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Judicial Nominations as Political Playing Cards

January 1, 2011

Gavel imageArticle II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution reads:

The President… shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint… Judges of the supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States…”

(Pay particular attention to the usage of the words “Advice and Consent,” for that phrase is what this entire debate revolves around.)

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, however, in its enumeration of powers vested in Congress, does not list any such power of reviewing or determining the suitability for service of judicial nominations.

In the 2010 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary written and issued by Chief Justice Roberts yesterday, Roberts writes of a growing problem in the political structure of approving judicial nominations:

Over many years, however, a persistent problem has developed in the process of filling judicial vacancies. Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes. This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts… There remains, however, an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.

Similarly, President Obama, in a recent letter to Senate leadership, pressed for a quicker confirmation process of qualified judicial nominees. He expressed his discontent that nominees with “strong bipartisan support and the most distinguished records” are consistently being blocked by a minority of Senators working “systematically and irresponsibly.”

In his letter, President Obama repeatedly stresses that many of his nominees have the qualifications and prestigious careers necessary for serving the people in federal courts. He says, however, that “[i]f there is a genuine concern about the qualifications of judicial nominees, that is a debate (he) welcome(s).” But in the current state where nominees are being blocked for political purposes, Obama faults “Republican leadership (for) undermining the ability of our courts to deliver justice to those in need.”

This may all be well and good, and Obama makes a valuable point that blocking nominees for no legitimate reasons other than hopes to achieve political objectives is certainly out of line in a democracy. Certainly, our Founding Fathers intended the structure of the Constitution to separate the judicial branch from politics (ergo, the absence of “checking” judicial nominees in the Constitution’s enumerated powers of Congress).

But if the Senatorial Republican leadership is to fault for blocking qualified nominees, doesn’t Obama himself share no less blame for the manner in which he conducted himself while a senator? After all, it was he who, when speaking of the qualifications of then-Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, said that although he had “no doubt that Judge Alito has the qualifications necessary to serve” and that Alito was an “intelligent man and an accomplished jurist,” he could not support his nomination because he disagreed with “his understanding of the Constitution.”

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Hashtag for Help

December 28, 2010

Cory Booker's TwitterThe recent nor’easter that pummeled the eastern seaboard from Atlanta to Maine brought with it many regularities: alert snowplows hitting the streets early, states of emergency being declared by anxious governors, and massive flight cancellations.

It also, less expectantly, has brought a progressive mayor in New Jersey to the social networking site Twitter to respond personally to reports from constituents of unplowed roads and difficulty in accessing vehicles or buildings. And who does the mayor most often send to dig out a car or driveway? Well, himself of course.

Cory Booker, first elected in 2006 with over 75% of the vote to represent Newark, is beloved by progressives in Newark and across the country alike. He has worked miracles in Newark, making significant strides in reducing the homicide rate and increasing affordable housing, all the while slashing the budget deficit by $100 million. He is also renowned for his presence on social media websites, especially Twitter, not only for the personal contact that sets him apart from aloof politicians or staffer-run accounts, but also for the pithy quotations from politicians and literary figures that he shares daily.

The level of attention he has brought to tweeting constituents during this storm, however, is unprecedented. As a self-proclaimed Twitter aficionado and follower of social media, I have never before witnessed this level of public personal contact from a figure of authority, much less one of the most popular mayors in the United States, during a time of crisis. Booker has even been forced to play defense, writing the following tweet after someone apparently skirted his shoveling duties after (profanely?) tweeting for help: Wow u shud b ashamed of yourself. U tweet vulgarities & then I come out here to help & its ur mom & sis digging. Where r u? @rookie2veteran

Although Booker’s actions may seem to some inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, the level of attention and the transparency in communication of his Twitter usage sets a new precedent for elected officials. Furthermore, it dispels, in the most genuine fashion, any claims that he is a detached or unapproachable politician. His actions, therefore, would carry profound implications if replicated by other elected officials nationwide, and may be a promising indication of how social media can benefit everyday life for the average American.

