Civil War, Egan, Hatfield, Idaho Politics

Nullification

davisWe Fought a War Over This…

As Idaho and a half dozen other states prepare legislation to attempt to “nullify” the federal health care law, including apparently sanctions against anyone trying to implement the law, it may be worth remembering that 150 years ago this week the future President of the Confederacy stood on the floor of the United States Senate and spoke his farewells.

A good part of Sen. Jefferson Davis’ speech on Jan. 21, 1861 was devoted to the doctrine of nullification.

His home state of Mississippi was leaving the Union, Davis said, and, in his mind at least, it naturally followed that he had to leave the Senate of the United States.

Davis explained his theory of his duties as a citizen and made it clear that his allegiance to Ole Miss came before his country. “If I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation,” he said, “or without an existing necessity, I should still, under my theory of the Government, because of my allegiance to the State of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her action.” My state right or wrong, apparently.

Davis went on at some length to draw a distinction between what he and Mississippi were doing – leaving the Union – and the theory, widely advanced in the 1830’s by John C. Calhoun, of nullification.

“Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are, indeed, antagonistic principles,” Davis said. “Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligations, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other states of the Union for a decision; but, when the States themselves and when the people of the States have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.”

In his somewhat tortured assessment of nationhood, Davis explained what Calhoun was trying to do by advocating nullification, or as he described it a state “assuming to judge for itself.”

“It was because of [Calhoun’s] deep-seated attachment to the Union – his determination to find some remedy for existing ills short of a severance of the ties which bound South Carolina to the other States – that Mr. Calhoun advocated the doctrine of nullification, which he proclaimed to be peaceful, to be within the limits of State power, not to disturb the Union, but only to be a means of bringing the agent before the tribunal of the States for their judgement.

“Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the states are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is a sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever.”

In other words, disunion in the mind of Jefferson Davis was a logical follow on to nullification for a sovereign state.

The trouble with Idaho’s approach to this fundamental Constitutional guestion is that it neglects a good slice of the last 150 years of American history; those years since Davis made his passionate defense of state’s rights. Our ancestors fought a bloody and protracted Civil War to resolve these very questions. As a result, the United States became a singular nation, as the great historian Shelby Foote loved to point out. Prior to Lee’s surrender to Grant in 1865, it was common to refer to the “United States are.” But our history and our courts have consistently held since that the “United States is.”

Still, every few years nullification comes roaring back. During the civil rights era, ten different southern states sought to nullify the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ultimately ruled in 1958 in Cooper v. Aaron that the Brown ruling, ending segregation, could “neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation.”

Idaho’s foremost Constitutional scholar, Dr. David Adler, recently told the Associated Press that nullification proponents are conveniently overlooking a lot of our history. “The premise of their position and the reasoning behind it are severely flawed and have no support in our Constitutional architecture,” Adler said.

In their zeal to overturn an act of Congress, the proponents of nullification cite, as Jefferson Davis did on the brink of the Civil War, the “high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited,” not to mention the wisdom of Jefferson and Madison. Funny, they rarely mention that old fire breather, Calhoun.

Through a terrible Civil War and on through the long and continuing struggle for civil rights, the United States gradually and imperfectly became one country of many states. Through elections and court cases, debate and discourse, we have arrived at a federal government that makes laws and attempts, not always ably, to apply them fairly to all the people. If folks don’t like those laws, they do have recourse – legal recourse. They can sue in the courts, as Idaho has done over the health care legislation, or they can have an election to change the Congress.

Neither available legal approach, historically or Constitutionally, sanctions nullification. Maybe that is so because wise leaders, at least since Jefferson Davis, have been able to see where such a doctrine logically can lead.

The great Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a concurring opinion in Aaron more than 50 years ago and captured the essence of what is at sake in preserving our federal system.

“Lincoln’s appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature’ failed to avert a fratricidal war,” Frankfurter wrote in 1958. “But the compassionate wisdom of Lincoln’s First and Second Inaugurals bequeathed to the Union, cemented with blood, a moral heritage which, when drawn upon in times of stress and strife, is sure to find specific ways and means to surmount difficulties that may appear to be insurmountable.”

Civil War, Hatfield

Yup, It Really Was About Slavery

Confederate MonumentConfederate History Month

On the grounds of the Texas State Capitol in Austin stands a massive monument commemorating the side that lost the Civil War. The monument is all the proof one would ever need that Americans – south, north, black, white – have never completely come to closure about the gruesome episode that re-defined our nation.

