Archive for March, 2012
This article also appeared in Politico on March 31, 2012.
It’s hard to pinpoint the worst moment this week for the Obama Administration. Perhaps Solicitor General Donald Verelli’s stumbling, dodging, gasping performance before the Supreme Court; or Anthony Kennedy’s elegant evisceration of the argument for the mandate’s constitutionality with one sharp question: can government create a market just so that it can regulate that market? Another candidate for the low point must surely be the sinking feeling when Kennedy and Antonin Scalia wondered how a statute can survive if the thing the government says matters most in the law is ripped out.
But the worst point, at least on the cynicism scale, is Majority Leader Harry Reid’s all too telling response that the Affordable Care Act’s overturn would actually help Democrats this fall—so much for the notion that the law is the defining moral cause of our times. It was what Michael Kinsley famously called Washington’s version of a gaffe—telling the truth about one’s motivations without meaning to.
Reid unmasked what critics of the ACA have suspected—that the bill was fashioned more as a clever political instrument than a policy solution. Otherwise, it’s hard to understand how a candidate who punched his Democratic opponent for wanting to fine individuals who don’t buy insurance could turn on a dime within months of taking office. The politics of the matter is that the mandate was a carrot for an insurance industry that shelved its opposition in hopes of raking in high premiums from a new class of healthy, affluent customers.
It’s difficult, absent political strategy, to explain why the administration risked the bipartisan wraith of governors by loading an expanded Medicaid entitlement onto their depleted state budgets without committing long-term to providing federal help to pay for it. The politics of the equation are that state budgetary pressures around Medicaid will eventually provide a compelling, (liberals hope) irresistible case for the supposedly abandoned public option.
It takes politics, and the state of polling in 2009, to explain why the new law was disingenuously sold as status quo for the 85% of Americans who are already privately insured, when every analysis at the time suggested to the contrary–that a competitive network of high-risk pools and insurance exchanges would encourage employers to save money by scaling back the scope of private plans.
In other words, what Republicans call Obamacare was a strategic vehicle to defuse resistance to a systems overhaul and to lay the groundwork for an inevitable realignment of healthcare into a largely government-centric machine. And its collapse, as Reid hints, might galvanize a portion of the left that would say the defeat proves only the limits of incrementalism, and the hard-heartedness of conservatives who despise health-care reform in any shape.
So, no surprise that the potential unraveling of the policy framework brings surprisingly few tears from Democratic insiders like Reid. It was meant less to last, more to set the stage for the reform liberals genuinely want. Of course, the politics of labeling the ACA’s foes as enemies of sick children and the working poor will last for what seems like forever.
Former Congressman Artur Davis joined panelists at the Harvard Institute of Politics to discuss race and the 2012 presidential campaign.
Topics included but were not limited to voter identification legislation, the black vote and President Obama’s and Republican presidential candidates’ responses to the Trayvon Martin shooting. A brief Q&A was held afterwards. To watch the discussion in full (as brought to us from C-SPAN), please click here.
At the risk of reading tea leaves from two justices, the ever pivotal Anthony Kennedy and the magisterial but cautious John Roberts, the game seems up on the health insurance mandate. In casual parlance, they seemed to get it—the “it” being that a government with the power to compel a consumer to enter a market is as omnipotent economically as it wants to be. That government is not only theoretically free to pursue a range of things it won’t do, from making Prius purchasing, Iphone carrying, broccoli eaters of all of us—but, as Kennedy especially seemed to intuit, its also capable of doing something more realistic and more substantial, which is collapsing the zone of economic autonomy to almost nothing, in the name of making the economy look the way government thinks it should.
David Brooks, in his latest column in the NY Times, puts the mandate in the familiar context of the Obama Administration’s penchant for centralized bureaucracies, and he is certainly right about that. Given its druthers, and more votes in Congress, the president would have almost certainly followed that trend into a full scale public option that would have arguably refashioned healthcare delivery along the lines of the fraying, cost-exploding model that is Medicare. For good measure, this White House would have done the same with cap-and-trade and the market for carbon emissions, and they have certainly run the same play in the context of the Dodd-Frank reform by carving out an aggressive new regulator for consumer financial products.
