‘How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized.’

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A man wears the Belgian flag as people observe a minute of silence in Brussels on Wednesday in honor of the victims of Tuesday’s terror attacks. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

It didn’t take long after news broke of Tuesday’s terrorist bombings in Brussels for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to politicize the attack and issue a call on Facebook urging his fellow Americans “to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” What these new “patrol and secure” powers would be or how they would jibe with the Constitution, Cruz didn’t say. But his post reinforced an observation I have long held that those who claim to love the Constitution more than the rest of us are also the ones who seem most likely to abandon it in a panic.

Cruz’s posturing was just one of several unhelpful reactions to Tuesday’s bombings in Belgium that killed 31 people and wounded 270 others. The response from Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin, for example, was wearily familiar: Brussels was bombed. Seal the border with Mexico!

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings and on Wednesday warned of additional attacks in the West. Two of three suicide bombers were brothers born in Belgium. A third suicide bomber was a Belgian born in Morocco. The three may have been part of a cell that also carried out the attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people.

In 2008, scholars with the RAND Corporation produced a study, “How Terrorist Groups End,” that surveyed the fates of numerous terrorist organizations worldwide since 1968. Most terrorist groups end either because they eventually decide to join the political process, the study’s authors found, or because police and intelligence agencies arrest or kill a group’s key members. While the military has a role to play in the fight against terrorism, and sometimes the role can be large, the study’s authors concluded that terrorism is most effectively attacked as a political and criminal act rather than as an act of war. They called for a fundamental rethinking of America’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy, starting with trashing the phrase “war on terrorism.” After all, you can’t defeat an abstract noun.

The Islamic State is not abstract. It is a religious terrorist organization as well as a rebel army that governs parts of Iraq and Syria. As a religious terrorist organization, it is even harder to defeat than groups that are exclusively political, and thus is a difficult law enforcement and intelligence challenge. As a rebel army, it can be pushed out of territory it occupies. And, in fact, the Islamic State has lost more than a fifth of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria.

Cruz and Donald Trump promise to bomb the Islamic State into oblivion if elected president, though at what cost or sacrifice they don’t say. I don’t mean to be overly pessimistic, but I don’t think anyone should be under any illusion that a President Cruz or a President Trump — or a President Hillary Clinton, for that matter — is likely to fundamentally redirect the nation from the counter-terrorism track it’s been on the past 15 years, or engage Islamic terrorism in a way that doesn’t continually risk making matters worse.

The agreements that drew the borders of the modern Middle East after World War I and unsteadily held it together for almost a century appear to have been thrown on history’s ash heap. Their dissolution probably was inevitable after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, out of which the Islamic State evolved. Acknowledging that fact would be helpful. Ditto acknowledging the counterproductive roles that Turkey and Saudi Arabia play in the Middle East — Turkey in undermining the fight against the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia in promoting the spread of radical Islam.

A determined respect for perspective over fear, and a resolute trust in our values, also would help, lest we become the giant who brushes away gnats by smashing furniture and breaking windows. I close with this quote from Salman Rushdie, written after 9/11:

“The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.

“How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”

These two election-related podcasts will give you some of the perspective you seek

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Hickory, North Carolina, on Monday. (Chuck Burton / Associated Press)

Perspective is a wonderful thing. Two podcasts — one historical, the other focused on the numbers of the 2016 campaign — can help you put this year’s crazy presidential election in its place.

First, the history. “Presidential” is a Washington Post podcast about, as its name implies, the presidency and the men who have been president. Host Lillian Cunningham assumes a winning naïveté as she interviews historians and journalists, reads from speeches and diaries and old newspaper accounts, and generally pokes into some dusty, forgotten corners to try to discover how each president became president and what each president — “effective or ineffective, esteemed or forgotten” — has to say about the nation’s highest office.

The podcast began Jan. 10. Its 44 weekly episodes, posted each Sunday, are scheduled to conclude Nov. 6, two days before Election Day, with a look at Barack Obama. Because “Presidential” plans 44 episodes, and not 43, I guess I can look forward to its covering Grover Cleveland twice, since he is our 22nd and 24th president. I can’t wait to hear Cunningham take us down the Mugwump path to the Pullman strike.

