Evil weed, an errant word, an old memory

    A few tidbits, while we await the midterm tallies:

    It’ll be interesting to see whether California voters actually opt to make history tonight by validating Muddy Waters’ blues lyrics (“Well, you know there should be no law/ On people that want to smoke a little dope”). Legalization of marijuana is on the ballot; a majority of Californians seemed poise to vote Yes, and thus make history by taxing the plant. But the polls have shifted at the eleventh hour, with No in ascendance.

    The pro-legalization camp insists that a lot of declared No voters are really Yes voters who are afraid to share their true feelings with the pollsters. We’ll see about that. It seems more likely that a huge California swing-voting cohort – fortysomething suburban women with teenage kids – has decided that such a reform would make the purportedly evil weed even more ubiquitous. And illegal California growers, and those who benefit from their product, seem inclined to vote No because (a) they don’t want to see it commercialized, and (b) they’re happy with the new state law that reduces simple possession to a civil fine that’s lower than a speeding ticket.

    Nevertheless, Democratic strategists will be paying close attention to the size of the under-30 vote. The polls have shown that young Californians are far more motivated to vote this year than their age counterparts elsewhere – precisely because they’re eager to endorse legal reefers. If they turn out tonight in heavier than normal numbers, Democrats might well be tempted to put similar proposals on other state ballots in 2012 (such as Colorado and Nevada, both swing states in a presidential race), as a way to stoke enthusiasm among the under-30s. Sort of the Democratic version of what the GOP did in 2004, when it stoked enthusiasm among social conservative voters in key states by staging anti-gay marriage referenda.

    Some Democratic strategists have indeed discussed this marijuana scenario, but the potential downside seems obvious. It might not be smart politics for the Democrats to tag themselves as the pro-dope party, or expose themselves to jokes about how they hope to win in bad economic times by ensuring that the voters are obliviously stoned.

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    The Republicans are shocked, shocked by something that President Obama said last week during an interview on Univision. Here’s Obama: “If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re going to punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,’ if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s going to be harder and that’s why I think it’s so important that people focus on voting on November 2.”

    Notice that Obama used the word enemies to describe political opponents. Oh, the temerity! In a speech the other night, House Republican leader John Boehner huffed and puffed thusly: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a president in the White House who referred to Americans who disagree with him as ‘our enemies.’ Think about that. He actually used that word.”

    OK, I’m thinking about that. And here’s what I concluded:

    Under the Republican rules of engagement, it’s clearly an outrage that the president would ever stoop to use the word enemy…whereas it’s apparently acceptable, and indeed downright patriotic, to spend two years rhetorically tagging the president as an enemy.

    Sarah Palin, in October 2008, assailed Obama for supposedly “palling around with terrorists,” which by definition paints him as enemy. Senator Jim DeMint and Georgia congressman Paul Broun have likened Obama to Hitler, and we all know that Hitler was an enemy. Arizona congressman Trent Franks has called Obama “an enemy of humanity,” and since Americans are members of humanity, that certainly implies that Obama is our enemy. Former GOP congressman Tom Tancredo, who has a shot at winning the Colorado gubernatorial race tonight on a right-wing ticket, recently called Obama “a more serious threat to America than al Qaeda,” and that certainly makes the president sound like an enemy. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, has suggested that the president harbors “anti-American views,” and that certainly connotes the word enemy.

    Has Boehner made any concerted effort to condemn these characterizations? Nope.  (Nor would he dare try. His likely tenure as House speaker would be imperiled if he sought to tone down the cartoon rhetoric on his ascendant right flank.)

    But, sure enough, Obama backed down yesterday and said that he should’ve used the word opponents instead of enemies – thereby confirming those skewed Republican rules of engagement. No wonder so many Democratic base voters seem poised to stay home today.

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    Political observers of a certain age, and younger observers with a sense of history, undoubtedly noted the weekend death of Theodore Sorensen, the JFK aide and speechwriter who helped craft so much of the resonant Kennedy rhetoric. But what I remember most about Sorensen was the embarrassing incident that occurred in early 1977, when we got our first inkling of Jimmy Carter’s political ineptitude.

    Carter, prior to being sworn in, came up with the idea of tapping Sorensen for the job of CIA director. Sorensen had no intelligence experience, but lifelong experience as a liberal intellectual who favored a curtailment of CIA covert operations. In terms of the Senate confirmation process, his pedigree was problematical enough. But then came the clincher:

    It turned out that Sorensen, right after World War II, had registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. Once that fact was revealed, even Democratic senators  began to question whether Sorensen was capable of approving agency operations that might result in death. And the thing is, Sorensen had never told the Carter team about his CO status; more importantly, the Carter team never sussed it out during the vetting process. In fact, when an angry Carter aide asked Sorensen why he had stayed mum about it, he reportedly replied, “I didn’t know that the CIA director was supposed to kill anybody.” Then he withdrew his own nomination.

    In today’s 24/7 smash-mouth culture, one shudders to imagine how Sorensen would have fared. But even in the context of 1977, some of us wondered: What was Jimmy Carter thinking, by nominating this guy? And by failing to tell the Carter team about his CO status, what could Sorensen have possibly been smoking? Muddy Waters, come on back, that’s your cue: “Y’know I’m gonna get so high this morning/ It’s gonna be a cryin’ shame.”

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