In Brooks’ analysis, the mandate is just the leading edge of the liberal preference for achieving policy goals through centralized, regulated means. But there is another, much more unconventional set of footprints behind the mandate that most of its critics have missed. It is the conversion of liberalism from a shield against the most jagged imperfections in the marketplace, into a proactive lever that remakes the market to fit a set of specific public values. If Medicare and Medicaid were conceived as a hedge against a free market’s inability to absorb the impoverished and the high cost elderly, the Affordable Care Act is a bridge that goes further. The Act theorizes that the voluntarily uninsured are a drag on market and price stability, and makes the age old free rider problem a civil violation.
The defenders of the mandate try to refashion it as just another regulatory tool. But As Justice Kennedy artfully pointed out, regulators govern markets, they don’t make them. Once government segues into making markets, or better yet, re-making markets by using its powers coercively and not just protectively, it is in decidedly unorthodox territory for a non command economy. In the limited instances when we have ventured so far, the results have been short-lived and have back-fired: think of the aborted move in the seventies from laws that prohibited race discrimination to quotas that aimed at workforce and academic parity, a transition that has been all but abandoned and one the left seems in no hurry to resurrect.
The defenders of the mandate have invariably argued, first, that the radical outcome would be to strike down a product of the legislative process. Second, they have resorted to the special circumstances case, which paints healthcare as a uniquely collective section of the economy, where one individual’s inactivity ratchets up costs for some of the rest of us. The encouraging development is that on Tuesday, five justices saw this blending of “business as usual, but we won’t ever need to do it again” as the shakiest of foundations.
There is a price to invoking race too frequently. It goes something like this: allege bias and racial motivations often enough, and the case gets old. Then, when the time comes when there is a genuinely ugly racial moment, and the claim needs to be made, it seems more shopworn than moving.
I have seen this equation play out countless times in Alabama, and I thought of it as the outcry builds over the shooting of an unarmed black child in Florida named Trayvon Martin. The details remain vague but there is at least an outline of what occurred. A neighborhood resident notices a black teenager who seems out of place to him; without reason or provocation, and contrary to the instructions of the police dispatcher he called, the man apparently follows the teenager. At some point, the two encounter each other and the episode ends horrifically. A 17 year old with no history of violence, and nothing in his past to suggest he would resort to violence, is shot dead. The shooter was allowed to leave without being arrested and without even being subjected to an alcohol or drug test.
The shooter had a bloody nose and it suggests that his meeting with Martin turned into an altercation. But the case seems an almost perfect storm of bad, flawed intentions: one man’s suspicions of a kid who looked neither menacing nor suspicious; a police department’s insensitive decision to let the shooter walk away from the scene of a death; the local prosecutor’s failure to see probable cause to convene a grand jury; and a state deadly force law that might have been written for the jungle and not the confines of a community. It is morally clear enough that, yes, the Justice Department ought to be preparing an assault on the law as well as an investigation of the shooting.
To all manner of people, Trayvon Martin’s death is actually what real injustice looks like. Not the contrived “injustice” Democratic operatives invoke when they equate a voter ID requirement with a billy club, or when the Department of Justice compares an ID with brutal sixties style suppression. Not the exaggerated “injustice” claimed by the Congressional Black Caucus when it blames the ethics investigations of so many of its members on a racist conspiracy, as if a bipartisan Ethics Committee had any plausible interest in doing such a thing. Not the over-heated, dramatized “injustice” ascribed to the execution of Troy Davis, a man whom nine witnesses said was a cop-killer and whose conviction survived each level of review from judges of every partisan and ideological stripe.
If only the race card weren’t played so promiscuously, more Americans might hear this child’s death as the inexcusable event it seems to be. If the zone weren’t already filled with cries of racism, the shooting might be a teachable moment about the ways prejudice shapes fear, and the ways that fear can distort lives, and the foolishness of laws which license that same fear to kill.
The unspeakable tragedy would be if the facts bear out that Trayvon lost his life because he was pressed into the shape of a stereotype. The next tragedy would be if that life was lost in vain because the grievance over Trayvon sounded like just another cry of race from a familiar chorus line.
