EIDELSON AND THE UNNECESSARY EXEGESIS

That’s what Alek and I recently decided my band would be called, given my penchant for, well, unnecessary exegesis (take these seven paragraphs analyzing one from Barack Obama). If that didn’t satiate you, here’s some more:

Last month, I argued that there was only room in media discourse for one “Un-Hillary,” and that the lack of consensus about Hillary Clinton’s political profile creates the potential for that “Un-Hillary” to emerge from the left or from the right. Over at TNR, Ryan Lizza suggests, I think rightly, that John Edwards’ star as a candidate for the Un-Hillary mantle is rising at the moment. There’s plenty to agree with in his analysis. And then his piece ends with a peculiar turn of phrase:

A southern, moderate, antiwar, pro-labor candidate with low negatives and high positives who has already run for president is not a bad combination.

Why “moderate”?

Now, opposing our invasion of Iraq and the President’s plan to “stay the course” there is a majority position in this country, as is support for the right to organize a union free of intimidation and the negotiation of trade deals that don’t accelerate the race to the bottom. These are both areas where, at least for now, a majority of Americans are on the left. As Paul Waldman argues, there are more of them than one would think from listening to talking heads. And as David Sirota argued in a series of pieces after the 2004 election, “centrism” in the dominant media discourse has been warped to describe a set of policies with much greater support among the elite than the electorate. That said, the fact that most people in this country take a progressive position doesn’t in and of itself make that position moderate, at least in the short term.

Sure, in the long term social change depends on pulling the center towards your end, as the right has done much better than the left over the past few decades. And the most effective political leaders we have are the ones who can communicate progressive positions in ways which resonate with fundamental shared values even amongst people who don’t see themselves as on the left. But I still think it’s worth questioning what, especially in the pages of the New Republic, qualifies Edwards as a representative of moderation – other than the fact that he’s popular, and if you believe moderation to be popular with the American people, you’re inclined to look at someone as popular as him to be moderate as well (remember the DLC essay right when it looked like Kerry was going to beat Bush that celebrated how Trumanesque he was?)

Otherwise, what is it that makes Edwards moderate in Lizza’s eyes? His voting record when he last held office (by which standard the likes of Howard Dean and Ned Lamont – neither likely to win any popularity awards from TNR – are at least as moderate)? His support for the death penalty? His equivocation on civil unions? Or is it just the fact that he’s from the South, and liberalism in some pundit’s minds is a cultural affectation and not an ideological vision, and thus not something a southerner could or would want to take part in?

Look, Edwards is no uber-leftist by any means, and there are certainly issues on which he could be more progressive and deserves criticism for not being. But it’s hard to escape the sense that he wins the moderate label here and elsewhere because he comes off as likable and electable, and it’s assumed that any likable electable politician must be a moderate.

Advertisements

I’ve been hard – I’d say appropriately so – on John Kerry recently. I’ve also tried to acknowledge intermittently the moments of political courage when he’s rejected the DLC mantras by hewing to the left of where Bill Clinton ran in 1992. The major one of these areas, as I see it, is crime. I’d say it speaks well of the electorate that even after Clinton’s eight-year concession to counter-productive right-wing assumptions on crime, Kerry could run on a promise to attack crime by funding Head Start rather than more prisons, intimate concerns about the drug war, and only somewhat scale back his opposition to the death penalty – all without seeming to lose any support. Another issue where Kerry deserves some measure of credit, apparently, is gay marriage. Turns out his position, shameful as it was, wasn’t as shameful as Bill Clinton’s would have been. But don’t take it from me:

Looking for a way to pick up swing voters in the Red States, former President Bill Clinton, in a phone call with Kerry, urged the Senator to back local bans on gay marriage. Kerry respectfully listened, then told his aides, “I’m not going to ever do that.

