Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A summer trilogy

Iraq, the Sherrod case, and the push for electoral reform

A summer trilogy

 

 

And to think that summer used to be a slow season for politics. A quick trilogy:

What a weird switcheroo. Afghanistan, long viewed as the "good" war because it hosted the folks who plotted 9/11, is now an ungodly mess...while Iraq, long viewed as the "bad" war because of George W. Bush's ill-considered invasion and incompetent occupation, is now being touted by Bush's successor as some kind of success story. If only Joseph Heller, master of irony and author of Catch-22, was alive today to weigh in.

President Obama announced in a speech yesterday that, as long promised, the American combat role in Iraq will cease on Aug. 31, replaced by a U.S. military support role dubbed Operation New Dawn. But you could drive a convoy of Hummers through the loopholes.

Fifty thousand U.S. troops will stay another year, and odds are they will see some fighting, while supposedly backing up the trained Iraqi troops; as Joe Biden remarked a few months ago, these U.S. support soldiers "will still be guys who can shoot straight and go after bad guys." Meanwhile, the Iraqi political situation remains in turmoil. Iraq staged a national election back in March, yet it still hasn't formed a government. I wrote back then, "The good news - maybe, conceivably - is that the usual quarreling sectarian factions might cobble together some kind of peaceful governing coalition in the weeks ahead." How foolishly optimistic of me. Try six months and counting. A new coalition government was supposed to be solidly in place by now, as proof that the American combat presence was no longer necessary. The absence of a working coalition is an ongoing invitation to violence - and endless war.

The sad truth is that Obama is stuck with the failed democratic experiment that he inherited, and he's stuck with the eight-year Bush calendar. Bush launched the neoconservative dream in 2003, and he negotiated with the Iraqis to end our support presence in August 2011. As the price tag of Bush's disastrous elective war inexorably climbs toward $1 trillion, all Obama can do now is to continue to mop the slop as best he can.

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On the good news front, Shirley Sherrod - the federal Agriculture official who lost her job after conservative hit man Andrew Breitbart posted on his website a deceptive video falsely sliming her as a black racist - declared late last week that she "definitely" plans to sue Breitbart for libel. That would indeed be a pleasing denouement.

But filing a libel suit (if she does indeed follow through on her vow) is the easy part. Winning might be hard. If the courts were to decide that she's a public figure (she spoke at an NAACP event, she hails from a prominent family in her state), then the basic rules of Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling, would probably apply. She'd have to demonstrate that Breitbart damaged her reputation (he did, but only for a day or two, after which she became a hero); and that Breitbart had exhibited a "reckless disregard for the truth" by posting the misleading video.

The latter would require Sherrod to persuasively prove that Breitbart was deliberately mendacious; presumably, he would counter-claim that he was honestly fooled, that he was honestly unaware of the video's full context, which showed that Sherrod had not discriminated against a white farming family and that, quite the reverse, she had aided the family and earned their gratitude.

So how easy would it be for Sherrod to depict what was going on in Breitbart's mind, and make the case to her advantage? Not very. Libel cases are tough to win. On the other hand, would other partisan provocateurs be compelled to behave better if they saw Breitbart racking up six-figure legal fees?

I doubt it. On this particular war front, there is no Operation New Dawn.

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A new development in Massachusetts has gone largely unnoticed. The Bay State is currently poised to become the sixth state to enact a law that would essentially ditch the Electoral College and require that its 12 electors support the presidential candidate who has garnered the most popular votes nationwide.

This is the latest accomplishment in an incremental under-the-radar campaign to bypass the antiquated process that has elevated four popular vote losers to the White House. The Electoral College would be reduced to a ceremonial role, like the British monarchy. Five states, by law, have already pledged their electors to the popular vote winner - New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Maryland, and Washington - and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has signaled that he backs the bill passed last week by the state legislature.

By definition, the popular vote process would kick in once enough states representing a majority of electoral votes (270 of 538) sign up. And it's constitutional, because the Founders, in Article II, decreed that each state legislature is free to determine how its electors should vote.

Granted, it's worth noting that the aforementioned six states are strongly Democratic, and thus perhaps motivated most by memories of 2000, when Bush was dragged across the finish line by the U.S. Supreme Court after receiving 543,895 fewer votes than Al Gore. But it's worth remembering that Republicans nearly had the same kind of complaint in 2004; a switch of just 59,388 votes in Ohio would have put John Kerry in the White House - even though he trailed Bush in the national vote by 3.5 million.

Counting Massachusetts, the popular-vote states have only 73 electors, so we won't be dropping out of College any time soon. But at least 20 state legislatures are taking a serious look - in June, the New York Senate passed such a bill, 52-7 - which means that, at bare minimum, we'll have more national conversation about a reform that seems long overdue.

As Time magazine wrote, "The very tempo and tone of U.S. democracy demand reform. Direct popular election of the president is the next logical step." That passage appeared in 1968.
 

 

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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