Rather than the war that cemented forever the idea of one union, the American Civil War is still regularly referred to by some as the War Between the States or even the War of Northern Aggression. The war is regularly celebrated by some, usually in the south, as a four-year act of chivalry or as a principled act of state’s rights. As a matter of horrible fact, the Civil War was a 600,000 casualty blood bath launched and sustained by unconstitutional acts of treason. You can look it up. And, yes, the Civil War was certainly about slavery.

Based on the dust up recently in Virginia, where Gov. Bob McDonnell proclaimed Confederate History Month without making any reference to slavery, not all of us can admit – even in 2010 – that the war was at its very core caused by and prosecuted as a result of the single worst stain on the American story – slavery.

McDonnell retreated from his historically shaky proclamation faster than – pardon the reference – Stonewall Jackson’s “foot” cavalry moved at Chancellorsville in 1863, which is to say very fast. The “controversy” spawned a good deal of commentary, including Gail Collins’ observation it might be a good idea to always begin a Civil War history lesson with an acknowledgement that the “whole leaving-the-union thing was a bad idea.”

Not surprisingly, given the political nature of everything these days, a good deal of the chatter was about what rising star McDonnell had done to his future political prospects by failing to identify the central fact about the war. McDonnell’s defense was that the original proclamation he signed, the one without a slavery mention, was all about encouraging tourism.

Frank Rich sees an even more sinister motive behind the Virginia governor’s slavery oversight – an appeal to the very white, very state’s rights demanding Tea Party crowd. It is an interesting notion, but I’m not sure I buy it. After all, one can rarely go wrong by accepting the most obvious explanation for a political gaffe – incompetence backed by ignorance.

Too many Americans – even some governors – suffer from a potentially terminal case of historical amnesia. We don’t know our history, or perhaps in McConnell’s case he just conveniently forgot our history. If the GOP governor, even one officed in Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy, has ever read the Second Inaugural speech of another Republican he would have had the cause of that awful war explicitly identified. The cause, even Confederate leaders knew at the time, was slavery.

What Abraham Lincoln proclaimed was not a celebration of some romantic lost cause as apparently most Civil War revisionists desire, but emancipation. Even as the war continued to rage in March of 1865, he acknowledged the debt that both sides were paying for allowing the “peculiar and powerful interest” of slavery to come near to destroying the nation.

Lincoln prayed for a speedy end to the “mighty scourge of war,” but acknowledged that God might will the war to continue “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as it was three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” Amen.

Lincoln knew what the war was about and it wasn’t about state’s rights or protecting southern homes and communities from those nasty Yankees, as Gov. McDonnell suggested. The war was about ending slavery and preserving the Constitution.

There is a good proclamation worthy of real history in those ideas; worthy even of a history challenged governor in the cradle of the Confederacy.

Baseball, Civil War, Minnick, Politics

A Very Fine Line

health careDoes Idaho’s Blue Dog Risk His Base?

There is a fundamental rule in politics – the first and most important rule, perhaps – that is ignored by any politician at considerable risk. Ask Dede Scozzafava.

Scozzafava was the Republican congressional candidate in a recent special election in upstate New York who could not hold on to a seat that has been in GOP hands since U.S. Grant was in the White House.

Scozzafava ultimately withdrew from the special election and endorsed the Democrat who eventually won. Her demise was sealed thanks to a badly fractured Republican base that thought she had strayed way too far from party orthodoxy. Her political situation was exacerbated – and fate ultimately sealed – by a third party candidate who appealed to the most conservative voters in the heavily Republican-leaning district. In short, the special election in the 23rd District of New York was a real mess, but the wreckage illustrates that fundamental rule.

Secure your base.

Republicans are still beaming over two gubernatorial victories last week in New Jersey and Virginia. In both cases, capable Republican challengers won against damaged Democrats who where unable to excite the party base that carried Barack Obama to victory in both states just a year ago. Most post-election analysis has confirmed that Democrats in both states were not terribly motivated, while the GOP core was very excited. Independents in both states helped closed the deal for the Republicans.

In short, Republicans secured and motivated their base. Democrats did not.

Idaho’s lone congressional Democrat, Walt Minnick, now confronts a similar problem as he walks the very fine line demanded of a western Democrat in a deep red state. Minnick must know that his base is restless.