I’m half admiring and half-critical of “Rule and Ruin”, Geoffrey Kabaservice’s exploration of the decline of moderates as a political force in the Republican Party. On the admiring side, he dusts off an important, and mostly forgotten, phase in the turbulent sixties, when centrist Republicans simultaneously rescued civil rights legislation and fashioned a critique of bureaucratic liberalism that has held up well over the last four decades. Not only is it a vivid account of the era’s characters, it’s a valiant reminder that the unrestrained growth of both government and the safety net can be criticized for reasons that don’t contain a racist or hard-hearted foundation.
On the critical side, an elegant narrative that is balanced and reserved in its political assessments for about 300 pages turns rushed and simplistic in its last hundred pages. Kabaservice on the post-Nixon era buys and re-sells the stock line that Reagan Republicans pulled the GOP away from its moorings to a right-wing fantasy-land, and that intemperate ideologues have refashioned the party in a way that has steadily erased any moderates or even thoughtful conservatives. It’s hardly wrong to fault the philosophical intolerance that does exist on the Right, but Kabaservice’s frustration with it leads him to minimize other large factors: first, the book has too little to say about the numerous centrifugal forces in American life that have pulled both the left and right away from the middle, including the surge of grassroots, cause based fundraising; the aggregation of special interests on both sides; and the explosion of a cable culture that profits off polarization. Any one of these developments is a book-length project, and the limited attention Kabaservice gives them puts too much weight on the machinations of politicians and kingmakers at the expense of forces much bigger than they were.
Second, and here Kabaservice is only mimicking a bias that dominates the punditry zone, the book acts if ideological orthodoxy is a solely conservative force. He makes the slightest of references to the similar decline of moderates in the Democratic Party in the past decade—an erosion so pervasive that it has done in ten years what Republicans at least took forty plus years to do. So, to a degree the media virtually never acknowledge, each party is essentially a collection of major premises that are rarely examined by the ranks of elected officials in either camp.
The Republican orthodoxy on taxes is familiar and it has done its share to constrain policymakers for over a generation. The impact of the religious right on national and particularly southern Republicans is also undeniable. But consider the following: there is no cohort of elected federal Democrats who question the sustainability of Social Security or who critique the unprogressive financing structure at the core of Medicare, which divvies out benefits three times the value of a senior’s contributions. There are a negligible number of current elected Democrats, and none who have viable national ambitions, who take issue with the proposition that the constitution and basic justice protect abortion rights and same sex relationship equality. The absence of Democratic critics of the Occupy Wall Street agenda (as opposed to its tactics) was telling last year, and reveals the disappearance of the pro-growth wing of the party that dominated the nineties.
And the story goes on: while there were 36 Democratic House votes against the Affordable Care Act, not a single Democratic senator or congressman urges its repeal or even the striking down of its individual mandate provision; no Democratic politician at the national or congressional level dares to endorse photo ID requirements for voters; and there is no serious Democratic official who challenges the sacred cows of the teacher unions, tenure and opposition to vouchers.
I am also struck that Kabaservice, who is meticulous in his dissection of the sixties, slips so easily into an overstatement of what the conservative reign has meant within the Republican Party. As Michael Kinsley, a pretty thorough-going liberal, observed in the New York Times this January, the supposed conservative domination of the last three decades has not exactly turned the country on its head: as he notes, not a single major government program has been undone, abortion and affirmative action survive, gay rights expand, and not a single right-wing constitutional amendment has been enacted. The limited win total has as much to do with splits and disagreements within Republican ranks as with liberal effectiveness, which undercuts Kabaservice’s premise that conservatism is so monolithic.
Had Kabaservice written a more nuanced account of the post-Reagan era, which conceded the movement of both parties toward their respective bases and which charted the course of policies more than personalities, the trade-off would have been fewer book-sales and fewer plaudits from a media which is enthralled by his portrait of Republicans going off the rails. But he might have gained the virtue of shedding light on what is really the major trend in 21st century politics: the inability of either side to get much done once in power. Ironically, in the book’s last pages, after getting the dismay over the far right out of his system, Kabaservice turns to the theme of gridlock, and makes a compelling, albeit brief case, why the decline of moderates has contributed to it: the absence of a center has meant no natural base of deal-makers, no platform for the kind of smart compromises that achieved welfare reform in 1996 or Social Security reform in the mid eighties.