So far, episodes are averaging an undemanding 39 minutes. The most recent episode, the podcast’s 10th, was about John Tyler, the first vice president to assume the presidency upon the death of a president — in Tyler’s case, William Henry Harrison — thus establishing what became known as the “Tyler Precedent.” Tyler was a lousy president, but he’s the other half of the greatest campaign song — turned campaign slogan — in presidential history, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

In 2004, They Might Be Giants released a fantastic version of the song used to defeat that “used up man,” Martin Van Buren, in 1840. Enjoy.

So what perspective does “Presidential” offer? That we’re no crazier than generations of Americans that have gone before us. That we have survived numerous bad presidents in the past. That we’ll probably survive President Trump, too.

The other podcast I want to recommend is “FiveThirtyEight Elections,” produced by the website started by statistical guru Nate Silver, whose number-crunching work has been a necessary political read since 2008.

“Elections” features Silver, host Jody Avirgan, political reporter Clare Malone and Harry Enten, who’s always introduced as FiveThirtyEight’s resident “whiz kid” but who comes across more often as its resident curmudgeon. New episodes post each Monday, and as election results merit. The focus is on polls and votes and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from the data. But the media — primarily the cable news networks; yeah, looking at you CNN, Fox and MSNBC — are frequently criticized for the occasionally stupid things their analysts and correspondents say and for their frequently misleading and incorrect use of polls and numbers.

What you learn from listening to “Elections” is what any longtime reader of FiveThirtyEight should know by now: Political campaigns are long affairs that reveal themselves slowly. Nothing can tell you anything with certainty — and certainly not a single poll.

In other words: Always take the longer view.

 

‘An exemplary judge’ for the Supreme Court, not that Republicans care

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Judge Merrick Garland speaks at the White House on Wednesday after being introduced by President Barack Obama as his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

As President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, visited Democratic Sens. Harry Reid and Patrick Leahy on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stuck to his position that he would not be holding “a perfunctory meeting” with the appeals court judge. A handful of more mannerly Senate Republicans have said they are open to meeting Garland.

No meetings. No hearing. No vote. Let the people have their say in November. The Republican position on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee was expressed in a flurry of statements released Wednesday after Obama introduced Garland:

“Texans and the American people deserve to have a say in the selection of the next lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement released by his office. “The only way to empower the American people and ensure they have a voice is for the next president to make the nomination to fill this vacancy.”

Though members of the U.S. House have no constitutional role in the confirmation of Supreme Court justices, Republican U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin released his own statement, saying,Sen. Cornyn and the Republican leadership in the Senate are correct in their decision to not confirm President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court. The precedent has been set for decades, and was continued by Vice President Biden when he was in the Senate, that the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court nomination in an election year. The American people should have a voice in the direction of the court. They will have the opportunity to be heard at the ballot box in November.”

Obama is not technically a lame duck, which is how Republicans have framed their argument that the seat on the Supreme Court unexpectedly left vacant by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death on Feb. 13 should be filled only after November’s presidential election. Yes, a lame duck is an elected official whose time in office is nearing its end, but traditionally, an elected official becomes a lame duck only after voters elect his successor.

If this debate were happening eight months from now, in mid-November — or maybe even in July or August after each party has selected its presidential nominee — I would agree with the Republicans’ argument that we should let the next president choose Scalia’s successor. But government is meant to act on what voters have done, not on what they might do. Obama is president for another 308 days and the election is 236 days away. There is plenty of time to hold a confirmation hearing and a vote on Garland’s nomination.

Vice President Joe Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995. In a June 1992 Senate speech, he said the Judiciary Committee should “seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings” for a Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year.

