Monthly Archives: November 2011

Remembering Nixon

Details about the Watergate scandal are still emerging, almost forty years after the botched burglary and subsequent cover-up consumed the presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon. Earlier this month, Nixon’s grand jury testimony fromthe Watergate trial was finally released, as per judicial mandate. Obviously, Nixon’s legacy will always be marred by the Watergate scandal and the subsequent revelations about his use of presidential power to punish his political enemies.

This is just. His administration misused the great power it was handed; his cover-up and handling of the Watergate scandal (including the “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which he fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate), and his resignation amid impeachment proceedings led to national trauma and constitutional crisis.

Yet, it is important to remember Nixon’s other legacies as well. Somewhere behind that iconic scowl was the vulnerable boy who watched two of his brothers die young, who felt guilty because his college education was paid for with money that had been earmarked for his dead brother’s medical care.

Nixon surely could not compete with John F. Kennedy’s sex appeal, but his courting of Pat Nixon is a lesson in loyalty and determination. Certain that Pat was he soul mate, he withstood her initial rebuffs, and even drove her to dates with other boys, before he was finally given his own chance.

His friendship with John F. Kennedy is often underplayed. The two were elected to Congress in the same year, and held similar views: both internationalists, both determined to confront communism, both skeptical of the New Deal. The Kennedy family covertly contributed $1,000 to Nixon’s senate campaign, and both JFK and his father, Joe Kennedy, said they would vote Nixon in 1960 if Kennedy was not on the Democratic ticket.

Despite contrary appearances, Kennedy was in poor health most of his life, and was administered the Catholic Church’s last rites several times. When it seemed Kennedy would pass away in the 1950s, Nixon cried for the imminent loss of his friend.

Of course, Nixon and Kennedy were also quite different — and the vicious 1960 election marked a sharp end to their friendship. Nixon, like many of his supporters thought that Kennedy had stolen the election through fraudulent ballots. Kennedy seemed to be everything Nixon loved and loathed, all in one. Kennedy was a wealthy “elite,” unlike the working class Nixon. He was smart, sexy, and media-savvy. These things were anathema to Nixon. The Whittier College grad distrusted the ‘Ivy Leaguers’ and their ‘elite clubs’ as much as he distrusted a media he was always certain was out to destroy his reputation and career.

And Kennedy was loved. That seems to be what Nixon longed for: he wanted the respect and the love of the America people. After the National Guard killed several people at Kent State, Nixon made an impromptu visit to student protesters camped at the Lincoln Memorial in the dead of night. He spoke to the unimpressed crowd at length about what he was trying to accomplish for America, about improving race relations and, when that failed, about college football.

Despite his frustration at the protestors that he claimed ‘weakened’ America’s position abroad and caused (again, in his view) unnecessary conflict at home, Nixon nevertheless seems to have desired their approval and love.

He felt as if he had earned them. After all, Nixon took the reins of the presidency during the most unpopular war in American history and earnestly wanted to draw the war to a close. In 1960, he considered pulling the troops out of Vietnam over the next year and a half, though Kissinger talked him out of it. He reached out to the North Vietnamese for peace talks, though in the end he kept the United States snarled in the Vietnam War while doggedly pursuing his “peace with honor.”

He pushed for a volunteer army, rather than a draft. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He created the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for the elderly and disabled. He proposed universal health care.  He opened up diplomatic relations with communist China, while his political allies howled at home. He pursued detente with the Soviet Union.

Nixon truly believed he was a man of the people; he saw himself as the spokesman for the “Silent Majority.”

We should not overlook, nor excuse, his failures. Clearly, Watergate and the misuse of executive power had a profound effect on the country. But neither should we ignore his successes. In the end, Nixon was neither the bloodthirsty villain his opponents decried, nor the perpetual victim he claimed to be. The truth, as always, was far more nuanced.


Voter ID Bill Aims to Help Republicans

The following column was published in the Delco Times in November 2011, as the Voter ID bill was making its way through the PA General Assembly. You may read it on the Delco Times’ website here, or below.

 

Last summer, Gov. Corbett and General Assembly Republicans passed a budget with deep cuts to education, claiming their fiscal discipline would lead to future economic growth. Now, they have shifted their focus to a different form of stimulus: the political kind.

With control of both the executive and the Legislature, Republican politicians have been quick to pursue policies that would fix the system in their favor. Legislative districts are already being meticulously designed to preserve political power. An electoral “reform” bill has proposed distributing the state’s Electoral College votes by gerrymandered congressional district, guaranteeing that several are cast for the Republican presidential candidate.

And a voter identification bill is winding its way through the Legislature, promising to “safeguard” our elections by demanding voters show their government-issued ID at the polls.

This last proposal is particularly galling because it appears, on its face, to be reasonable. Closer inspection, however, reveals the bill’s true aim is to utilize the fear of voter fraud to depress turnout for poor and minority populations.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, says his plan addresses a serious threat to democracy. But such claims of widespread voter fraud are overblown, at best.

In fact, voter fraud is incredibly rare. A vigorous prosecution of voter fraud by the Bush administration found a scant 86 instances in the country over a five-year investigation.

This should not come as a surprise. Voter fraud is already quite hard to pull off, with little to no payoff. Penalties are stiff: up to $10,000 and five years in prison. Illegal immigrants would face deportation. The visibility of the voter fraud alone (after all, perpetrators would have to show up and interact with poll workers) deters the crime.

And even if an individual or group were crazy enough to attempt this, they would have to reproduce this fraud on an almost impossibly massive scale – the thousands of votes generally needed to swing an election.

