eight years in which our president, far from telling us we had nothing to fear but fear itself, used words in the most irresponsible ways possible with the deliberate aim of actually fanning the public’s fear of terrorism as a means of achieving political ends.

But now, that era of presidential “leadership” is over (if not gone from the national debate). And it is in this sense that Barack Obama’s “just words” yesterday were profoundly important. Standing there in front of the great founding documents of our national liberty, he set out to banish irrational fear as an instrument of policy making. And in doing so he changed the terms of the debate dramatically in favor of the defense of civil liberties and against abuses such as torture. Blind fear, he declared, will no longer be deemed to be a good enough reason to betray our fundamental principles.

As The New York Times editorial board said in response to the speech:

For seven years, President George W. Bush tried to frighten the American public — and successfully cowed Congress — with bullying and disinformation. On Thursday, President Obama told the truth. It was a moment of political courage that will make this country safer.

Mr. Obama was exactly right when he said Americans do not have to choose between security and their democratic values. By denying those values, the Bush team fed the furies of anti-Americanism, strengthened our enemies and made the nation more vulnerable.

This is, of course, a beginning and not an end. The fight to protect our liberty and national honor in an age of international terrorism will go on: and sometimes, no doubt, civil liberties advocates will find ourselves standing against President Obama. So be it. But thanks to the words he spoke yesterday, that fight (the one between civil liberty advocates and the government, not the one waged by the GOP against Obama) will be a fairer and much less corrosive contest — one founded on the underlying agreement that, whatever our disagreements on the details, at the end of the day our national honor must always be stronger than our fear.

Who knew?

May 21st, 2009 by Steve

It turns out that Dick Cheney is a lying sack of lizard dung. Who knew?

The daily doom: kiss our ass goodbye edition

May 21st, 2009 by Steve

To repeat myself, yet again: Does a day ever go by anymore without another terrifying revelation about global warming?

And this time, the revelation in question is even more terrifying than most.

Global warming could be twice as bad as forecast

WASHINGTON, May 19 (Reuters) - Global warming’s effects this century could be twice as extreme as estimated just six years ago, scientists reported on Tuesday.

Earth’s median surface temperature could rise 9.3 degrees F (5.2 degrees C) by 2100, the scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found, compared to a 2003 study that projected a median temperature increase of 4.3 degrees F (2.4 degrees C).

Let’s do the math: previous climate change estimates suggested an impending catastrophe. Now we hear things may actually be twice as bad as had been thought when those estimates were made. So what exactly does two times catastrophe equal?

Yeah, I’m going to get drunk too.

When did Democrats become such freaking wimps?

May 20th, 2009 by Steve

To be honest, it’s getting to the point where about the only thing that makes me proud to be a Democrat is the fact it proves I’m not a Republican.

What is it about Democratic elected officials today? When exactly, in the “evolution” of the party, did they lose their spines? It isn’t a genetic defect. I know this because I’m old enough to remember (or at least old enough to have read history books about) a time when Democrats knew how to fight: FDR changing America forever: give ‘em hell Harry Truman: Hubert Humphrey cajoling the 1948 Democratic National Convention into doing the right thing on civil rights; Lyndon Johnson dominating the Senate, then using those skills to finally push through desperately needed civil rights legislation; Paul Wellstone standing tall as a liberal in a swing state, and so many more examples.

Clearly, the Democratic Party hasn’t always lacked its backbone gene. And that I suppose is good news, since it suggests that it must still be in there somewhere, able to be rediscovered. Perhaps it’s merely hidden in the same remote corner of the unused portion of the party’s soul where the now atrophied gene establishing it as the defender of working people instead of the privileged is stored.

For a long time I tried to resist joining the ranks of routine Democratic Party bashers. BartCop, for example, used to regularly run a picture (he still may) featuring various Democratic leaders wearing pink tutus. It was funny, but to me it also seemed a little unfair. It’s easy, after all, for those of us in the Keyboard Brigades to demand uncompromising righteousness on the part of our elected leaders: but the folks whose job it is to actually try to get something done legislatively in the halls of Congress have to face up to the inherent limitations of the legislative process, something which at times demands unsightly compromises.   

But I hereby relegate all such sympathy to the dumpster of my psyche. There it can share company with my now discarded beliefs in the Easter bunny and the inevitability of the eventual invention of a chewing gum with flavor that never runs out.  

Two final straws in recent days broke my proverbial back on this subject of Democratic gutlessness. The first, though less significant, issue was the business of allowing guns on federal lands: I recognize there’s division on gun control even among liberals. I also understand that a political calculation has been made that gun control is a political loser, especially in Western states that are trending Democratic. But, Jesus, does the party really have to ape the GOP in simply taking dictation from the NRA, enacting any fool thing they ask for? Have we really become that craven.

I think it may be time to change the famous slogan to: Gun lobbies don’t kill common sense gun control (like banning cop killer bullets and the sale of assault weapons), gutless politicians kill common sense gun control.

But the real final straw that ended any sympathy I have for the spinelessness of congressional Democrats was Harry Reid’s moronic (and I choose that word carefully) statement about closing our disgraceful prison at Guantanamo Bay. And here I’ll defer to Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly, who continues his annoying tendency of saying things much better than I could. (Of course, he gets paid for writing: if someone will pay me I’ll try to do better, I swear, really I will . . . really.)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), responding to questions about the Senate’s reluctance to fund the shutdown of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, told reporters yesterday, “We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States…. We don’t want them around the United States.” It led to this painful exchange.

REID: I’m saying that the United States Senate, Democrats and Republicans, do not want terrorists to be released in the United States. That’s very clear.

QUESTION: No one’s talking about releasing them. We’re talking about putting them in prison somewhere in the United States.

REID: Can’t put them in prison unless you release them.

QUESTION: Sir, are you going to clarify that a little bit? …

REID: I can’t make it any more clear than the statement I have given to you. We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States.

“Can’t put them in prison unless you release them”? What does that even mean? Isn’t locking someone up the opposite of releasing them?

At this point, the only difference between Reid’s ridiculous remarks and those of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is that Reid is smart enough to know and acknowledge reality. Otherwise, the arguments are identical. In this sense, the Majority Leader’s nonsense is considerably worse, and far more insulting.

Republicans make demonstrably stupid arguments suggesting the US military is incapable of keeping a couple hundred bad guys locked up and, right on cue, Democrats quake in fear.

What a bunch of losers.

Obama does good: Greenhouse gas edition

May 19th, 2009 by Steve

“Obama does good” will be a new semi-regular feature here at The Last Chance Democracy Café. Our reason is a simple one. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re going to have to spend a lot of our time here, not attacking conservatives as we enjoy, but slamming our new Democratic presidential heartthrob over things like his backpedaling on military tribunals. It seems worthwhile to take the opportunity, from time to time, to remind ourselves where warranted that, the disappointments notwithstanding, President Obama actually is doing some very good progressive things.

Today, for example, he announced some very encouraging action on greenhouse gas emissions.

(Washington Post) Obama Announces First Nationwide Regulation of Greenhouse Gases

President Obama today proposed tough standards for tailpipe emissions from new automobiles, establishing the first nationwide regulation for greenhouse gases.

The proposal also raises fuel efficiency targets to 35.5 miles per gallon for new passenger vehicles and light trucks by 2016, four years earlier than required under the 2007 energy bill.

The president praised automakers, unions and political leaders for forging what he called a “historic agreement to help America break its dependence on oil, reduce harmful pollution and begin the transition to a clean-energy economy.”

Very good news. Let’s hope he doesn’t backpedal on this one too.

Yikes! This looking on the positive side business isn’t as easy as it sounds.