Some context to Biden’s remarks, and context matters because it explains Biden’s speech: There was no vacancy on the Supreme Court that Biden was addressing; he was speaking hypothetically in the wake of the contentious Clarence Thomas hearings (which Biden had badly mishandled, I must add); the first of the presidential nominating conventions was only a month away; and should “seriously consider” is not the same as “won’t consider.” By no means was Biden announcing any “rule” that senators shouldn’t consider Supreme Court nominations in a presidential election year.

In choosing Garland, Obama has offered Republicans someone who should be, by any reasonable measure, a consensus nominee. Garland is 63, the oldest Supreme Court nominee in 45 years, so his stay on the court might not equal the generational stay of a nominee a decade or more younger. He is a former federal prosecutor with a reputation as a law-and-order centrist. Thirty-two Republicans voted in 1997 to confirm Garland’s appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a court over which he currently presides. He is a judge whom Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah once said could be confirmed to the Supreme Court “virtually unanimously.”

There is no apparent reason to reject Garland, whom Obama on Wednesday called “a serious man and an exemplary judge.” He deserves a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee and a confirmation vote. And if the Republicans want to reject his nomination, that’s their constitutional right. But not acting on his nomination violates the spirit of the Constitution.

Politically, having cultivated a sense of betrayal in their constituents for decades, Republicans have locked themselves into an obstructionist corner — out of which they probably will crawl if Hillary Clinton wins the White House in November. Because they know there is no good reason to reject Garland.

It’s not a snub for Obama to skip Nancy Reagan’s funeral; it’s presidential norm

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In this New York Times file photo, President Barack Obama escorts former first lady Nancy Reagan to the signing of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act at the White House on June 2, 2009.

Many conservatives are suffering from another bout of Obama outrage because the president isn’t attending former first lady Nancy Reagan’s funeral on Friday, but is instead sticking with his plans to visit Austin for seven hours so he can chat onstage with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith as part of the South by Southwest Interactive festival and appear at two Democratic fundraisers.

An entry by Michael Cantrell on the Young Conservatives website is typical of the reaction some have had to the announcement that Obama will be in Austin Friday rather than at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California: “Say what you will about President Obama, but it’s hard to argue with the fact he’s probably the most disrespectful and classless individual to ever occupy the White House.” Cantrell then goes on to repeat the debunked claim that Obama skipped Justice Antonin Scalia’s Feb. 20 funeral to play golf.

That sitting presidents rarely attend the funerals of former first ladies doesn’t seem to matter to the perpetually aggrieved critics of the president. Nor does it matter that Obama is following the examples set by his modern predecessors whose time in office coincides with the instant transmission of news and the arrival of air travel, or that then-President George W. Bush didn’t attend fellow Texan Lady Bird Johnson’s funeral in 2007 (and no one raised a fuss).

No, none of it matters. Because, you know, Obama.

Only four times has a sitting president attended funeral services for a former first lady — five if you count the eulogy Bill Clinton delivered at Jackie Kennedy’s burial in 1994. If I were to ask you who was the first sitting president to attend a former first lady’s funeral, and whose funeral did he attend, you’d never guess the answer. It’s a guaranteed trivia stumper. So, since I sort of did just ask the question, go ahead, take a guess. I’ll wait. …

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Dolley Madison

Give up? The answer is Zachary Taylor, who attended Dolley Madison’s funeral in 1849 and gave us the term “first lady” in his eulogy — or so the story goes; there’s no written evidence of it. Madison is an American icon. She’s more famous than Taylor, who’s one of those presidents you never think about until you hear his name and are reminded he was president. Two hundred years after she lived in the White House, Dolley Madison remains belle of the first lady ball. Who wouldn’t have gone to her funeral?

No one, because it seems everyone who was someone in 1849 went. From the spring 2001 issue of the James Madison University Magazine:

Dolley Madison fell ill in July 1849. She lingered for five days, and died on Thursday evening, July 12. She was 81 years old and had known every president from George Washington to Zachary Taylor. Her funeral oration on July 17 was a state occasion, attended by the president, cabinet officers, diplomatic corps, members of the House and Senate, Supreme Court justices, officers of the army and navy, the mayor and city leaders, and “citizens and strangers.” As the Washington newspaper, The Daily Intelligencer, noted: “All of our country and thousands in other lands will need no language of Eulogy to inspire a deep and sincere regret when they learn the demise of one who touched all hearts by her goodness and won the admiration of all by the charms of dignity and grace.”