It is never clear whether Kabaservice actually means to influence Republicans or conservatives. By denigrating the period from 1980 to the present as “ruin” or “destruction”—when to conservatives it is an era in which they rose from near death to become the most popular philosophy in the country—he leaves the sense that persuading his subject is not exactly his goal. But it is in the end, in the book’s reflective, powerful conclusion, that he gets around to making a conservative friendly case for why some alternative Republican governing vision does deserve another turn on the stage.
As he argues, one major virtue of centrist Republicans is that they defended federalism and personal accountability when a major portion of liberalism was bent on rolling over both principles. The centrists wrestled with liberals over the vitality of free markets and the limited returns of massive spending, and the notion that moderates aided and abetted the sixties explosion of government is more flawed memory than fact. Furthermore, the Republican center engaged policy challenges around poverty and public education without the compromising strings of ties to liberal interests; and in so doing, they helped their party fend off the notion that it was better at opposition than governing. In other words, these “centrists” did the conservative cause much good during times when Republicans were in deep peril.
The kind of moderate Republican the press wants to revive is one to the left of every tenet in the modern Republican universe—that’s not likely to happen at a leadership level anymore than a right of center Democrat will flourish in time for 2016. But if “moderate” is amended to mean a conservatism that is reform-oriented, middle-class friendly, not exclusively entrenched in the wonders of an unfettered market–in other word, a conservatism with many of the old moderate virtues–it’s a force that is actually gaining ground. It’s recognizable in the writings of right-leaning intellectuals like David Frum, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, and in the gubernatorial successes of Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Chris Christie. With any luck, it’s this new conservatism that will deserve a book in about five to ten years time.
Judge Harvie Wilkinson of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals could easily have been Justice Harvie Wilkinson of the Supreme Court. He was short-listed for vacancies in both 2005 and 2007, and his brand of conservative jurisprudence and judicial restraint bears more than a passing resemblance to John Roberts. His essay last week in the New York Times is a thoughtful, elegant scolding of both liberals and conservatives who are bent on using the Constitution as the last resort when politics takes too long.
As Wilkinson notes, both the left and right have spent an inordinate amount of time on their own versions of judicial activism—liberals famously so in the context of abortion but increasingly in the context of same sex marriage as well. Liberals favor a robust vision of constitutional privacy over the shifting, ambivalent state of public opinion on both issues. Conservatives, meanwhile, are a week away from urging the court to overturn the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that individuals buy health insurance or risk a fine. If they win, it would be the first time since the thirties that the Court invalidated a major domestic statute.
Wilkinson’s middle-ground–and that is what it looks like to a public accustomed to putting positions on a left-right grid—is that the mandate ought to be spared in the broader interest of preserving congressional flexibility to regulate a modern economy: to do otherwise, in Wilkinson’s reasoning, risks diminishing the government at a time when other nations are much more able to “flex their economic muscle.” On the other hand, he fears that creating judge-made rights around reproduction or gay marriage weakens our capacity to adjudicate social policy disputes through democratic means.
Wilkinson’s argument rests heavily on the ideal that courts should have the modesty to defer to political processes. His conclusions are certainly a reasonable enough way of looking at the world, and on the issues he cites, a substantial amount of the public would probably end up where he does. There are many skeptics of the cost and effectiveness of the health care law who would still be unsettled if its fate turned on a one vote edge on the Supreme Court. There are countless others who are content to let the debate over gay marriage play out state by state and who would be troubled by the notion that the laws of about 40 states should be reversed by a constitution that is indisputably silent on the subject. Abortion is a closer call, and no issue is more subject to the manipulation of wording and framing; it is notable, though, that Gallup does put the pro-life constituency at its strongest peak in 40 years.
