Fair and Unbalanced

Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

Littwin: The death penalty’s dying breaths, even in Nebraska

The only thing certain is the uncertainty. And the death penalty – the ultimate penalty – cannot survive without certainty. It’s built on it.

Will the death penalty finally fade away?

Someday when they write the history of the death penalty in the United States, it will include the fact that on the day Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being sentenced to death in federal court in anti-capital-punishment Massachusetts, the Nebraska legislature was voting nearly two-to-one to repeal the state’s death penalty law.

Yes, Nebraska.

When Nebraska is considering abolishing the death penalty – although the governor has promised a veto – you know where this is headed.

When governor after governor – in states not Nebraska – say that he or she no longer wants to be part of the death machine, you know where this is headed.

When the polls – which not so long ago showed upwards of 80 percent favoring the death penalty – fall closer to 50 percent when life without parole is an option, you definitely know where this is headed. You don’t know how long it will take, but the direction seems clear.

The people in Massachusetts don’t want the death penalty. Governor after governor no longer wants to be part of the death machine. Overall public support is 50 percent. You know where this is headed.

The conversation that John Hickenlooper promised – and has since avoided – on the death penalty is everywhere now, including Colorado. The Aurora theater trial makes it impossible not to have the conversation. If James Holmes is convicted of his terrorist act, will he get the death penalty? And if he does, will it ever be administered in Colorado, where no one has been executed since 1997?

The only thing certain is the uncertainty. And the death penalty – the ultimate penalty – cannot survive without certainty. It’s built on it. It’s about the promise not only that the person being put to death is guilty – and we’ve see how often DNA testing has upended that promise – but that there’s justice in determining who gets life and who gets death.

And although the Supreme Court keeps shifting the rules to try to make the death game equitable, there’s no real argument here. Convicted murderers are sentenced to die disproportionately according to race, gender, geography, the ability to hire a good lawyer, how they scored on an IQ test.

And now we have the bizarre uncertainty of whether an execution will even end in a predictable death. This is partly how Nebraska got into the argument. In Nebraska, as in many states, they’ve run out of the three-drug cocktail that most states use for lethal injection. They’ve run out because the one place in America that made one of the drugs refused to sell them anymore. And so, in what has turned into a black comedy, desperate states finally found a London middleman who shared offices with a driving school, until the FDA stepped in.

Then they tried a place in India – that’s apparently where the governor of Nebraska finally scored – but it’s unclear whether this import business is even legal. States had tried other countries in Europe, but the European Union ruled that Europe was out of the death business.

The three-drug cocktail was invented with little to no scientific input in Oklahoma, where they were desperate enough to try a substitute drug in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett. You may know the story. It has, in large part, changed the debate.

The executioner couldn’t find a vein in Lockett’s arms or legs, and so he ended up with the groin, where the needle didn’t hold. The sedative didn’t work properly, and when Lockett was supposed to be unconscious, he was struggling for breath. And when the death cocktail was supposed to have killed him, he was still alive. Eventually they had to call off the execution, just in time for Lockett to die. And suddenly cruel and unusual were back in the conversation.

You don’t have to feel sorry for Lockett, who kidnapped a woman in a botched robbery, shot her and then buried her alive. The killers themselves are often the best argument for the death penalty. Heinous, after all, is usually the right word. It certainly applies to the Boston bombings, where the bombs were built to inflict maximum damage to innocent people at an event that, as much as any other, defines the city.

And yet, if you trust the polling, the people in Massachusetts didn’t want this ending. The death penalty has been off the books in Massachusetts for three decades, and no one has been executed since 1947. But the trial was taken to federal court, where the death penalty was in play.

And even though a Boston Globe poll showed that only 15 percent of Boston residents were in favor of putting Tsarnaev to death, the jury voted unanimously for the death penalty. It was not a surprise. The jury was selected so that only those who are death-qualified – meaning those drawn from the minority in Massachusetts who believe in the death penalty – could be on the jury.

The verdict, in the words of The New York Times, left the city’s residents “unsettled,” which may leave unsettled those who argue that the death penalty brings closure. It may, if closure means waiting 10 or 20 years as the long series of appeals play out. It may not, if, say, you live in Pennsylvania, where there are 185 people on death row – and no executions since 1999. The Democratic governor there has issued a moratorium on what he calls an “ineffective, unjust and expensive” system.

And in very Republican Nebraska, an unlikely combination of Republicans, Democrats and independents are close to sending the governor a bill to abolish their ineffective, unjust and expensive system. This is not as shocking as you may think. The legislature voted in 1979 to end the death penalty, but it was vetoed by the governor. And 20 years later, it voted for a moratorium, again vetoed by the governor.