Of course, every American doesn’t have a Twitter. And, after realizing how much of a time sucker the website can be, I wouldn’t recommend that everyone reading this log on and create an account. But the direction we are moving as a country, whether for good or not, is toward a culture dominated by Facebook friend requests, online résumés, and, well, bloggers editorializing the latest news. And when someone as widely-respected as Cory Booker amasses a following of over one million people on a social media website, and uses it to help people affected by a snow storm, the future is suddenly looking particularly bright. Aspiring politicians, take note.

Photo Credit: Cory Booker’s Twitter page

Palin: Good for Democrats, Bad for Discourse

December 28, 2010

Sarah Palin speakingI’m conflicted. I am unable to decide whether I would applaud or shudder if Sarah Palin won the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

On the one hand, a Palin victory in the primary would pave the way for an easy victory for Obama in the general election. For some politicians, charisma can go a long way in covering up vices. This compensation reaches a limit, however, and the depth of Palin’s inability to formulate a clear stance on many present-day issues, coupled with her constant gaffes that render her a joke for many, certainly exceeds that limit. Obama’s top guns have recognized Palin’s potential in winning Democrats elections, as both Plouffe and Axelrod “invok(ed) Palin to stir (the Democratic) base” while campaigning last September. Similarly, the progressive attendees of the Netroots Nation conference this year overwhelmingly chose Palin as the candidate who they’d like to see Obama run against.

On the other hand, all the press and attention focused on Palin far too often is wasted on making her look foolish and dumb. Perhaps this is best epitomized by the media’s obsession with Palin coining the word “refudiate” on Twitter. Not only were liberals “enraged” by Palin supposedly typing an “f” instead of a “p”, but the media entertained the story to the extent that thousands of articles were written about the minor gaffe and Palin was forced to repeatedly explain herself. The media is ignoring the real issues, those being Palin’s history as a governor and legitimate stances on current topics, while dumbing down the debate and focusing more on things that really don’t matter.

Okay, okay, maybe I’m giving Palin too much the benefit of the doubt. After all, she has spent her time since November 2008 retiring prematurely as governor of Alaska, becoming a pundit for Fox News, and serving as the centerpiece of a reality show on TLC. And she doesn’t usually have valuable ideas to contribute to debate, either, often resorting to the predictable rhetoric of how it’s all about jobs and how the government’s spending is out of control when she becomes confused by the topic at-hand. To make matters worse, she has proven herself entirely inept at knowing which battles to fight, recently picking on the First Lady’s crusade against childhood obesity.

But if she is really this bad, and I’m not saying she isn’t, why aren’t we worried a little less about who wins the next election and a little more about the future of political discourse in the United States? Shouldn’t we be able to trust the public enough to make an informed judgment about whether or not Sarah Palin is someone who should be taken seriously?

By focusing more on chastising Palin at every possible moment, I fear that both the Democratic Party, a party to which I loyally belong, and the national media are inciting Sarah Palin supporters to become ever more radicalized and increasingly loyal, often blindly, in their support of her. As I mentioned earlier, I fully recognize the potential for Democratic political success in associating all Republicans with Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, and I certainly don’t fault Plouffe and Axelrod for placing an emphasis on such a connection during this past arduous election cycle. Further, I am cognizant that such a polarizing figure as Palin would likely help Obama in 2012 much more than, say, Mitt Romney.

However, is this the nation we really want to become? Do we as Democrats honestly want our opposition to revere a candidate like Palin? Personally, I don’t buy in to the strategy of degrading opposition by laughing and ridiculing. Instead, I prefer constructive debate where both sides bring good ideas to the table. I fear that if we continue down the path we’re headed, our attempts to paint all Republicans as Tea Party “numb nuts” will backfire more than they have already. By that I mean, while we spent the midterm cycle obsessively attempting to portray all Republicans as Christine O’Donnell clones, Republicans picked up significant gains in the House and Senate, clearly showing the public viewed their message as much more legitimate than we attempted to portray it.

For the sake of not only the 2012 presidential election, but also for the sake of political discourse and the productive exchange of ideas in this country moving forward, it is my sincere hope that we, both as Democrats and as a nation, refocus our attention on the real issues and mitigate our obsession with Sarah Palin. It’s time the Democrats and media just forget about her, let people decide for themselves if she is a legitimate possibility for the presidency, and move on, before the damage is irreparable.

