Character Matters

Tomorrow’s Election Day comes without my writing much about this year’s Presidential race. Really, at this late date there’s not much reason to do so: everyone who knows me knows who I’m supporting, and I imagine that virtually everyone who might read this has made his or her decision–in fact, has probably voted already.

It won’t change a single mind or a single vote, but I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t write something about this most unusual Presidential campaign, and especially about the Republican candidate, because he poses a new problem for me.

I’ve been working on political campaigns for 48 years, and I’ve made it a point to respect my political adversaries and to assume
that whatever beliefs they hold, they probably hold sincerely. That habit has served me well: even when you suspect that it’s not realistic, it’s an approach to politics and politicians that keeps you humble and avoids bitterness.

But I haven’t been able to muster that attitude for this year’s Republican nominee. I don’t claim to have some ability to see the state of a person’s soul. I understand that he is a caring family man, he is said to be a generous benefactor, and he appears to show great personal discipline. But in a person who seeks the most powerful position in the world, we expect character that goes beyond  personal rectitude.

His constant changes of positions make it clear that he has no core political values except the desire to be elected. His manipulation of facts makes it clear that he will say anything to gain a vote. And his refusal to distance himself from the bigotry and hatred voiced by the President’s more extreme opponents shows that he lacks the courage needed in a Commander in Chief.

In Eyewitness to Power (2001), David Gergen quotes Alan Simpson as having said, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters.  If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”

Those two Republicans have it right. Because of Mitt Romney’s lack of integrity, nothing else matters. Quite simply, he is not worthy of his followers’ loyalty.

This Year, Issue Two Makes Sense

A year ago, many of us were thrilled that our fellow-citizens joined us in rejecting 2011’s Issue Two; this year, we’re asking them to support a completely different Issue Two! We didn’t choose the timing or the issue numbers, but it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of confusion out there.

This year’s Issue Two is the Reapportionment Amendment. It was organized by Voters First, a coalition let by the League of Women Voters. The Ohio Education Association was one of the groups that supported the initiative, enacting a temporary dues increase to help support it. Early polls indicated that the idea of reforming Ohio’s reapportionment system was popular, but the details are complicated, and it’s harder to explain in 10-second sound bites. Recent attacks make the issue’s passage seem less likely.

I’m supporting Issue Two, and in this article I’ll explain why. But first, an acknowledgment of the main reason why it’s been a tough go: this is wonkish stuff, reforming a technological side of the system, Last year’s Issue Two  was all about heroes and villains; this one is about computer models and the subtleties of an electoral system gone horribly wrong.

Let me acknowledge that in one respect, I’m like any Tea Partier you might know. Like members of the Tea Party, I’m deeply disturbed about the direction in which our country is going. But unlike them, one of my concerns is the extent to which the system rewards the wingnuts at the farthest extremes of the political spectrum. I’ve come to believe that Issue Two offers a chance to reform the system and bring some sanity to our political discourse.

And I’m feeling a bit wonkish myself, so let’s  dig in.

What would Issue Two do?

Issue Two would replace the present system of reapportionment with a system in which officeholders and party officials and would have much less control over the outcome.

Why is this important?

Our ability to elect good legislators depends on having competitive races. The present system creates both Democratic and Republic districts that are practically unassailable.

What’s wrong with that?

It makes most Democratic and Republic incumbents virtually unbeatable and therefore takes away much of their incentive to represent their constituents.

How does it do that?

Typically, by carefully drawing district boundaries so that minority-party voters are “packed” into designated legislative districts and the majority party enjoys districts custom-designed to elect members of the party in power.

So this is about Republicans and Democrats?

To some degree. In statewide elections, Ohioans split close to 50-50 between the two main parties. But the legislative districts developed for the 2012 elections will almost certainly produce overwhelming Republican majorities in the Ohio General Assembly and the Ohio Congressional delegation: they were designed to.

However, it also means that many incumbent Democrats have districts drawn so that they can’t lose. That decreases their incentives to serve their constituents.

Whoever wins the elections–state Senators and Representatives, and US Representatives–won’t really need to meet with or listen to their constituents, because their districts have been designed to re-elect them.

In Columbus recently, I talked with an elected Democratic legislator who bemoaned what might happen to his “nice, comfortable” district is Issue Two passes. Since he’s been a reliable friend over the years, I didn’t tell him what I was thinking and should be obvious: he’d actually need to campaign in the new district.

I thought we were supposed to choose our  representatives.

Voters are supposed to choose their representatives; however, under the present law the politicians chose their voters. Various media sources have identified the role of politicians in customizing district boundaries.

It can’t be that bad.

No? Let me illustrate with some congressional districts. The Voting Rights Act requires “minority opportunity districts.” Several media reports indicate that Ohio House Speaker Bill Batchelder suggested a minority Congressional district built like a barbell, with one cluster in Cleveland, another in Akron, and a narrow corridor between.

That packs Democrats into a safely Democratic district, but it also produces two monstrosities: first, there’s the black Democratic Congressional District 11 itself:

The design of that district allowed for  the creation of an overwhelmingly white Republican 
Congressional District 16, which  wraps around 
Congressional District 11 and the western tip of 
Congressional District 13, which runs from Barberton to the Pennsylvania border.