In the next week or so, the legislature, on third reading, will try again. In, yes, Nebraska.


Photo credit: Surian Soosay, “To the Chair,” Creative Commons, Flickr

Littwin: Brother Jeb’s lesser Iraq disaster

jeb bush

THE QUESTION we are facing now is as obvious as a mission-accomplished sign: If Jeb Bush knew now what question he was going to be asked four days ago, would he be able to come up with a decent response?

The answer, finally, is yes.

But it was a near thing. It took him all four days, which is a little slower than you’d hope for from someone who would be leader of the free world. Let’s call it leading from four days behind.

The question, of course, was about Iraq, his brother George’s foreign policy disaster. And it’s a question everyone knew was coming four days ago, four weeks ago, four months ago, four years ago.

The question was about Iraq, his brother George’s foreign policy disaster. It’s a question everyone knew was coming four days ago, four weeks ago, four months ago, four years ago.

And since it was so obvious, you’d figure that the guy with all the money and all the connections and all the advisers would have had a ready response.

Instead he flubbed the if-he-knew-then-what-we-now-know Iraq question, which couldn’t have been easier. He said he’d still have invaded Iraq, which is the wrong answer, as you’d think every Republican not named Dick Cheney would know. (Actually, at least half of Jeb’s foreign policy team remains strongly pro-invasion, and big brother George might, too, depending on which W. quote you want to cherry pick.) That was Day 1.

And so, on Day 2, Jeb tried to walk back his answer, saying he misunderstood the question, but then when he was asked it again, he – yes – flubbed it again. This was when he introduced the “hypothetical” issue and said, knowing now what he didn’t know then, he wasn’t sure what he’d do, which was a worse answer yet. And people were starting to wonder whether Jeb really was the smart brother.

Day 3: This was serious panic day for Team Bush. Other Republicans smelled blood in the water, and you know what water does to, say, Chris Christie. You started hearing right answers all over the place. No, from Christie. No, from Cruz. No, from Paul. No, from Rubio, who, just to set the record straight, had been saying for years that the world was better off for America having invaded Iraq. And so Bush came up with this — that asking “hypothetical” questions was a “disservice” to those who fought and died in Iraq. Of course, the question is hypothetical if we mean that Jeb Bush would have been president. But that’s where the hypothetical part ends and the great tragedy began.

Day 4: Finally. Here’s the quote from Bush, to a crowd in Tempe, Arizona: “Here’s the deal. If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions — knowing what we know now, what would you have done — I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”

Now, was that so hard? The problem for Bush isn’t just that he flubbed the Iraq question three days running before finally getting it right: Of course, if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction, he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. As Laura Ingraham put it, any sane person would know that.

But here’s the real deal. He is George W.’s brother, and it was George W. who made one of the great mistakes in modern American history, and it’s Jeb, while saying that George was one of his key advisors on the Middle East, who finds himself stuck with him.

Loyalty is one thing. But the problem for Jeb is that he flubbed the easiest possible question on Iraq. A more difficult question — one proposed by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and others — is this: Should we have invaded Iraq even if the intelligence had been right?

Post-invasion Iraq turned quickly into a catastrophe, and would have with or without WMDs. Many predicted the ensuing chaos at the time, although hardly anyone thought it would turn out that badly. Just as one example of getting it all wrong, Dick Cheney actually did say American troops would be greeted as “liberators” and that Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds would eagerly band together to form a united Iraq. It’s all there. Just do the Google.

Another example of getting it wrong was, of course, Hillary Clinton. Her wrong-way vote as a senator on Iraq probably cost her the presidency back in 2008. She’s changed her mind since then, but she is un-hypothetically no more eager to talk about Iraq than Bush is.

It wasn’t just that mistakes were made. Republicans like to put the disaster that is Iraq today on Barack Obama, but it’s a hard sell. I’m not exactly a fan of Obama’s drone-heavy Middle East policy, but there was no easy way out of Iraq, which is why we’re still there even after we’ve officially left. Which is why nearly 5,000 American troops are dead and many tens of thousands wounded and $1.7 trillion lost.

So what are the lessons we take from this?

If you listen to the loud objections to Obama’s negotiations with Iran, you’d think we hadn’t learned anything. But it turns out there is a lesson: So long as Jeb Bush is a front-runner in the Republican presidential sweepstakes, George W. Bush’s war isn’t going away. And for one Bush brother, the questions are only going to get harder.

Photo: Jeb Bush in DesMoines, March 2015, via iprimages.

Littwin: Did someone say ‘Huckabee’?