The Times’ write-up of tonight’s debate suggests that Kerry and Edwards, both of whom oppose both gay marriage and a constitutional ammendment to ban it, chose to stake out less than bold stances on the issue:

“What’s happening here is this president is talking about, first, amending the United States Constitution for a problem that does not exist,” Mr. Edwards said. “The law today does not require one state to recognize the marriage of another state.”

Mr. Kerry, of Massachusetts, attacked Mr. Bush for raising the issue in the first place.

“He’s trying to polarize the nation,” Mr. Kerry said. “He’s trying to divide America. You know, this is a president who always tries to create a cultural war and seek the lowest common denominator of American politics, because he can’t come to America and talk about jobs.”

Needless to say, being told that your rights needn’t be excised from the constitution because they don’t yet pose much of a threat of being realized anyway is, one suspects, less than comforting to millions of gay couples in this country. And while there is of course truth in the oft-repeated argument that the Republicans exploit social issues to distract people from their economic interests, you don’t win people over to your side by telling them that your stance on the issue isn’t something they should be concerned about. Kerry deserves credit for voting against the Defense of Marriage Act, and it was good to see Edwards try to position himself to Kerry’s left on the issue by offering greater certainty that he would vote against it today, but there remains a serious lack of moral leadership on this issue.

Kerry was right on target, on the other hand, on the death penalty, saying pretty much exactly (with the exception of his support for executing convicted terrorists) what every Democratic candidate should when asked why he wouldn’t want to see perpetrators of heinous murderers killed:

“My instinct is to want to strangle that person with my own hands,” he said. “I understand the instincts, I really do.” He added: “I prosecuted people. I know what the feeling of the families is and everybody else.

“But we have 111 people who have been now released from death row ? death row, let alone the rest of the prison system ? because of DNA evidence that showed they didn’t commit the crime of which they were convicted.”

Edwards, unfortunately, took this one as a chance to move to Kerry’s right.

Then there’s this troubling continuation of Kerry’s muddled record on trade:

On trade, Mr. Kerry was asked to square his support for inexpensive clothes and goods from overseas for consumers with his support for labor unions seeking better wages and job protections.

“Some jobs we can’t compete with,” he said. “I understand that. But most jobs we can.” Mr. Edwards seized the issue, as he sought to draw a sharp a contrast by noting different votes the two men have cast on trade pacts over the years.

Kerry did get something else right though:

Mr. Kerry was then asked to name a quality of Mr. Edwards’s that he wished he had himself, but appeared not to entirely grasp the question. “I think he’s a great communicator,” Mr. Kerry said. “He’s a charming guy.”

Looking at the transcipt, Sharpton effectively called Edwards on his support for the PATRIOT ACT:

I don’t see how anyone that supports civil rights could support the Patriot Act. You talk about a difference of direction, Senator Edwards, the Patriot Act…The Patriot Act that you supported is J. Edgar Hoover’s dream. It’s John Ashcroft’s dream. We have police misconduct problems in California, Ohio, Georgia, New York, right now…And your legislation helps police get more power. So I think that we’ve got to really be honest if we’re talking about change. Change how, and for who? That’s why I am in this race.

And he provided the needed historical perspective on gay marriage:

I think is not an issue any more of just marriage. This is an issue of human rights. And I think it is dangerous to give states the right to deal with human rights questions.

And Kucinich (who, incidentally, captured 30% of the vote for second place in Hawaii) tried, with limited success, to focus the debate on the policy differences between the four candidates rather than the personal differences between two of them:

I think the American people tonight will be well- served if we can describe, for example, why we all aren’t for a universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care system. I think the American people will be well-served if we can describe why, for example, Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards are not for canceling NAFTA and the WTO, as I would do, because that is how you save the manufacturing jobs. And I think they’d be well-served if they would be able to see the connection, as I will just explain, between the cost of the war in Iraq and cuts in health care, education, job creation, veterans’ benefits, housing programs. See, this debate ought to be about substantive differences which we do have.

And I have the greatest respect for Senator Edwards and Senator Kerry, but we have substantive differences along these lines that I think it would help to explicate here tonight.

