If VH1 ever tried a series called Worst Week Ever, Paul F. Tompkins could put our most recent one near the top of the list. Rarely have seven days contained more death, damage and disappointment, here and abroad.
Our immediate concerns were death and damage; in Boston at the hands of the brothers Tsarnaev; in what’s left of West, Texas after a fertilizer plant detonated; in Sichuan, China, in the wake of a sizable earthquake; in Baga, Nigeria, where at least 185 people died amid an Islamic insurgency. And that was just the front-page stuff.
Then, there was disappointment, connected too often with another D word: Democrats.
Some observers were taken aback when it became known that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (also known as “Suspect Number Two,” “White Ball Cap” and “The One That’s Not Dead”) was not only unlikely to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but, despite his American citizenship, also might wind up without rights of any kind.
There were calls for the alleged bomber to be treated as an enemy combatant and maybe hauled off to Guantanamo for trial by military tribunal, without any evidence that he or his brother were connected to any terrorist group we might be “at war” with.
That might be standard rhetoric from law-and-order Republicans, but when the real law-and-order guys, namely the Department of Justice and the FBI, stated that the captured Tsarnaev would not be read his Miranda rights initially, they weren’t jawboning. They were acting in accordance with a provocative change to the 47 year-old legal procedure.
The change occurred not during the Patriot Act-loving Bush Administration, but during Barack Obama’s. In 2010, the DOJ told the FBI it did not have to read the Miranda warning to suspects who might be able to provide information affecting public safety. (This procedural change was never run by Congress or the judiciary for approval, so it would be interesting to hear longtime constitutional expert Obama defend it.)
The Miranda omission might seem moot because the wounded Tsarnaev was physically unable to talk with authorities when he arrived at Beth Israel Hospital. However, those who cherish America’s tradition of rule according to law must be disappointed that people keep trying to justify unconstitutional measures for dealing with our enemies. When due process is observed, we have a strong record of convicting terrorists by the book. We don’t need to lock up suspects offshore when we have perfectly good Supermax prisons within our borders in which to confine them; we don’t need to use the Military Code of Justice on citizens not subject to its jurisdiction. And don’t get me started on torture.
Absent the Boston bombings, Democrats would have figured prominently in the week’s major disappointment: the failure to pass useful gun safety legislation in the Senate. By now, everybody must know that national polls show 86% to 91% of voters favoring background checks for gun buyers. Bipartisan legislation mandating such came up for a vote on April 15.
Because there is essentially no majority rule in the Senate, because de facto filibusters are allowed to impede democracy, it now takes 60 votes, not 51 out of 100, to get laws passed there. If the Democrats, under Harry Reid, had pressed for a change of rules in January, when the new Senate convened, it might have been possible to pass bills with a simple majority, but Reid inexplicably refused to try. Consequently, although 54 senators voted for background checks, the will of the majority on this bill was obstructed.
A lack of Democratic fortitude even filtered down to the state level last week, where the often-shaky Alabama Democratic Party structure imploded.
After humiliation in the 2010 elections — not one Democrat elected statewide — the ADP brought in Justice Mark Kennedy as chairman to help turn things around. As George Wallace’s son-in-law, he enjoyed credibility with party faithful and, as president of the Montgomery Riverfront Development Foundation, he’d showed skill in revitalizing urban blight.
To revitalize Democratic blight, Kennedy restructured the party’s $471,000 debt, reduced budgets and staff while firing up dormant fundraising machinery, engaged social media and opened a field office in Birmingham, with an aim to retaking Republican seats in the 2014 elections.
All this newfangled outreach seemed to rub Vice Chairman Joe Reed the wrong way. Reed, longtime protector of a grand fiefdom called the Alabama Democratic Conference, may have seen Kennedy’s modernizations as a threat to his entrenched authority. At a party executive committee meeting on Good Friday, Reed and his ally, First Vice Chair Nancy Worley, thwarted Kennedy by rewriting his proposed operating budget to restore staff and expenses he’d eliminated. Worse, they moved to close the Birmingham office and to toss out the debt restructuring deal, putting the ADP at risk of bankruptcy.
Seeing no support at the top for the reforms he proposed, Justice Kennedy sensibly resigned as chairman, to be replaced for the nonce by Worley.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, a strong force behind the scenes in Democratic victories, recently signaled his dissatisfaction with the national party’s increasingly rightward moves, specifically with President Obama’s new budget, which threatens to chop Social Security benefits while restoring military spending cuts. “If this passed, I would have to reevaluate if I belong in the Democratic Party,” he told BuzzFeed. “If this were passed with Democratic votes, I think it would be impossible to be a Democrat.”
Here in Alabama, Justice Kennedy too is ready to consider another direction. He’s announced a new organization for Alabama Dems, a foundation called the Alabama Democratic Majority, which, though not a new party, will support candidates with a progressive approach to governing the state. Current state legislators with a (D) after their name who’ve been voting regularly with the (R)’s might want to reconsider.
After a week laden with death, damage and disappointment, it’s good to see a week start with determination.