Taylor’s presence at Dolley Madison’s funeral did not set a presidential precedent and 53 years would pass before Teddy Roosevelt attended Julia Grant‘s funeral in 1902. Julia Grant was no Dolley Madison, but she was a fellow Republican and New Yorker whom Roosevelt had known for years. Above all, she was Mrs. General Grant.

A tragic connection explains why Roosevelt also attended the funeral of Ida McKinley in 1907. Roosevelt had been William McKinley’s vice president and it was McKinley’s assassination in 1901 that had propelled Roosevelt to the White House.

John Kennedy was one of about 250 attendees at the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1962. Though Roosevelt’s funeral was simple and unassuming, in keeping with her wishes, it nonetheless was the 20th century equivalent of Dolley Madison‘s in terms of her accomplishments and iconic status, especially among Democrats, and the number of politically powerful on hand.

Technically, Kennedy’s appearance at Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral 54 years ago is the last time a sitting president attended services for a former first lady. Bill Clinton spoke during an 11-minute grave-site ceremony for Jackie Kennedy at Arlington National Ceremony on May 23, 1994, but he did not attend her funeral Mass in New York earlier in the day.

First lady is not an official title — which is why the American-Statesman, following Associated Press style, never capitalizes it before a first lady’s name — so a former first lady’s funeral is not an event of state and there’s no set protocol to follow. Typically in recent times, the current first lady represents the White House at a former first lady’s funeral. Surviving former first ladies also usually attend, their health and schedules permitting. Sometimes former presidents accompany their wives.

Thus Michelle Obama will be at Nancy Reagan’s funeral on Friday along with Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton. Former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush also will attend, not only to represent themselves, but also to represent former President George H.W. Bush, who was Ronald Reagan’s vice president, and Barbara Bush.

I think it would be a nice gesture for President Obama to attend Nancy Reagan’s funeral, but he is not disgracing his office or embarrassing the nation by not going. Neither protocol nor history demands he be there.

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For anyone interested in the history of first ladies, the website of the National First Ladies’ Library (www.firstladies.org) is a wonderful resource.

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Republican debate

Shameful. Disgraceful. Embarrassing. Sickening.

I suppose there are viewers who found Thursday night’s Republican debate in Detroit entertaining, but halfway through last night’s carnival of personal, childish insults, I actually felt nauseous. One of the four men on the debate stage — well, three of the four men on stage last night; I feel for you, John Kasich, I really do — will be the Republican nominee for president, and thus potentially will be president.

To compare Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump to the Three Stooges is to insult the Three Stooges. Nonetheless:

The debate was also insufferable, but that adjective applies mostly to the live audience — booing, hissing and cheering — and, as usual, Cruz.

Though Cruz’s insufferableness did set up the only moment of genuine wit in a debate that began with Trump bragging about the size of his penis:

“Donald, please. I know it’s hard not to interrupt. But try. Breathe, breathe, breathe,” Cruz told Trump as Trump talked over him. “You can do it. You can breathe. I know it’s hard. I know it’s hard.”

Rubio, off camera and delivering the night’s second-best line: “When they’re done with the yoga, can I answer a question?”

Cruz: “I really hope that we don’t see yoga on this stage.”

Rubio, with the night’s best line, referencing an earlier answer by Trump: “Well, he’s very flexible, so you never know.”

Fox News has been solid through all the debates it has hosted. Last night’s moderators — Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace — were prepared, knowledgeable and obviously had watched John Oliver’s takedown of “Donald Drumpf” earlier in the week:

Kelly was especially sharp. Her exchange with Trump, in which she pushed Trump to explain his statements in three video clips showing him contradicting himself on Afghanistan and other issues, was the kind of debate question we should see more often.

