Tag Archives: Barack Obama

General-Election Obama and the Death Penalty

Why did Barack Obama disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana? “I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes,” Obama said at a news conference yesterday in response to the Justices’ 5-4 decision to ban the death penalty for child rapists. “I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable that that does not violate our Constitution.” The Court could have left room for exceptions in egregious cases, he explained, “but it basically had a blanket prohibition, and I disagree with the decision.”

This from a guy who wrote in his memoir that the death penalty “does little to deter crime,” who as a State Senator helped tighten up Illinois’s approach to capital punishment in an attempt to prevent the state from sending innocent people to die (he served as a legislator under Governor Jim Ryan, who eventually imposed a moratorium when he learned that innocent people in fact were dying), and who opposed a bill that would have permitted the death penalty for gang-related murders.

Obama is no abolitionist; he has long held that the death penalty is appropriate in a small number of extraordinary cases. So, fair enough, he’s staying true to his principles. But surely as a candidate he could have seized the opportunity to validate his Democratic base by commending the Court for its prudent judgment. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for him to agree with Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote for the majority that there is “a distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and nonhomicide crimes against individual persons,” and that the latter, albeit devastating and horrid, does not pass the “egregious” test.

So what’s going on here? My best guess: Obama is brandishing his credentials as a “tough guy” Democrat and protecting himself from Swiftboat-style attacks against him as a “soft on crime,” criminal-coddling, Weatherman-hobnobbing radical. Already Floyd Brown, the nasty creator of the Willie Horton smears, has run ads assaulting Obama for his vote on gang-related murders. The threat from these guys is real, and Obama is right to steel himself for a below-the-belt fight. Again, fair enough… to a point. My concern, though, is that we’re seeing some strong and unmistakable–and, in my opinion, unmistakably troubling–early signals of a major Obama pivot heading into the general-election campaign.

There are two Obamas: Primary Obama and General-election Obama. And, unfortunately, there seems to be increasing distance between their stances on critical issues. Primary Obama was the progressive alternative to Hillary’s same-old insiderdom, the change we can believe in, a new way forward. General-election Obama is shaping up to be cut from a similar cloth as the past few (losing) Democratic presidential contenders: centrist on trade, regulation and taxes; weak-kneed and/or unprincipled on key legislation; in bed with big money and special interests; overly consulted on messaging (witness his botched apology to the Muslim women who were not allowed to stand behind him at a recent rally); insecure about toughness and thereby dangerously muscular on foreign policy and criminal justice.

A few warning signs from the past few weeks: General-election Obama broke Primary Obama’s pledge to accept public financing as a presidential candidate. General-election Obama is deploying Primary Obama’s rhetoric opposing the Patriot Act but nevertheless supporting a Senate bill that would extend Bush-era surveillance tactics and grant immunity to telecoms that enable warrantless wiretaps. Contrary to antiwar Primary Obama’s preference for diplomacy, General-election Obama wants to drop the Iraq surge in favor of unilateral intervention in Pakistan, and in one of his first appearances after defeating Clinton in the primaries, he promised AIPAC that he would do “everything in my power” to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

And now, following the Kennedy v. Louisiana ruling, General-election Obama has sided with the conservative Justices on the Supreme Court who dissented on a decision to narrow the use of the death penalty.

Willie-Hortoning Obama

Check out this new anti-Obama attack ad set to run in North Carolina ahead of the May 6 primary. It was put together by Floyd Brown, the genius who brought us the Willie Horton smears against Michael Dukakis back in 1988, so that should give you a sense of what to expect. Turns out Obama coddled gang members when he was a Chicago state senator. He loved ’em, couldn’t get enough of ’em, served ’em dinner on the fine china.

(In fact, in 2001 he voted against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders; not much of a scandal in a state headed by a Republican governor who had instituted a moratorium on capital punishment a year earlier.)

If Obama is so soft on Chicago gang-bangers, the ad insinuates, imagine how soft he’d be on… international terrorists!

(Hat tip to Nation blogger Ari Berman for the find.)

Clinton Unveils Anti-Crime Agenda

Stumping in Philadelphia ahead of the April 22 primary election, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton unveiled a $4 billion plan to combat crime today. Most important, aside from the fact that she injected the topic into a campaign season that has essentially avoided it, is her call to do away with mandatory five-year sentencing for crack cocaine users. Her “Solutions for Safe & Secure Communities Now” agenda also includes hiring 100,000 new police officers (lifting a page from her husband), allocating $250 million a year to “community-oriented prosecutors,” reducing homicide rates by half and promoting a “tough but fair” approach to probation in order to keep recidivism down.