This is not to make light of voter fraud. Undermining democracy is surely an egregious offense. But this bill provides an excessively harsh solution to an already-rare problem.

Under current law, voters must provide identification the first time they vote in a district. Photo identification is the norm, though accommodations are made for those without one (such as a showing a bill or paycheck instead).

Metcalfe’s bill would force all citizens to provide a government-issued photo ID at the polls every year, despite their inherent right to participate in representative government. Student and employee IDs, currently acceptable, would be disallowed.

For many, this may not seem too extreme. But consider for a moment that about 11 percent of all Americans would not be allowed to vote under this law, and that the majority of that 11 percent are poor and minority voters.

Then consider that implementing the bill will cost about $11 million (providing identification to those who need it, educating the public about the changes, etc.).

The costs of this bill – in both dollars and depressed voter participation – outweigh the extremely small benefits it might yield. Simply enforcing current law saves both time and money while also safeguarding our elections.

The great irony of Metcalfe’s bill is that it seeks to capitalize on the fear that shadowy forces are subverting our democracy – and then it goes ahead and proposes just such a subversion.

 

Gerrymandering Undermines Democracy in PA

(Also published in the Main Line Times on November 10, 2011)

The preliminary results from one of the decade’s most important elections are in, and the Republicans have won big. Pennsylvania looks like it will likely have a safe GOP majority in the General Assembly for the next couple elections, at least – an impressive feat given they only got 3 votes. I am referring, of course, to the redistricting plan that passed 3-2 out of the Reapportionment Committee on Monday.

The choice of the term ‘election’ to describe redistricting may, at first, appear odd. But if you consider the implications of the committee’s plan, it emerges as the most accurate description. In short, the majority has signed off on a plan that twists electoral districts into imaginative shapes that cannibalize communities and guarantee incumbent protection. By carefully carving sections of the state that tend to vote for one party or the other, they have created a patchwork quilt of districts that will likely not see a competitive General Assembly election again for years.

Essentially, Republican leaders have just elected themselves several more terms as the majority party.

This issue – known as ‘gerrymandering’ – should be a top priority for Pennsylvania voters. Uncompetitive general elections undermine accountability. The most blatant example of this is Sen. Piccola’s new district, which would remove the sections of Harrisburg he currently represents. Clearly, this is just an unexpected perk for Piccola, given the Harrisburg takeover bill he recently sponsored.

But unaccountability functions in subtler ways as well. Certain re-election removes incentives to serve voters’ interests. After all, General Assembly leaders are the ones that assure a legislator’s re-election. Greater political polarization also occurs as uncompetitive elections remove the incentive to reach across the aisle and curry favor with moderate, swing voters.

As former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards once said: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

The solution is clear: Pennsylvania needs a redistricting system with clearer rules forbidding the use of political information in its design. Districts should be compact and contiguous, not divided or shoved inside other districts. And they should be drawn up by a non-partisan committee, not by party leaders with a vested interest in their own political survival.

Such plans have been put forth in the past, but failed to become law, largely due to public disinterest. It is too late now to salvage the 2011 redistricting process, but Pennsylvanians should still pressure their legislators to produce fairer redistricting practices by the decade’s end – our democracy depends on it.


2011 Voter Guide

My blogs on the various midterm races seem to have gotten a bit spread out, so I’ll attempt to consolidate a bit. Follow the links to each of the blogs.

Also, if you’re not sure of your polling place or your district (and the officials that currently represent you), take a trip over to the Online Citizen’s Guide at the Committee of Seventy’s website. It is incredibly easy and quick. If you would like to see which candidates will be on the ballot in your area (and a basic profile on these candidates), visit SmartVoter and search by your address.

Want to know why you should vote at all this election? Read this.

Most of my focus has been on Lower Merion/Montgomery County races. For more information on Philadelphia/New Jersey races, visit SmartVoter or your local newspaper’s website.

Local news source voter guides include (with endorsements):

Other news sources do not have specific voter guides, but contain a lot of good information on the candidates and the election. Peruse your local newspaper’s website, if it is not listed here.


Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again.

(Also blogged on the Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch)

For a state that considers itself the birthplace of the United States, Pennsylvania’s attitude towards democracy is decidedly blasé. Pennsylvanians just do not like to vote. Or, more precisely, they just do not like to vote in elections where they have a greatest chance of affecting the outcome.

A solitary vote matters incredibly little in presidential elections, both because millions of other people are casting their ballots simultaneously and because the Electoral College ultimately decides the outcome. Yet these are the elections that have the highest voter turnout numbers.

In contrast, state and local elections – which have a much smaller voting base and, arguably, a much larger impact on a citizen’s everyday life – are determined by a small minority of voters.

Consider this: in 2009, only 21 percent of registered Pennsylvanians cast their ballots. The majority of those select few chose Republican candidate Joan Orie Melvin as the next justice of the PA Supreme Court, solidifying a 4-3 Republican majority on the bench.

This year, as in the past, the Supreme Court was called upon to choose the tie-breaking member of the commission that redraws the legislative districts in the state every decade. The resulting map was a patchwork of gerrymandering and political protection submitted on a party-line vote in the Republicans’ favor. By carefully designating which group of voters elects which representative, this map will likely dictate the outcome of Pennsylvania’s elections for years.

So if you’re thinking about skipping the polls this Tuesday, reconsider. Off-year elections are neither trivial nor meaningless. To the contrary, they have far-reaching consequences that will directly affect your life and your community for years to come.