Thursday, February 22, 2007

Now that's rich

The latest knock on the top Democratic presidential contenders -- U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. -- in some GOP circles is that they just don't have enough experience to deserve the job.

To take this argument seriously, you'll need to forget that in 2000, Republicans nominated George W. Bush, whose time in elective office consisted entirely of a term and a half as perhaps the nation's most powerless governor. You'll also need to ignore the examples of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who did all right despite their paucity of time as elected officials.

Experience is important, of course, but it's tough to argue that candidates' raw amount of experience, in and of itself, always should be the decisive factor in who's better suited for a job. Vice President Cheney has more governmental experience than almost any major-party contender, but to say the least, I don't see people rallying in the streets demanding that he run in 2008.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Spitting image

It took a Gallup poll to confirm the obvious: Alabamians like to split their tickets at the ballot box.

The survey, conducted last year at some point unspecified in The Birmingham News' story on it, found that 49 percent of state voters identified as Democrats, while 46 percent registered in the Republican column. (A poll in April found Democrats with a similar edge, 46 percent to 43 percent.) The most recent results led Gallup to paint Alabama deep purple and deem it the fourth most competitive state in a similarly divided nation.

I have two problems with the data. First, I suspect independents constitute far more than 5 percent of the electorate. Second, the raw numbers blur an important distinction, noted by University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart, that has held true in state politics for almost 30 years: Many Alabama voters lean toward Democrats in local races, but they vote heavily Republican in elections for statewide and national officials.

Far better minds than I have tried to explain this discrepancy, with some attributing it to a policy divide between state and national Democrats on social issues and national defense. (For example, Alabama's Democratic legislators voted overwhelmingly -- twice -- for gay marriage bans, in stark contrast to their national leaders.) The differences certainly play a role, but in a state where more than half of the people now agree with national Democrats that the Iraq war was a mistake, they can't be the only factor.

Indeed, the discrepancy seems to hinge more on whether people are voting for someone or for the image of someone. City and county Democrats do better here than their national counterparts because it's easier for voters to get to know candidates for those offices personally and vote for the individual they like better. The personal touch gives nominees a chance to win regardless of their party, so both the blue and red teams are competitive locally.

By contrast, most voters in state and national elections never have a chance to meet any of the contenders for those offices and often necessarily must base their votes on little more than the modicum of information they can cobble together amid the incessant mudslinging on their airwaves. Because high-level Republican candidates often attract more deep-pocketed backers than their Democratic rivals, GOP nominees have the edge at molding the public images -- some entirely warranted, some entirely not, most somewhere in between -- of both themselves and their opponents. With so many people voting (and forming lasting political allegiances) based on those images, Republicans dominate the state's major jobs in Montgomery and Washington.

How this came to be the state of affairs in Alabama and whether it will change any time soon are subjects for another day. But it is the state of affairs in Alabama, and no opinion poll will disturb it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why would you ever disagree, anyway?

Let's be brutally honest: The hours of U.S. Senate debate last week over Democrats' nonbinding Iraq war resolution that essentially says "we're against sending more soldiers to Iraq but won't actually do anything about it" were a terminally silly show that wasted time and money that could have been used productively.

Even sillier, though, were the frenzied Republican efforts to stop debate over the toothless resolution and the dire warnings that it would "embolden our enemies," who apparently watch C-SPAN religiously from a subterranean maze of dank caves with a clear view of the southern sky. If it's outside the realm of acceptability for President Bush's critics to suggest even a measure that does nothing more than wag a finger at the idea of flooding more troops into a poorly planned war, one wonders what exactly would be an acceptable way to express disagreement.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Assuming Iowa doesn't have a time machine yet

Forget the debate over whether to hold next year's Alabama presidential primaries on Feb. 2 or Feb. 5. Make next year's primaries this year's primaries. In fact, I'll repeat my call for us to do it tomorrow. We'll see what New Hampshire wants to make of it.

Yeah, that's what we thought, Granite State.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Nah, just the one basket for these eggs

When Republicans ran the show on Capitol Hill, Alabama had no trouble raking in the federal dollars from a GOP-led Congress that, by the end, stopped paying even lip service to that whole fiscal responsibility thing. But now that Democrats have taken the reins, the flip side of one-party dominance of a state's congressional delegation -- the famine following the feast -- is rearing what Alabamians hungry for federal funds must see as an ugly head.