But Wilkinson’s theory seems to have loftier ambitions than finding the sweet spot of public opinion. Measured as a constitutional framework, there is something cursory about Wilkinson’s analysis that stands out in spite of its reasonableness. For one thing, his sensibilities about diluting the government’s regulatory authority sound almost identical to what he laments: a preference for a political vision over a constitutional one. It’s also doubtful that a law that commands barely forty percent support, was the product of a set of unusually messy and blurry deals, and whose mandate provision is its least popular feature, is the best advertisement for the shared values and self-governance that Wilkinson wants to revive.
Wilkinson suggests that “deeply flawed” legislation should be corrected through politics rather than courts, and he is right almost all of the time. But the major constitutional question regarding the mandate–does the government have the power to compel consumers to enter a market even when they don’t want to, and if so, is there any limit on the power beyond practical politics?–is hardly the splitting of hairs Wilkinson suggests (he compares it, in opaque law school fashion, to a decision over whether “the decision not to buy ice cream can be neatly severed from the decision to buy chocolate or vanilla.”) To the contrary, it’s a debate certain to resurface in a time in which liberal activism is focused on making the private sector fit a particular notion of the common good, and a judge who worries about ideological ends over-running the constitution shouldn’t be so sanguine about how the fight ends.
Wilkinson’s case against liberal over-reaching is most sound in the realm of gay marriage, where the political process is working through a rolling state by state referendum—if the result is a mixed bag of laws that reflect deeper socio-cultural splits in the country, that’s an outcome entirely consistent with a preference for democratic change over judicial change. But it is striking that Wilkinson equates a novel and emerging theory of same sex legal equality with a near forty year precedent on abortion. Whatever it’s flawed framework, and even Roe v. Wade’s defenders usually acknowledge that the three trimester/viability regime has been all but wiped out by technology, it is now almost as old as Miranda warnings and just as entrenched as a part of the legal and popular culture. The firestorm from striking Roe down would hardly serve the interests of “tolerance and respect” that Wilkinson admires: much more likely is a fierce eruption over faith, sex, and privacy.
The federal bench would benefit from a hundred more Harvie Wilkinsons—so it’s no insult to say that his model of apolitical constitutionalism exposes the limits of trying to build such a thing. In fact, it’s encouraging to see a top-flight jurist striving to elevate restraint to the top of the judicial value scale—it beats the critical legal theorists and law and economics devotees I recognize from law school. In their identical zeal to change society through the courts, they were prepared to discard a whole lot of democratic process along the way.
-My argument in defense of the drug war provoked a stream of reactions worth addressing. The most common theme was that the aggressive prosecution of drugs has “not worked”—it’s a theory that is bandied around the drug debate a lot, by liberals like Michelle Alexander and conservatives like Ron Paul, but I still struggle to understand the terms of this supposed failure. The fact that the drug trade persists is no more reason to disarm the drug war than the persistence of discrimination means that Title VII should be abandoned or the prevalence of corruption means bribery laws should be discarded. While counter-factuals are worth only so much, it seems almost certain that a weaker effort in the eighties and nineties would have only strengthened a drug culture that was eating inner city neighborhoods alive. By that same logic, pulling back in the drug war could well reinvigorate that same culture—a cost that critics of the war rarely acknowledge or address.
As I indicated in my column, there are unmistakable inequities in the prosecution of drugs and there are a variety of reforms that could mitigate them. Several of you contended, though, that only some kind of decriminalization strategy would really address the concern about over-incarceration and un-employability based on criminal records. I am struck how often advocates of decriminalization overlook the fact that the overwhelming majority of federal and state drug convictions revolve around cocaine or methamphetamine, rather than a “softer” drug like marijuana. Unless cocaine or meth were legalized, and I have seen no serious argument that they should be (to the contrary, advocates of marijuana legalization spend considerable time distinguishing between these drugs and refuting the “gateway” argument that involvement with marijuana escalates to harder drugs), the limited decriminalization of marijuana would have a negligible effect on incarceration.