Photo Credit: Robyn Beck, 2008 AFP

Stewart: Not Yet Edward Murrow

December 27, 2010

Jon StewartLike any patriotic American, I celebrated the long overdue passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, or 9/11 first responders health care bill for short, last Wednesday. The bill “extend(s) and improve(s) protections and services to individuals directly impacted by the terrorist attack in New York City on September 11, 2001,” and, prior to its passage, had been heralded by Democrats and Tea Partiers alike.

Since the bill was sent to the White House, attention has focused on the meteoric shift of the Senate Republicans from downright filibustering the legislation starting in September and continuing through mid-December, to their sudden backing-down immediately before the Congressional recess. Leading Senate proponents of the bill seemed to be just as stunned by the unanticipated swing with Sen. Gillibrand (D-NY) calling it a “Christmas miracle.”

It is impossible to know exactly what caused the crucial Republican votes to shift in favor of this legislation, but much ado has recently been made of comedian Jon Stewart’s December 17 episode of the “Daily Show” which he devoted to advocating for the bill. In an article yesterday, New York Times journalists Bill Carter and Brian Stelter loftily compared Stewart to the broadcast journalist of the 1940s-50s, Edward R. Murrow. Murrow was best known for turning “public opinion against the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy” and his rabid anti-communist pursuits through critical analysis of the Red Scare on his CBS series See It Now.

I certainly think Stewart’s advocacy was invaluable in the legislation’s success and his show clearly brought to light the Republicans’ blocking of the bill, thus causing more letters and phone calls sent to those disobedient senators. I also concede that Stewart went about swaying public opinion in a relatively Murrow-esque way, although his diversion from jokes and satire to thoughtfulness and straight faces when talking about the bill wasn’t difficult to miss.

However, I reject the premise that Stewart is a “modern-day” version of Edward Murrow, and I argue that he is of an entirely different, and much more new-age breed. Although I disagree with his opinion on where the funding for health care for 9/11 first responders should come, Doug Mataconis eloquently contends in his recent piece that Stewart’s analysis of the bill was of a less journalistic and more activist nature, and I couldn’t agree more. Jon Stewart’s contributions were just as invaluable as Edward Murrow’s, but they were of a different sort. When Stewart, who has made past political contributions to New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, focused his show’s attention on a specific issue, he assumed the activist role played by such commentators as Keith Olbermann. There is nothing wrong with this role, and I actually welcome such commentary, but to equate it with Edward Murrow’s investigative reporting of the 1950s is out of line. Not only was Murrow’s show focused around unbiased news analysis rather than satire, but the reporting Murrow did on McCarthy was much more akin to a modern-day 60 Minutes investigation than Stewart’s activist piece.

Don’t get me wrong: I can’t thank Jon Stewart enough for showing such passion for an issue of great significance. But to place him in the same ranks as Edward Murrow is to misunderstand, and confuse the difference between, activism and journalism.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Voting Rights: Earned or Entitled?

December 5, 2010

Please find below an excerpt from my most recent article for the Harvard Political Review. The entire article is viewable online here, and I encourage you to read it.

It can be easy to forget that suffrage laws in the United States have changed a great deal over the years; indeed they have changed relatively recently. As a general matter, suffrage rights evolve to become more inclusive, but there is at least one group that, since the beginning of the 20th century, has lost the franchise in American elections: non-citizens. Once commonly accepted in the United States, non-citizen voting has been extinct since Arkansas became the last state to ban it in 1926. Although it is not mentioned in the United States Constitution, non-citizen voting is now explicitly prohibited in several state constitutions.

The controversy surrounding non-citizen voting is closely tied to ongoing debates over immigration, as well as the role of citizenship in a democracy. Reformers who are interested in expanding suffrage to non-citizens will have difficulty until the public comes closer to a resolution of these other two issues.

View the rest of the article here.

“The Not-So-Independent Variable”: Revisited

November 6, 2010

Independents: Don't count them out yet.