Minnick’s dilemma – the line he walks – might be reduced to this: in a state like Idaho, he must be an independent with a conservative lean, but at the same time he cannot risk turning his Democratic base – small as it is – against him.

Minnick represents Idaho’s sprawling First District that runs from the west Boise suburbs, south to the Nevada border and north all the way to British Columbia. The district includes the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 named for Frank Church, the last Democrat to represent Idaho in the U.S. Senate, as well as the deepest canyon in North America. The University of Idaho, a fine research school, is in the district, as is the plot of ground where the white supremacist Aryan Nation once held forth.

Since the 1950’s, at least, the district has grown increasingly more conservative. Three GOP congressmen who once represented the First District – Jim McClure, Steve Symms and Larry Craig – went to the Senate from this reliably Republican outpost. For a Democrat, the margin of error in the First District is, well, there is no margin for error for a Democrat.

Minnick won the challenging job of representing this huge district a year ago by narrowly defeating a deeply polarizing incumbent, Bill Sali, who ran hard to the right. Before last fall, the district had not sent a Democrat to Washington since 1992.

Minnick won the way Democrats have often won in Idaho, by defeating a weak Republican – Bill Sali – who had his own problems keeping the GOP base together. Church got his start this way and so did Cecil Andrus and each found a way to keep winning with a consistent appeal to the base and a winning message to the middle.

A year ago, Minnick was able to knit together a coalition that included an energized Democratic base that came to like Obama, salted with just enough moderate R’s who couldn’t fancy more Bill Sali, and complemented by independents who typically vote for Republicans unless they find them, as they did Sali, just too far out of the mainstream. This is the very political definition of fragile territory.

To his strategic credit, Minnick also played to the middle, stressing his farm upbringing while touting his business acumen. His campaign also succeeding in showing Idahoans that he not only supports guns, but uses them. It all added up to just enough to eek out a win in a presidential election year when John McCain polled more than 61% of the Idaho vote.

Late last Saturday night, Minnick cast a vote that may go a long way toward securing his political fate. Idaho’s lone Democrat on the national stage joined 38 other conservative Democrats – the so called Blue Dogs – in opposition to the party’s health care legislation that passed the House by the narrowest of margins. For good measure, Minnick also voted against the rule that allowed the Democratic bill to come to a final vote. In other words, he went the distance in opposition to a idea – health care reform – that is as fundamental to many Democrats as FDR’s old campaign song “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

[Long-time Idaho political observer, Randy Stapilus, also suggests that Minnick may have complicated his already delicate dance on the health care legislation by opposing the contentious amendment, backed by many Blue Dogs, to restrict funding for abortion.]

While health care legislation might be the vote that most of his constituents remember the longest, Minnick has also been at odds with party theology over the last few months on the stimulus package, climate change legislation and some aspects of financial services reform. He may well have succeeded in becoming the most independent Democrat in the House, but that label hasn’t kept him from making every list of most vulnerable incumbents in 2010. He and two potential Republican challengers are amassing war chests and this figures to be a dog fight – blue or otherwise – in the months ahead.

For his part, former Congressman Sali continues to flirt with a potential re-run, a situation that could end up being the best case for the current incumbent.

A year out from his re-elect, here are the questions worth pondering: Will Minnick pay a price among hardcore Democratic supporters for his independence on issues like health care? Or, as he must believe, will he be able to thread the electoral needle once again; re-assemble the Democratic base, again add enough moderates from the GOP and pull a sizable majority of independents?

To be sure there are a world of votes ahead, including presumably the ultimate vote in Congress to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a health care reform bill, and Republicans in Idaho’s First District are still months away from selecting Minnick’s challenger. Lots of things can – and probably will – happen.

Still, as New York, Virginia and New Jersey show most recently, and as successful politicians know instinctively, the party base needs to feel the love. Your friends hate to be taken for granted.

In Minnick’s district, I’m going to peg the dependable Democratic base – it has consistently dwindled since 1990 – at something north of 30%, perhaps even 35%, of the voters. These are the folks that show up at fundraisers, put up yard signs, man phone banks and walk parade routes handing out a candidate’s literature. They also talk to their friends about politics and politicians. You want the base working and voting, not restless and wondering.

There are never numbers enough among the base to elect a Democrat in Idaho, but if these folks decide – even in modest numbers – to sit one out, there are numbers enough to defeat a Democrat.

This is Walt Minnick’s dilemma and it requires walking a very fine line indeed.