And yet, as much as I appreciated the questions asked by Fox’s panel, a point arrived where it seemed as though Fox was doing the hapless Republican establishment’s bidding and trying to take down Trump. The moderators didn’t press Rubio and Cruz with the same detail or vigor. For example, Cruz repeated his pants-on-fire claim about Obamacare as a killer of millions of jobs and no one challenged him on it.

Trump is winning, but as The Associated Press reported, he’s not yet on track to secure the Republican nomination. The Republican establishment desperately continues to search for a way to stop Trump without suffering severe blowback from Trump’s voters, who already suffer, not entirely unreasonably, from the sense of betrayal.

And yet, despite all the fretting — despite the #NeverTrump movement on Twitter — if Trump wins the nomination, Republicans will be there to rally behind him. At the end of last night’s debate, Cruz, Rubio and Kasich (listed here in order of the begrudging enthusiasm, from least to most, with which they answered the question) said they would back Trump if Trump were the nominee.

Trump might be a phony and a fraud and a con artist. But he’s the Republicans’ phony and fraud and con artist. So the personal insults may not prove to be so personal after all. It’s just politics.

A mildly contrary view of ‘Spotlight’

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Steve Carell in a scene from “The Big Short,” which was nominated for an Oscar for best picture.

A few thoughts about two Academy Award-winning films and their portrayals of journalism before the Oscars fully fade from our perpetually shortening short-term memories, and while we wait for results from Super Tuesday to start coming in:

Journalism in America can use any validation and vindication it can get. Sunday night, validation came in the form of a best picture Oscar for “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s investigative series in 2002 that exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. As Viewpoints editor Tara Trower Doolittle wrote in a previous entry on this blog, “The award was a bit of vindication for those who toil in metropolitan and community newsrooms doing the important work of daily journalism.”

Though I think another best picture nominee, “The Big Short,” is a better movie than “Spotlight” (more about that in a moment), I have no problem with “Spotlight” being named best picture. It’s a good movie, and The Globe’s work was a key part of one of the most important stories of the last decade. But there are lessons in “Spotlight” that journalists shouldn’t overlook as they celebrate Sunday’s “win for journalism.” Despite their great work, The Globe’s investigative team was late to the sexual abuse story. Years late. The National Catholic Reporter was the first publication to write about the scandal, and it did so in 1985. Investigative author Jason Berry wrote a book titled “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Abuse and the Sexual Abuse of Children” in 1992, which Eileen McNamara, a Globe columnist, reviewed for the paper.

McNamara wrote columns about the sexual abuse of children by priests in the 1990s, but her work largely was ignored by news editors and reporters at The Globe until new executive editor Marty Baron arrived on the scene and directed the investigative team to look into what McNamara had been writing. And not to rain on the “Spotlight” parade more than I already have, because I do like the movie and as a journalist I am proud of the work it portrays, but a victim had given the paper evidence of the sexual abuse by priests years earlier and the editor who would later lead the investigative team that would expose the scandal had buried the story inside the Metro section.

To its credit, “Spotlight” doesn’t avoid these failings. They form part of the film’s plot to varying degrees. And the important thing is, once the investigative team committed to the story, The Globe corrected its shortcomings and redeemed itself. Better to have done the work late, than never to have done it at all.

As I mentioned above, I like “The Big Short” as a film more than “Spotlight.” There’s a lot to be said for the straightforward way “Spotlight” tells its story, and it takes a special talent to turn a story of journalists thumbing through church directories and making phone calls into a watchable movie. But “The Big Short” tells its story — inspired by true events about the 2007-08 financial crisis, and also featuring people walking around talking on phones — in a creative, darkly humorous and ultimately devastatingly cynical way. Director Adam McKay and Charles Randolph deservedly won Oscars for adapting Michael Lewis’ 2010 book to film. I’ll spare you a full movie review, but “The Big Short” regularly breaks the fourth wall to tell us what’s going on, and its use of celebrities to explain mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations was funny and remarkably clarifying. Nowhere else have I seen or read such complex financial transactions so clearly explained.