FOUR YEARS ago at around this time, I wrote that none of the candidates in the race could possibly win the Republican nomination, even though I, and everyone else, knew Mitt Romney would.

Still, it made sense. How could Republicans possibly nominate the guy who invented Romneycare to run against the guy they couldn’t stand for inventing Obamacare? They couldn’t — and yet they did. Well, in the end, it was him or Rick Santorum. That was 2012.

This year is different. It seems as if every candidate — and there are approximately two dozen — could win, although, in truth, only about a dozen could.

Huckabee is back. He still doesn’t have any real money or an organization. He plays ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ with his pal Ted Nugent. And he pushes cinnamon pills on the unsuspecting poor who have diabetes. Is the race really this wide open?

By only a dozen, I mean every Republican you ever heard of not named Romney. And why not? There’s no incumbent. There’s the eight-year itch (only once has a party won three in a row since FDR-Truman). And the betting favorite — Jeb Bush — is, at last check, part of the Bush family, meaning Jeb is saying he, too, would have invaded Iraq. Now I’m worried he’d also pick Dick Cheney to be his running mate.

If it’s me, I take the field. The question isn’t who has a chance, but who doesn’t (I mean, besides Ben Carson).

Which brings us to Mike Huckabee, who you also figure has no chance. I’ll just put it out there. Until very recently, Huckabee spent his time between Fox News gigs hawking cinnamon pills that, he said, would cure diabetes. Forget the “Uncle Sugar” stuff or the gay-marriage stuff. All you have to know that someone who would be president tells the sick and poor that cinnamon pills will cure them. Welcome to Huckacare.

And yet, the Washington Post’s Fix — the ultimate inside-Washington political gamer — has him ranked No. 4 in the GOP field. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar writes that Huckabee’s economic populism is “as formidable as Jeb Bush’s money.” Is the Republican bench not quite as deep as we thought?

I met Huckabee in 2007 in New Hampshire when he was an obscure former Republican governor of Arkansas who was known, where he was known at all, for three things: 1) Being the second Arkansas governor to have been born in Hope; 2) Having lost 110 pounds in what seemed like some kind of speed-diet contest; 3) Playing a hot rock guitar (in contrast to Bill Clinton’s cool sax).

He had a folksy charm, but no Fox gig and no name recognition. He was obscure enough that one day on the trail it was just Huckabee, his campaign manager and me. As we went from one small town to the next, he cracked his folksy jokes and warned me that his wife had warned him that his sense of humor would get him in trouble. It didn’t that day, but his tendency (not always funny) to drop culture-war bombs (like ripping the Obamas for letting their daughters listen to, yes, Beyonce) would make him a religious-right favorite — a reasonable place to be if you’re running in a GOP primary.

He won me over when he dropped me off at a supporter’s office while he did a radio show back home, and the supporter, who owned a string of New England music stores, gave me his card. I’ve still got it. It had embedded in it a sliver of a pink Cadillac once owned, I swear, by Elvis, whose music was a little more controversial in the early thin-Elvis days than Beyonce’s ever has been.

Huckabee later won over Iowa, to no small surprise, but then came a bigger surprise to anyone who thought he might become a serious contender — he had no money, little organization and no means to acquire either. And so John McCain won in a rout.

But here’s the strange part. Now Huck’s back. He still doesn’t have much money or organization. He may rip Beyonce and the Obamas, but he plays Cat Scratch Fever with his pal Ted Nugent. And he pushes cinnamon pills on the unsuspecting poor who have diabetes.

Is the race really that wide open?

Let’s check the field. The establishment wants Bush III vs. Clinton II. I see that as a gift to the Clintons and an embarrassment to the rest of us. Scott Walker jumped off to a big start, but, after a series of gaffes, is now being tutored on how to run for president. Lesson No. 1, taught by Larry Mizel: Go to Israel, where he is now. Marco Rubio is my choice, if Republicans want someone with a minority background who can run on generational change and immigration reform. It’s worked before. Ted Cruz? Spend 30 minutes — no, 30 seconds — with the guy and see if you still think so. Rand Paul may not be his father, but he’s not going to bomb Iran either and isn’t that an automatic disqualifier? John Kasich? Maybe when he is recognized by someone outside Michigan, we’ll talk. Chris Christie’s $82,000 food bill for Giants and Jets games that he put on his state credit card ought to end the story, if not the jokes. But now we learn that the New Jersey GOP has picked up Christie’s tab, which is also pretty funny. Rick Perry? Give him this: At least he’s not jumping on the Jade Helm bandwagon.

So Huckabee?

I don’t know, but I do know this: We’ll always have Elvis.