Lastly, the best statistical evidence from the Federal Bureau of Prisons is that without making any major revisions in the scope or definition of drug crimes, the rate of prosecution for drug offenses has slowed from its peak in the nineties, and the number of federal inmates doing time for drug offenses is now down to slightly more than half the total. There are all manner of reasons why, but it’s worth contemplating that prosecutors have already shifted their resources. In other words, the drug wars are likely getting more targeted, more focused on hard core traffickers than they were 20-25 years ago. That’s probably a good thing and a sign that opponents of the drug war are making several arguments that are outdated.
-A number of you responded to my comments on NPR this week about the Voting Rights Act and my arguments against overly vigorous gerrymandering. At least one reader made a point that deserves a rebuttal–the idea that such gerrymandering may be unnecessary to elect an African American, but that it helps guarantee that an African American who is primarily responsive to the interests of his race will win, as opposed to a more “conservative” black. Without wading into the specifics of whether the policy aims of a liberal black are always “more responsive” to the community than a conservative one (another essay, another time) it seems that this argument really is what animates black defenders of the status quo in redistricting.
Under this view, a more racially balanced district, say one that was 55 or 60 percent black, would contain a sizable enough share of whites to influence even a Democratic primary, and its representative would have to make some conspicuous nod to that white swing bloc—a district more monolithically black would be prone to the kind of race-conscious advocacy that flavors most black districts today. To be sure, the latter kind of district is the one that black interest groups prefer, and one likely to produce a politician who caters to their interests in patronage as well as substantive policies. But to say that federal courts should tilt toward one kind of politics for black districts over another is surely an overreach, and a misunderstanding of the impartial role judges should play.
-There is of, course, a larger debate swirling around this issue, which Jamelle Bouie addresses in a follow-up piece to his thoughtful essay in American Prospect on glass ceilings for African American politicians. As Bouie notes, the absence of black governors and senators is less a focus for many blacks than the ideological dispositions of the blacks who vie for higher office. As a result, a more centrist black, or an outright conservative like South Carolina’s Congressman Tim Scott, could expect considerably less enthusiasm and perhaps only limited support from African Americans. I find this disconcerting not only because of my own campaign experience, but because it undervalues the benefit of black politicians serving in high offices where their competence and leadership abilities are on display. The value of that kind of presence is not only a richer and more inclusive talent base but a template that makes whites more likely to discard stereotypes and to keep electing African Americans.
-Finally, a few of you asked what I make of Roy Moore’s come-back to win the Republican nomination for Chief Justice in Alabama. The line from much of the Democratic establishment in the state is that Moore’s revival underscores how right-wing Alabama Republicans have become. It’s worth noting, though, that Judge Moore barely cracked 20 percent of the vote running in the gubernatorial primary two years ago. The much lower turnout presidential primary gave him an easier threshold to crack and bumped up the influence of his Christian, evangelical base. It’s no small detail that his opponents were an appointed Chief Justice barely known outside his home county and a long-time politician with a deeply controversial history and his own limited geographic base; also, neither of these relatively weak contenders spent anywhere near the sums associated with statewide primaries in a non-presidential year .
More telling is the fact that the Alabama Democratic Party never managed to find a credible candidate of its own to run, and is stuck with a sacrificial lamb against a beatable Republican. One more sign of a party that has given up more ground in the last two years than any state party in the country, with the possible exception of Arkansas’ equally wounded Democrats.
Jamelle Bouie’s piece in the American Prospect on the glass ceiling for African American candidates is worth reading: it’s an interesting, and generally incisive, reminder that not a single African American has come within hailing distance of being elected to the Senate or governor (except the narrowly reelected incumbent, Deval Patrick) since Barack Obama’s election. Bouie avoids the usual rhetorical trope about racism and white backlash and pays appropriate attention to the constraints posed by representing liberal, partisan districts that provide a limited donor base. It’s also to his credit that he focuses on institutional factors over vague claims that the system has simply failed to produce enough compelling black candidates.
Bouie’s one major omission, though, is a failure to dig more deeply into the failure of credible black Democratic contenders to command significant support within their own party in recent races: it’s a vexing truth for liberals and Democrats and is at odds with one of the central narratives in politics today, that it is liberals who are advancing the ambitions of ethnic minorities and conservative Republicans who are thwarting them through schemes like voter ID.