Examples abound, but two should be enough to illustrate. First is the news that Alabama and other Sun Belt states stand to be hammered by cuts to a low-income energy aid program due to a funding formula that favors snowier Northern states at the Bush administration's proposed allocation of $1.78 billion. (The program would need an extra $1.42 billion to match its 2006 funding.) Second is the revelation that the University of Alabama's work to expand its science facilities is essentially at a standstill after the loss of a $30 million federal earmark that it expected to get before the voting public left U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in the minority party after the November midterms.

Pertinent to nothing in particular, I'll note that at the current estimated rate of spending, the extra $1.42 billion for the energy aid program is roughly equal to what we spend on the Iraq war every five days. Three hours' worth of Iraq spending would be more than enough to cover the UA projects' needs.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The road to where is paved with what?

Ask anyone who's spent much time in a hospital, and they'll tell you that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

Such is the case with the proposal by state Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, to criminalize "a false statement about a candidate during a political campaign" if the statement was made "knowing it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false." Media lawyers refer to that culpability state as "actual malice," and it's the line that prominent public figures, like politicians, must prove a defendant crossed when they are plaintiffs in a civil defamation case. Mitchell's bill effectively would revive, in a modified form, Alabama's criminal defamation law, which the state Supreme Court struck down in 2001 as a violation of the First Amendment.

One might ask where the harm is in a law that says you can be jailed if you lie about a politician in the heat of a campaign. After all, many recent political races in this state have morphed into nasty competitions to crown the most effective character assassin, and that trend bodes ill for the quality and decorum of future political discourse. A desire to scrub that dirty, high-dollar slate clean is both understandable and commendable.

But the proposed law doesn't distinguish between entities with a personal or financial stake in the elections and everyday citizens who just have a negative view of a candidate. (Nor is it clear that the bill would be more palatable if it did.) The bill also doesn't list objective standards by which people safely can decide if they're sure enough about the truth of something to tell others about it without fear of jail time due to "reckless disregard" of the truth.

Instead, even if the law ended up rarely being enforced, it would hang the sword of Damocles, in the form of a possible criminal conviction, over the heads of civically minded Alabamians mulling whether to tell an acquaintance something they heard or read about a candidate. That's not even to mention the potential for misuse of the law to target political or investigative reporters.

Forced to weigh the (for many, relatively minor) pro of talking shop about politics against the (for most, relatively major) con of facing a misdemeanor conviction for saying something that later proves untrue, many citizens may decide the political chat just isn't worth the risk. Down that road lies the erosion, however unintended, of the fundamental right of free speech.

Politicians who feel wronged by inaccurate statements are far from defenseless. For one thing, their fame gives them media access to rebut any harmful falsehoods. For another, the people or groups with the power to do major damage with false statements typically have some money at their disposal, making the threat of a lawsuit an effective check on their actions. Criminal defamation sanctions wouldn't add much more practical deterrent value, but they easily could chill some of the everyday political speech that serves as the bedrock of our republic.

Dirty campaigns are a shameful insult to voters' intelligence, and I long for a utopian world where they are no more. But Mitchell's bill, even if well-meaning, is the wrong path to get to that place. Here's hoping the proposal goes quietly into that good night.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Did you really think he'd go away?

If you've missed Roy Moore, pine away no longer.

The ousted Alabama chief justice, of late a regular World Net Daily columnist, has returned to the political arena at the helm of a group aiming to restore America, which is in need of an Extreme Makeover: Political Edition more than ever now that Moore is no longer in a position to deposit a granite Ten Commandments monument with his name on it in a public courthouse.

Moore, who quoted former Gov. George Wallace for the idea that Democrats and Republicans are basically the same, was publicly noncommittal about a 2008 presidential run. That seems wise enough, considering he got trounced 2-to-1 in a gubernatorial race within his own party in his home state less than a year ago.

Hope I'm not being too forward in asking...

With so many Alabama politicians emphasizing the urgency of reforming the state's campaign finance system, would it be cynical to note that state Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, annually introduces a bill to end money shuffling between political action committees and that his bill annually dies in the Senate before passage? It just sorta seems like the kind of bill that already would have become law considering how serious everyone claims to be about greater clarity and disclosure and whatnot.