And then there were two...
With the field essentially down to Hillary and Barack (with John Edwards or Richardson capable perhaps of revival should one of the leaders shipwreck) its time for this blog to consider an endorsement. Before that, I have some questions. Unlike the disastrous 1988 campaign (when again a Democrat seemed sure to be elected by public allegedly exhausted by Republican corruption and incompetence in Iran-Contra) crime has not loomed as a big issue. But the mentalities that have flourished in the war on crime constitute a major challenge to any new President that would move this country in a new direction.
Both of you claim to be leaders who can draw from their experiences in the 1990s, to take this country out of its deepest morass of executive incompetence and power grabbing in our history. I maintain that you cannot overcome the Bush legacy without renouncing that part of the Bill Clinton legacy that most anticipated and prepared for the Bush administration, i.e, his commitment to never be outflanked in escalating the war on crime. A Presidency that began with the promise to create new forms of security and effective government for Americans ended up overseeing a vast expansion of American prisons and a crippling rollback in judicial authority in American criminal justice. That Mestiphelian pact haunted his whole Presidency, and came home when the President found himself accused of high crimes and misdemeanors.
It began with Bill Clinton's infamous trip to back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Rector. An Arkansas inmate whose botched effort to kill himself (after a crime spree that left a police officer dead) made him effectively mentally retarded. It escalated after the failure of the health care initiative. The Crime Bill of 1994 began the federal effort to pump up state prison populations and execution rates.
No single law better summarizes the venality of that era and President Clinton's role in it than the act whose title in light of 9/11 should forever damn those who voted for and signed it. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, enacted after the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York, and the Oklahoma City bombing, invoked the specter of terrorism to justify an unprecedented rollback of federal judicial authority with the goal of speeding up executions. The law did little to dampen the enthusiasm of Al Qaeda's ranks of those seeking martyrdom, nor did capital punishment seem to be particularly frightening to Timothy McVeigh, but it did bully judges around the country into accepting a historic reduction in their habeas jurisdiction. A decade later executions are no more frequent, but the appeals process is increasingly sterile procedural formalities with little ability for judges to actually assess the merits of the legal claims before them.
So Hillary, so Barack, would you have signed ATEDPA had you been President in 1996?
Or if you prefer a more forward perspective please answer any or all of the following:
Will you ask Congress to restore full jurisdiction to the federal courts to consider the state of prisoners of all sort, whether in death rows, super max prisons, and torture chambers in every part of America's vast domestic and foreign prison system?
Will you support an end to mandatory minimum sentences and federal mandates that state prisoners complete 85% of their prison sentences?
Will you lead the country in an objective assessment of whether the war on drugs could be effectively replaced by robust forms of civil governance, regulation, and taxation?
Will you appoint an attorney general to be the nation's top advocate for legal values rather than our top cop?