Or take a look at 
Congressional District 9, the widely-derided “Snake on the Lake,” which was designed to pit Democrats Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich against each other (and which it is virtually impossible to traverse on land):

Or Congressional District 4, which stretches 180 miles from Montezuma, in Mercer County (a few miles from Indiana), to Sheffield, in Lorain County.

Well, yes, these look pretty bad. But the critics are saying that Issue Two empowers unelected officials.

Right. And that’s because the present system allows elected officials to so clearly abuse their authority by creating districts that serve only partisan political purposes.

What will happen if Issue Two passes?

If Issue Two passes, a nonpartisan apportionment board will be charged with developing new districts to use beginning in the 2014 elections. Read more here.

The new criteria include community preservation, competitiveness, representational fairness, and 
compactness. And if they do a bad job, the commission’s work can be challenged in court.

As a centrist Democrat, my own hope is that more competitive districts will encourage officials to work toward the political middle rather than pander to the most extreme elements of their parties. At the very least, the result will clearly be more rational districts and better representation. But my hope is more ambitious: I hope that better districts can lead to a less polarized political life, with candidates talking about real issues rather than the demonizing ads that we’re being subjected to during this campaign season.

SCOTUS rules on ACA

Supreme Court – Who’da thunk? Well, I, for one.
On June 28, I was en route to Washington for the NEA Representative Assembly with a busload of northeastern Ohio delegates when my lovely wife Lynn texted the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Obamacare (I guess it’s all right to call it that now) to me.
When I passed the word along, the bus erupted in cheers, and people flogged their smartphones with demands for information from MSNBC, CNN, The Plain Dealer, and the oddly-silent Fox News.

It was a long and uneventful ride, so I decided to check out the opinion itself. I recommend reading the opinion itself; it’s surprisingly readable.

I didn’t see the TV news coverage myself, but I understand that analysts were initially confused because SCOTUS ruled against the government on one issue and for the government on another. Evidently there was some skirmishing about whether the Court should rule it completely constitutional (since that would be the effect of the ruling as a whole) or completely unconstitutional, since it ruled against the government’s first line of defense, the Constitution’s interstate-commerce clause.

But evidently–and
as a non-lawyer, I certainly did not know this–it is law settled in
1895 that “every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order
to save a statute from unconstitutionality”; and so the finding that the
law is constitutional on one instead of two grounds is sufficient.

As I understand it,
the Government failed in its attempt to include health care in
interstate commerce because the Constitution’s interstate-commerce
clause allows the government to regulate existing interstate commerce,
but not to simply create a whole class of interstate commerce. This is
the source of Justice Scalia’s comment that if you can force people to
buy health care, you can force them to buy broccoli; and sure enough, the
ruling mentions broccoli. (Gotta love SCOTUS humor!)

But the Court rightly understood that a tax is different from a criminal
penalty, and noted that since everybody agrees that the government has
the authority to use tax policy to incentivize (for example) education
and home ownership (and, I would add, marriage), then using tax policy
to incentivize a health insurance purchase is within the government’s
legitimate authority.

Or, as the Court put it: “Whether the mandate can be upheld under the Commerce Clause is a question about the scope of federal authority. Its answer depends on whether Congress can exercise what all acknowledge to be the novel course of directing individuals to purchase insurance. Congress’s use of the Taxing Clause to encourage buying something is, by contrast, not new. Tax incentives already promote, for example, purchasing homes and professional educations. . . . Sustaining the mandate as a tax depends only on whether Congress has properly exercised its taxing power to encourage purchasing health insurance, not whether it can. Upholding the individual mandate under the Taxing Clause thus does not recognize any new federal power. It determines that Congress has used an existing one.”

I don’t often have the opportunity to say “I told you so,” but in this
case it appears I can: in fact, I had called it a year previously. On
July 8, 2011, I sent the following in an email exchange with my cousin

“I suspect that the only way to really reform the health care system is a
single-payer plan; but to small-government advocates, such a plan is
anathema.  History will decide whether going for what was achievable
(Obamacare) was the right way to go. . . . Lost in the argument (to the
shame of Democrats, I think) is that a tax isn’t the same as a fine. A
fine implies that a behavior has been criminalized to some degree; a tax
doesn’t. So I would argue that what Obamacare has is incentivized
coverage rather than ‘mandatory coverage.’ And that seems to make sense
to me.

“One of the main things driving up the cost of the health care system for
the rest of us is mandatory indigent care. Assuming we don’t want to see
bodies piling up in emergency room dumpsters, we will continue to pay
for people who can’t pay for their own care and don’t have insurance,
either by choice or necessity.  This constitutes a sort of tax that we
are all paying, and Medicaid is tax-supported as well. Obamacare seems
to let those who can’t or won’t get insurance pay a tax and subsidize
the purchase of insurance for those who will; and in concept, at least,
that seems fair to me.”

In the SCOTUS ruling, Chief Justice Roberts seems to have said the same thing.