He hit this one just right:

Well, I’m glad to point out something that all those people who don’t have health insurance and all those people who have seen their premiums go up 50 percent in the last three years already understand. And that is that Washington right now is controlled by the insurance interests and by the pharmaceutical companies. And our party, our Democratic Party four years ago, John and John, I went to our Democratic platform committee with a proposal for universal single-payer health care. And it was quickly shot down because it offended some of the contributors to our party.

I just want to state something: We must be ready to take up this challenge of bringing health care to all the American people. And that’s what I’m asking everyone here to make a commitment to. Single payer…

This Washington Post article dramatizes the controversy over posthumous DNA testing of executed convicts. The arguments for this are intuitive and compelling – the death penalty is one of the most controversial pieces of American social policy, and testing – even when it comes too late to save the life of a falsely accused individual – represents a scientific approach to study one its most contentious empirical questions: Does the death penalty claim innocent victims? As one forensic scientist argues:

Although Blake suspects Coleman is guilty based on his earlier work, he is also steadfast in his belief that the public has the right to know the truth. “I’m not anti-death penalty; I’m pro-democracy,” he said in an interview. “How can the state take the position that this is not worth inquiring into? Why not find out once and for all?”

The opposition, while it gets a good deal of space over the lengthy article, fails to offer much of a counter-argument. Mostly it runs like this:

John Eastman, a Chapman University law professor, said that post-conviction DNA testing is not always “about a particular guy being innocent, but an effort to open the door to build a case against the death penalty.”
Much like police who knock on someone’s door with a search warrant often do so trying to build a case against a suspect. But we don’t therefore render evidence inadmissible – we evaluate how persuasive it is.

In the case of Joseph Roger O’Dell III, executed in Virginia in 1997 for a rape and murder, a prosecuting attorney bluntly argued in court in 1998 that if posthumous DNA results exonerated O’Dell, “it would be shouted from the rooftops that . . . Virginia executed an innocent man.”

I certainly hope it would be. Because there would be fairly persuasive evidence to that effect.

…a number acknowledge that they remain opposed to what they see as baseless testing, in large part out of concern for the victims’ relatives, who have waited years — sometimes decades — for closure.

I find it hard to believe that victims of violent crime – let alone their communities – are better served by leaving unexplored evidence that might suggest that the one executed didn’t do it. For “closure” to trump truth in a life and death situation like this is unconscionable.

Legal experts say that the costs of testing, which run into thousands of dollars, contribute to the resistance.

The death penalty, incidentally, isn’t cheap – even when compared to life imprisonment.

Ultimately, no one articulates an argument against using the methods available to explore the full truth about the death penalty that’s markedly more persuasive than

Tom Scott, a Grundy lawyer who prosecuted Coleman, believes Warner should “let sleeping dogs lie.”

From the Times:

This island, it is safe to say, hates capital punishment. It has not had an execution since 1927. It outlawed the practice two years later and wrote this antipathy into its Constitution in 1952: “The death penalty shall not exist.” That is why a federal trial here, in which the Justice Department is seeking the execution of two men accused of kidnapping and murder, has left many Puerto Ricans baffled and angry.

Local politicians, members of the legal establishment, scholars and ordinary
residents have denounced the trial, now in its second week. They call it a betrayal of the island’s autonomy, culture and law, in particular its Constitution, which Congress approved in 1952 as part of the compact that created Puerto Rico’s unusual and frequently uneasy association with the United States mainland. Not even relentless daily testimony about the gory crime – the kidnapped man was shot and dismembered – has softened the outrage voiced by many here. . .

“If the people of Puerto Rico decide that capital punishment cannot be used, even in federal prosecutions, it is against the Compact of 1952,” Mr.D├ívila Toro said. “How can I explain that my Constitution is not respected by the nation that teaches us how to live in a democracy?”

Wouldn’t want to let the colonies make the rest of us look bad, now would we?