 

As originally seen on the HPRgument.

Well, I guess I underestimated my own state’s independence. In my blog post last month about independent gubernatorial candidates in today’s political climate, I crassly proclaimed that neither Massachusetts candidate Tim Cahill nor Maine candidate Eliot Cutler (’68) were considered by voters as “practical choices.” As Tuesday’s results reveal, I correctly predicted Cahill’s inability to garner significant support, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about Cutler, who fell a mere 10,500 votes short of winning the election.

I did, however, get one thing right when I stated that “[i]ndependents still have a greater influence on the outcome of an election than any other factor.” Cahill’s impact came during the debacle with his running mate, who defected from Cahill’s ticket and endorsed Republican Charlie Baker. Cahill then sued former top strategists, alleging they were in cahoots with Baker’s team.

Cutler’s effect in Maine was much more tangible. In a poll released on October 19 by Pan Atlantic SMS, Cutler’s support was at a modest 14%. From there, however, his support ballooned. The two weeks between October 19 and Election Day are an exemplary case model for anyone studying how to run, or not run, a campaign.

While Republican (and eventual victor) Paul LePage’s support remained constant from October 19 to November 2, fluctuating between 33% and 40% and never dipping below 38.5% in the final week, support for Democrat Libby Mitchell plunged from 28% t0 24%. Although “plunged” seems a dramatic choice of vocabulary for a drop of a mere 4 points, when one factors in that during this time span 18.2% of voters switched their support from “Undecided” to one of the three candidates, the plunge is more noticeable.

A host of reasons contributed to Mitchell’s sharp drop in support, which ended with her receiving under 20% of the vote on Election Day, and Cutler’s startling gains in support, culminating in 36.5% of the electorate. Many have been quick to pin the blame on the Maine Democratic Party* who, in the days of heightened intensity immediately prior to the elections, sent out two allegedly xenophobic mailers negatively depicting Cutler’s business relationship with China and a third that stretched the truth about Cutler’s environmental record. Others have blamed the bitter back-and-forth between LePage and Mitchell for turning voters off from voting partisan.

Whatever the reason for the onset of Mitchell’s slide, the one-week period immediately prior to the election, and especially the two days immediately before when voters were informed by a Maine People’s Resource Center poll that Cutler had surpassed Mitchell for the first time, serves as a prime example of the “wildfire” effect in politics. Maybe there have been other terms keyed to explain this phenomenon (“domino effect” doesn’t seem to do it justice), but my argument is that once Maine’s large community of liberals and anti-Tea Party moderates realized Cutler was favored over Mitchell, many previous Mitchell supporters jumped ship and lined up behind Cutler. Voters decide to vote in favor of math over their conscience.

One of my Facebook friends, and a first-time voter this year, posted a status imploring her friends to “vote based on who they think has the strongest chance of beating LePage.” I certainly don’t approve of this mentality, as it often leads voters to not select their favorite candidate, but it clearly has widespread appeal in Maine. The groundswell of support that developed for Cutler November 1-2 alone was greater than the support he had experienced throughout the rest of his campaign in its entirety.

I may have been wrong when I said independent candidates don’t stand a chance in today’s partisan climate. Indeed, if campaigning had dragged on for one additional day, I have no doubt that Cutler could have easily bridged the 1.8% gap that separated he and LePage on Election Day.

The Maine election does, however, provide a clear illumination of the volatility of elections today. Whereas in the past voters were more likely to vote party-line straight down the ballot, more voters today have stepped outside that realm and are beginning to “affect the political dynamic.”

What this means for organizations like the Maine Democratic Party, or its Republican counterpart for that matter, is unclear. Maybe partisans will have to begin rethinking the theory of pressuring party-affiliated candidates to appeal to their party’s base and, instead, the middle-ground voter. Maybe, as Phil Keisling suggested in a New York Times’ op-ed, we should “abolish party primary elections” altogether.

Whatever the solution, the Maine gubernatorial election on Tuesday certainly opened a few eyes and returned to the discussion board the importance of independents in elections. I just wish those eyes could have been opened a day earlier, because then I might not have this guy as the governor of my home state…

*For the sake of full disclosure, I spent two months as an intern with the Maine Democratic Party last summer.