[ Photo via Lovelace Media.]

hillary clinton

YOU COULD feel the ground shift the other day, and for once it had nothing to do with fracking. This was Hillary Clinton shaking up the presidential race by going bold — really bold — on immigration reform, to the surprise of nearly everyone, particularly immigration-rights activists.

Her move to make immigration reform a centerpiece of her presidential campaign this early in the race was so surprising that, according to a story in the Washington Post, most of the dozens of Republicans running for president were struck dumb. (Actually the Post said “left … speechless,” but you get the idea.)

If you missed it, Clinton backed Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration and said that — if she were elected and Congress didn’t respond by passing a bill — she would go even further. She said that detainees, meanwhile, must be treated more humanely. She said that anyone who supported anything less than a path to full citizenship (note to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both caught in mid-wobble) actually supported “second-class status.”

Republicans will keep talking about ‘amnesty.’ Clinton will like that. She’ll be talking about a ‘path to citizenship.’

Clinton was all in, which leads us to at least two questions:

When did the famously cautious Clinton grow so bold?

Or has immigration reform reached the point as an issue that you can afford to look like you’re bold on reform without actually being bold at all?

I think the answer to the second question — which also answers the first — is yes, mostly. It’s no secret that Democrats have to win the growing Latino vote by a large margin to win the presidency. This is part of the Emerging Democratic Majority everyone was so certain about before the 2014 Midterm Shellacking II. Way back in 2012, Obama drew 71 percent of the Latino vote against Mitt Romney, whose “self-deport” policy cost him Latino votes and Asian-Pacific votes and basically any other available minority votes.

But it’s also no secret that Spanish-speaking Jeb Bush, with his Mexican-born wife and his Latino check-off, could attract Latino votes. Or that Spanish-speaking Marco Rubio, whose parents were Cuban immigrants and who once strongly supported the Senate-passed immigration-reform bill (but has since backed away), could attract Latino votes.

There’s no risk for Clinton on immigration in the Democratic primary, where any small risk is from those taking positions to her left.

But more to the point, this inserts her directly into the Republican primary where “reform” is called “amnesty” and where the answer to every question about the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows eventually leads to “we can’t do anything else until we secure the border.”

The secure-the-border line would be funny if weren’t so, well, unfunny. It doesn’t matter how secure the border is, after all. It doesn’t matter how many more agents there are on the border now. It doesn’t matter that immigration has slowed significantly. It doesn’t matter that we seemed to have survived the children’s invasion. It doesn’t matter that ISIS doesn’t seem to have actually set up shop on the border. (Hell, in Texas, they think the U.S. Army — apparently preparing to set up martial law — is the real danger.) It doesn’t matter that diseases aren’t flowing across the border or that the anti-vaxxers wouldn’t want to vaccinate against them even if they were.

What matters is that it’s a convenient way to say that first you have to secure the border because there is no securing the border, which puts off a decision for approximately forever.

But what will happen in the upcoming GOP debates — and who can wait for those? — is that Ted Cruz and others will go after Bush and Rubio for being squishy on illegal immigration, and that to win the nomination in a party that is a strongly anti-amnesty party, Bush and Rubio will have to be very careful. Bush will talk about “earned legal status.” Rubio was a prime mover in the Senate immigration bill, meaning he was once for a path to citizenship, but now he’s more in the path to something not quite clear, but only after, you know, the border.

What Clinton wants to make clear is that the immigration-reform supporters in the Republican party are talking about “second-class status,” while she’s talking about the real thing.

“Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship — not one,” Clinton said. “When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that is code for second-class status.”


Well, yes and no. It’s no coincidence that Clinton was making headlines at the same time the anti-Clinton book “Clinton Cash” was making headlines of its own. And the polls are all over the place on this thing. They’re against Obama’s executive orders in the same way they were against the Obama czars, who have somehow either disappeared or were deposed when no one was looking. But the polls basically show that most voters are for reform and even for eventual citizenship.

Republicans had the chance, of course, to make this issue go away. Last summer, the House refused to vote on a reform bill that featured strong border enforcement, that would have meant a 13-year path to citizenship, that would have caused millions of people to jump through hoops for the entertainment of the House majority. Instead, they chose to ignore making any progress with minorities in order to be able to keep saying “amnesty.”

And now, much to their surprise, Clinton is inviting speechless Republican candidates to say it as boldly as they like.

Photo by Marc Nozell.

sandtown, baltimore

THE QUESTION of what happened to Freddie Gray will, with luck, eventually be answered in court. And although it’s a critically important question, it’s not the only one.