I haven’t found a transcript of her speech yet, but according to the news reports I’ve read and from reading the release on her campaign website, Clinton didn’t specify how she would fund the plan aside from assigning a commission to “identify savings” from corporate subsidies. Surely, though, reforming sentencing procedures for low-level drug users would help free up resources.

Two tentative thoughts on this: one is political, the other related specifically to juvenile justice. Politically, it’s clear that Clinton has waded into Obama territory with an attempt to nip away a piece of his Philly base. Her smart stand on sentencing reform also happens to be racially sensitive–I assume she hopes it will play well among African-Americans who are basically on board with Obama but not fervidly or who are leaning toward him but still undecided. On that score, it’s a wise move. Remember, though, that this eminently Clintonian strategy reveals very little about Hillary’s actual commitment to the ideas she has just put forward. The fact that she’s finding religion on this stuff at this particular moment, however, says a lot.

With regard to juveniles, Clinton really didn’t get into specifics as far as I can tell. MSNBC tells me she tossed out a hollow bromide about implementing “programs to help at-risk youth.” And as that UPI brief reports, “If elected, she said she would direct the U.S. attorney general to make online child exploitation and harassment a major federal priority, and to vigorously prosecute identity theft, particularly theft of children’s identities.” More specifically, there’s this, lifted from her website:

Prevent Crime through Early Interventions for At-Risk Kids. Those on the front lines know that the best way to reduce crime is to prevent it in the first place. Hillary will partner with states and communities to provide the interventions that will start kids out on the right track and keep them there, including after-school programs, nurse home visitation, and early-intervention mentoring programs.

Crack Down on Child Exploitation Online and Fight Identity Theft. Hillary will direct the Attorney General to make online child exploitation and harassment a major federal priority, and vigorously prosecute identity theft, particularly theft of children’s identities. She will strengthen and vigorously enforce federal laws against online child exploitation, and she will dramatically increase funding for state Internet Crimes Against Children task forces.

During her speech Hillary cited as a model her husband’s approach to crime prevention. Bill Clinton, let’s not forget, presided over a massive crackdown on juvenile offenders and helped blur the lines between juveniles and adults in the US justice and prison systems–the negative consequences of which we’re seeing in states across the country today. But by highlighting child exploitation (whether from online sexual predators or ID thieves), she seems to be taking a page from the Bush II Administration, as well. As I’ve discussed recently, under Bush the mandate of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has quietly shifted from setting policy on juvenile crime and developing prevention strategies to protecting innocent children from evildoers. It’s as if Hillary is trying to tackle the juvenile superpredators that were in the Justice Department’s crosshairs during her husband’s terms in office and the adult predators that the Justice Department has been battling during Bush’s tenure. In both cases, the scourge is for the most part phantasmic. When you take an honest look, it becomes clear that the real priorities are elsewhere. Which presents Barack Obama with an opportunity to correct the record–if he’s up to the task.

Clinton Campaigner Revives Obama’s Drug Use

Further proof that the Clinton campaign intends to make an issue out of Obama’s admission that he experimented with drugs as a teenager. From the NYT’s Caucus blog:

Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, who is campaigning today in South Carolina with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, just made a suggestion that raised the specter of Barack Obama’s past drug use. He also compared Mr. Obama to Sidney Poitier, the black actor, in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

At a rally here for Mrs. Clinton at Columbia College, Mr. Johnson was defending recent comments that Mrs. Clinton made regarding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She did not mean to take any credit away from him, Mr. Johnson said, when she said that it took President Johnson to sign the civil rights legislation he fought for.

Dr. King had led a “moral crusade,” Mr. Johnson said, but such crusades have to be “written into law.”
“That is the way the legislative process works in this nation and that takes political leadership,” he said. “That’s all Hillary was saying.”

He then added: “And to me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood –­ and I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in the book –­ when they have been involved.”

Moments later, he added: “That kind of campaign behavior does not resonate with me, for a guy who says, ‘I want to be a reasonable, likable, Sidney Poitier ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ And I’m thinking, I’m thinking to myself, this ain’t a movie, Sidney. This is real life.”

I stand by what I wrote in mid-December, when this issue first came up: “As a voter, I’m more drawn to a candidate who can quickly and effectively bat such attacks away (neither Kerry nor Gore could do it) than one who’s increasingly eager to launch them. And I admire a candidate who not only admits that he inhaled but identifies with, inspires and actively sets himself as a role model for a younger generation of not-so-perfect but not-yet-lost inhalers.”

The Clinton campaign caught some flak for slinging that mud the first time around, and Hillary was quick to respond; a day after Clinton adviser Bill Shaheen suggested that Republicans would pounce on Obama for owning up to drug use as a teen, he resigned. Now that it’s back in the air, there should be less doubt: Shaheen’s comments were not unsanctioned or off-the-cuff; rather, this is a card the Clinton campaign is willing to play.