Photo credit: Portland Press Herald

Thank you.

November 3, 2010

If the last seven months of managing Ed Suslovic’s campaign for City Council, District 3, taught me anything, it was that, regardless of the partisan and negative political landscape in America today, the community of Portland, Maine, is alive and well. In fact, it’s better than ever.

Ed and I knew from the start that winning the campaign would be a collective effort of many helping hands. Such a goal is easy to make, but often more difficult to put in practice. After an exhaustive campaign, stretching from late March, when Ed and I had our first campaign meeting and I accepted the position of campaign manager, to last night at 8:35pm, when the final tally was released from Woodfords Church, I am proud to say that we ran our campaign exactly how we had originally idealized.

There are so many people I wish to thank, and I’m sure that Ed has an even longer list. I’ll try to do justice to everyone who helped Ed win; but in reality, every Portlander, every person who sent words of encouragement to Ed or me, and every person who believes in the democratic process deserves my complete appreciation.

First off, I would like to thank Will Mitchell and his campaign manager, a friend of mine, Rob Kardell for running an exemplary campaign. Will brought to the table new ideas for the district and presented them to voters in an accessible fashion. He earned the respect from peers and colleagues alike, and used these endorsements to work even harder. Most importantly, Will, with the help of Rob, took the high road with their campaign. No bitter words or ill wishes were ever exchanged between our campaign and his, which not only made my job easier, but also served as a testament to the strong values and principles of Will and Rob. I hope that Will stays involved in the Portland political scene and, in another race, he might certainly earn my support.

Secondly, I would like to thank the countless volunteers, encouragers, and advocates for Ed who helped us along the way. Whether you put up a yard sign, donated five dollars on our website, sent a letter into the newspaper, helped give out literature to District 3 voters, talked up Ed to your friends and neighbors, sent us words of appreciation and wished us luck, or held up an Ed sign at the polls yesterday, you truly made this campaign a collective effort. There are far too many volunteers than can be named individually, but just know that Ed and I are forever grateful for your help and assistance.

Thirdly, I would like to thank every District 3 voter and resident, regardless of if you voted for Ed, voted against Ed, or didn’t vote at all. I thank you for believing in Ed’s vision for Portland, welcoming Ed on your porch at any point since July while he was campaigning, and for electing him to be your next City Councilor. I know I can speak for Ed in saying that he looks forward to meeting those residents he hasn’t yet met, and he looks forward to working with all of you during his time on the City Council. If you are ever in need of contacting Ed, his email address is edsuslovic@yahoo.com and his phone number is 772-5615. He’d love to hear from you.

Fourthly, I would like to thank my family and friends for their continuous support and open-mindedness when I first began, and throughout my working with, the campaign. I thank my parents for putting up with me and recognizing, and accepting, that I prioritize things a bit differently than your average teenager. I thank my family and close friends who offered me consistent encouragement and assistance whenever I needed any. And I thank my girlfriend, who not only tolerated my long discussions about the campaign, but spent nine hours yesterday holding an Ed sign in the bitter cold in front of the Italian Heritage Center.

Lastly, I would like to thank Ed. It’s not every day when an experienced politician decides to hire an 18-year-old then-high school senior to run his campaign. I thank him for putting his faith in me, and for often valuing my opinion above his own. I thank him for not rejecting my twice-a-day phone calls in the final stretch of the campaign, and I thank him for sticking to the strategy we developed back in mid-April. Mostly, I thank him for making this campaign so easy for me- after all, when you have a candidate who commits to talk to, or at least knock on the door of, every likely voter in his district, it makes your job a whole lot easier.

This experience meant a lot to me. It gave me hope in politics at a time when many are in despair over the national state of things. It offered me experience in helping a community leader who I hold in the highest regard in getting his message out to his district. It provided me a great way to procrastinate from Chinese homework in the last two months.

But most of all, it made me realize how great a place Portland really is. Cambridge has been pretty nice thus far but, after my experience with this campaign, I can confidently say it ain’t got nothing on Portland.

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