As a New York Times headline put it the other day, Sandtown — the impoverished section of Baltimore where Gray was born prematurely and where he suffered from lead poisoning as a child and where he grew up in and out of trouble and where he was arrested one April night and put into the van that sent him to his death — is home to “lots of Freddies.”

It’s home to so many Freddies, in fact, that the story has now become part of the presidential campaign narrative. After Ferguson, after Cleveland, after Staten Island, after North Charleston, when you put the next chapter of what seems like an endless story 40 miles from the nation’s capital, you know what happens next.

Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood is home to a lot of kids like Freddie Gray. Half of the adult population is unemployed. It has been easy for the country to pretend not to notice.

The media descend on Baltimore to find the other Freddies. The candidates give speeches — Baltimore was the topic of Hillary’s first major campaign speech — to explain what can be done to reduce the Freddies. Martin O’Malley, who is planning to run against Clinton in the Democratic primary, was mayor of Baltimore and will undoubtedly be held responsible for at least some of the Freddies.

Baltimore is a wonderfully idiosyncratic city full of charming neighborhoods (I lived there for 12 years), but one that also happens to be among the most segregated in the country. It’s a city where poverty and violence rub hard against a gentrified success story. It’s one where inequality is in plain view, at least for those who take the time to look. It’s a city where David Simon’s “The Wire” told the story of the city’s drug wars. In other words, it’s the perfect setting for political debate.

Clinton made Baltimore the centerpiece of her speech, speaking of poisoned police-community relations and of the “era of mass incarceration” that has taken so many black men from their communities — 1.5 million gone, reports the New York Times, from incarceration or early death. (Yes, Bill Clinton played a key role in the whole incarceration problem, which she didn’t quite bother to mention.) As Hillary Clinton knows, the Sandtown neighborhood qualifies, with 3 percent of its population — the highest percentage in Baltimore — in state prison.

The Republican response is varied – that’s what happens when you have a field the size of the Kentucky Derby’s — but it’s mostly a matter of blaming LBJ and the Great Society and dependency and spouting variations on Paul Ryan’s hammock theory. Mitt Romney, who’s not running, still got into the fray by blaming Clinton for “politicizing” a tragedy and for saying that we have no “mass incarceration” in America. I guess it depends on what his definition of mass is. Presumably it’s less than 47 percent.

Whichever side of the argument you’re on, the story is still one of race and of class and of how, particularly in places like Baltimore, they intersect. Income inequality will be a major issue in the campaign. But imagine if the campaign were really about investment in cities vs. cuts in social programs, a campaign about “mass incarceration” vs. “broken windows,” a campaign centered on the best way to provide opportunity (read: good jobs; read: better education) for those who have been too long denied it.

What we know is that the immediate cause of the Baltimore demonstrations — some of which turned violent — was inequality of treatment of a young black man, starting with Gray’s unexplained death in police custody, which began with Gray’s apparent crime of making “eye contact” with the cops and then running. When they caught him, the cops found he had a knife, but not an illegal knife. And so no one could say why he was arrested or why he died or if his spinal cord was severed when he was bound and cuffed and taken on a so-called rough ride.

What we also know is that none of that is acceptable. But how to fix it? We haven’t fixed it for all these years, and at some point we decided what — that it wasn’t worth the effort?

And so we come to Baltimore. The city is hardly a secret, but visitors don’t often show up in parts of town like Sandtown in West Baltimore. It is not the shiny Inner Harbor or any of the funky neighborhoods that otherwise define Baltimore. When the reporters came, what they found was shocking, more shocking, in its way, than Gray’s death. First, there were the numbers. Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods — part of its charm — and in 15 of those neighborhoods, according to a Washington Post article, life expectancy is lower than in North Korea. Eight neighborhoods are lower than Syria.

I lived in a beautiful eclectic neighborhood in the city which I could afford only because white flight had, over 40 years, shrunk Baltimore’s population by a third. In my neighborhood, the average life expectancy is now 82 years, higher than France, a little lower than Sweden, but not the highest in Baltimore. Sandtown comes in at just under 69, and it’s not even the lowest in the city.

More numbers: About half of Sandtown residents of employable age are without a job, a third of families live below the poverty line, more than a third of buildings are vacant, as opposed to 5 percent throughout Baltimore.

And more: In two Baltimore neighborhoods, writes Sarah Kliff in Vox, two infants out of 100 die before their first birthday, which is higher than in the West Bank.

How did we miss any of this? Or did we see it and just pretend not to notice?

But now it’s all there for everyone to see. And once we’ve seen, do we have any choice but to ask what can be done about it?

That, as much as anything, is the real question of Freddie Gray.

Photo: Baltimore sunset by Blink Ofanaye