Obama’s Record on Crime

Jeralyn at Talk Left has taken a close look at Obama’s actual record on criminal justice and defendants’ rights:

Since the mainstream media seems incapable of presenting anything but his words promising change, hope, optimism and a “working majority” (meaning compromise with Republicans) I took an afternoon to research his record going back to 1998.

The results, some progressive and laudatory, others decidedly not, as well as my prior posts on his crime record and statements as U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, are detailed below….

Here is the rest.

Obama Rallies Youth Vote in Iowa

Obama wins, Huckabee wins.

Two unlikely candidates, both representing alternatives to the status quo, both championing a new dawn for America, have bested their party-backed rivals despite being outspent, out-organized and outsmeared on the road to the Iowa caucuses.

I’m not foolish enough to argue that either candidate’s stance on criminal justice, much less the narrower question of how to handle young offenders, had much to do with their victory. As even casual news watchers can tell, crime is essentially a nonissue this primary season, despite Romney’s attempts to attack Huckabee’s record on clemency. (Huckabee fired back by highlighting Romney’s refusal to pardon a decorated Iraq War vet with a juvenile record.) Nevertheless, there is one major point of overlap between this blog’s central concerns and the day’s top political headline that I’d like to point out.

Obama rallied the youth vote in a big way. According to CNN’s analysis of entrance polls, he took 57 percent of the vote among Democrats under 30, compared to 11 percent for Clinton and 14 percent for Edwards. Here‘s Michael Connery, a blogger at Daily Kos, reporting that the youth vote in Iowa last night wasn’t merely higher than usual but higher by a factor of three:

Barack Obama may be riding the momentum of a caucus win into New Hampshire, but the real winner in tonight’s Iowa caucus was young voters.

It’s been a long and rocky road for young voters – in the media and in the party – For four years, the media has declared (incorrectly) that young voters were the downfall of Howard Dean, whose over-reliance on an “unreliable demographic” ushered in his defeat in the 2004 caucus. This, despite the fact that youth turnout at the caucus increased that year. For the last year, we’ve heard how Obama’s strategy was foolhardy, and even from the campaign we heard that the youth vote would be “icing on the cake.”

It turns out, it was the cake.

According to estimates by CIRCLE (pdf) youth vote turnout at the caucus tripled tonight, rising from 4% to 11%. Within the Democratic caucus, over 46,000 young people participated, and young voters comprised 22% of all caucus-goers. According to entrance polls by CNN, 57% of those 17-29 year old caucus goers stood up to caucus for Barack Obama. Tonight, they drove his campaign to victory.

And here‘s Time columnist and Clinton-era stenographer Joe Klein, a self-proclaimed “Baby Boomer slouching toward codgerization,” with his instant analysis on what Obama’s victory means:

The Obama victory was not so much about his generation — but the kids two generations behind him, the college kids and recent graduates, blissfully colorblind, who spent patient months as organizers out in the most rural counties. Obama would pay tribute to these organizers at each of his events, calling them to the stage, giving them props — and it was surprising how often the local residents in places like Algona and Mt. Pleasant would mention to me how extraordinary these kids were. They reminded me, in classic, solipsistic Boomer fashion, of my own generation, of the remarkable political activists who went down to Mississippi to register black voters and marched against another war, and came to politics in the Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy campaigns of 1968. That generation’s — my generation’s — passion gave us the propulsion to quickly move to the center of political life and the media. The end of their time — our time — in the driver’s seat may have begun in Iowa.

Klein remains skeptical that Obama will ride this momentum to the national convention in Denver, and he’s an untrustworthy pundit for reasons I won’t get into here (just ask Glenn Greenwald), but he knows a generational sea change when he sees one. “Whether or not Barack Obama goes on to win the nomination — and let’s not forget in the afterglow that this is truly an open question — his field army will endure and, because of their immense skill, they will bend the political process to their will in years to come,” Klein writes. “And years from now, when they meet in the corridors of power or academia or at the inevitable reunions, they’ll look at each other and smile, and they won’t even have to say the words: We did something amazing back in Iowa, on January 3, 2008, didn’t we?”

Yes, they did.

State Sen. Obama on Juv Justice

In 1999 Barack Obama dodged a vote on a state bill that would let some juveniles be tried as adults, voting “present” (neither for nor against). Apparently he voted “present” about 130 times during his stint as Illinois State Senator. This telling tidbit was culled from the New York Times via Corrections Sentencing, which, by the way, gave Juvienation a couple of very generous plugs this week. (Thanks!)