As I have argued before, it is striking that virtually each black who tried to crack that ceiling in 2010 met with indifference or hostility from their state’s own Democratic hierarchies—in my race in Alabama, Thurbert Baker’s gubernatorial bid in Georgia, Ken Lewis’ Senate race in North Carolina, and Kendrick Meeks’ Senate run in Florida, local Democratic powers either lined up behind white candidates in the primary or in Meek’s case, ostentatiously pushed for others to enter the contest (the same phenomenon reared its head this cycle, when the Mayor of Charlotte, Anthony Foxx, was quickly discouraged from joining an open governor’s race in North Carolina). Not surprisingly, all of the aforementioned candidacies were under-funded by the Democratic Party’s donor network (in my case, a transfer of a million dollars from my congressional account padded otherwise lackluster funding totals). In each case, it was not thinly veiled race baiting from Republicans (which shaped failed races by Harold Ford in 2006 and Harvey Gantt in 1990) but intra-party politics and back-room undermining that figured in each defeat.
Because Bouie more or less ignores the specifics of the 2010 cycle, he avoids analyzing a trend of Democratic opposition that is hard to wish away. “Electability”, touted often in my race, offers little in the way of explaining why Baker was short-changed when he had won two statewide races as Attorney General– or why Democratic operatives in Georgia were so bent on diminishing Baker, and avoiding looking racist, that they actually recruited another, less well known black to run a sacrificial, uncompetitive Senate race against a popular Republican incumbent. Ideology and a history of independence, both strikes against me, reveals little about why a party stalwart like Meek ended up the victim of efforts to push him aside for a Republican governor who was running as an independent. (Johnny Dupree’s 2011 gubernatorial nomination in Mississippi, by the way, seemed more a concession of defeat by that state’s demoralized Democrats than a real embrace).
Bouie’s thesis also fails to consider why white Democratic voters have shown such resistance to like-minded black Democrats. A law and order conservative like Baker gained no traction with Georgia’s rural conservative Democrats. A liberal like Meek barely captured twenty percent of Florida’s largely liberal white Democrats in the general.
To be sure, Democrats invariably contend that each campaign had flaws that merited their relatively poor showings with party elites and voters. But the “they’re all unqualified” meme sounds terribly artificial in the employment or hiring context; it also minimizes the fact that in low turnout primaries, the actions of party elites are decisive in their own right in bolstering or weakening candidacies. For example, the access to resources that Bouie rightly stresses is not linked solely or even primarily to geography and voting records, but to an aura of viability that is directly influenced by whether the donors who regularly engage party elites receive favorable or unflattering assessments of candidates from those insiders.
It’s simplistic to argue that something resembling conventional bigotry is at fault when elements of the Democratic Party reject or push aside black contenders; but it is no less simplistic to argue that right-wing hostility to healthcare reform and the embrace of voter restrictions is rooted in bias. In fact, conservative antipathy to a liberal agenda at least has an obvious alternative set of explanations, from skepticism of big government and excessive spending in the case of domestic programs, to fears about abuses by political machines in the context of a hot button like photo ID. The fact that moderate and liberal, establishment and more maverick black candidates have all encountered identical obstacles in their own Democratic party is a trend still in search of a defensible rationale (it’s worth noting that Patrick in Massachusetts was hardly the favorite of Democratic insiders in his first race and was heavily aided by Massachusetts’ unconventional party nominating process; that Ford was the second choice of Democratic powers who pushed hard for then governor Phil Bredesen to run for Senate; and that Obama himself was often minimized by party elites until the last stages of his Senate primary).
Bouie, perhaps because he is searching so hard for provable, objective sources for the glass ceiling, stops short of asking a harder question: is it possible that the Democratic Party’s affinity for identity politics gives it a false sense of comfort around race? I would suggest that the party’s confidence that it is advocating policies that are popular with and beneficial to blacks stops it from examining its own poor history of black candidate recruitment and development. Less charitably, backing policies is easier for a party than surrendering the influence and clout of its lead positions.
As voters in Alabama and Mississippi go to the polls to vote in their states’ primaries, host Michel Martin discusses the 1965 Voting Rights Act with former U.S. Congressman Artur Davis.