Sure, “The Big Short” is about Wall Street fraud and corruption, and not about journalism. But the fraud succeeded because journalists failed to expose it. There’s a damning scene in “The Big Short” when two of the film’s characters, realizing that the collapse of the housing market that they’ve been betting against also means the collapse of the economy, take what they know to a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. The reporter passes on the story, because to pursue it means risking his relationship with his Wall Street sources. And without his sources, he not only won’t get to the heart of the housing bubble, he’ll be shut out of reporting on other stories, too. This reporter — he no longer depends on sources, but has become dependent on them and too cozy with them — ignores the fact that he has two excellent sources sitting right in front of him. But what they are pitching is outside the conventional wisdom.

Of course, the conventional wisdom turned out to be clueless. Like the false claims that were reported during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, or the false equivalence that routinely finds its way into any number of news stories, especially stories about climate change, this one scene in “The Big Short” stands as a case study in how journalism sometimes fails the public.

A quotation often attributed to Mark Twain begins “The Big Short”: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

It applies to the world of the film, but is offered as a general warning to us all and could apply to journalists in particular: Beware thinking you know something is true that isn’t true. Beware thinking something just can’t be that not only can be, but is.

No man is good three times? Tell it to the Gipper

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Franklin Roosevelt was president from 1933 to 1945. Elected four times, he is the only president to have served more than two terms.

The worst constitutional amendment this side of Prohibition is the 22nd, which limits presidents to two terms and was ratified on this date 65 years ago.

Just as British voters sent Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party packing as soon as Hitler was defeated in World War II, Americans rejected the governing party in the first postwar congressional elections in 1946, sweeping Democrats from power. When the 80th Congress began in January 1947, the new Republican majority, setting a template for conservative legislative petulance that continues to this day, immediately lashed out against Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year presidency, which had ended with FDR’s death two years earlier. In March 1947, after minimum debate, Congress sent the 22nd Amendment to the states for ratification.

Three-fourths of the states must ratify a proposed amendment before it can become part of the Constitution. On Feb. 27, 1951, Minnesota became the 36th state out of 48 — Alaska and Hawaii weren’t yet part of the union — to approve the 22nd Amendment.

Only two states — Oklahoma and Massachusetts — rejected the amendment. Good for you, Oklahoma and Massachusetts, for standing with democracy. Good for you.

The idea that presidents should limit themselves to two terms starts, as do several presidential precedents, useful and otherwise, with George Washington, and can be blamed on the man crushes the other Founders had on the nation’s first president. A third term was Washington’s for the taking in 1796, but he declined. He was feeling old and tired and he wanted to get home to Mount Vernon as quick as he could. As he wrote in his farewell address, “Every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more, that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome.”

If two terms were good enough for George Washington, then two terms were good enough for any president who followed him, the thinking went. A two-term tradition was born because of Washington’s constitution, not because it was written anywhere in the Constitution.

Washington died in December 1799, less than three years after leaving office. Had he stayed on for a third term, Washington would have achieved another presidential first — the first president to die in office. Now that would have set an interesting precedent!

Franklin Roosevelt ran for and won a third term in 1940 largely because of World War II and voters’ reluctance to change leaders at a time when Nazi Germany controlled most of Europe and Imperial Japan ruled in the Pacific. He won a fourth term in 1944 to see the war to its conclusion, but died on April 12, 1945, only 83 days into his fourth term.

Had Roosevelt not been president during an extraordinary time, would he have broken with the tradition set by Washington and sought more than two terms? Had he tried, would voters have given him a third and fourth term?

Doubtful on both counts. A few other presidents had tried for third terms previously, but failed. Ulysses Grant, president from 1869 to 1877, had sought a nonconsecutive third term in 1880 and couldn’t even win the Republican nomination. Teddy Roosevelt, in office from 1901 to 1909, ran for another term as an independent candidate in 1912*. He lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who eight years later fruitlessly maneuvered to tie up the Democratic convention in the hope the party would break the deadlock by nominating him for a third term.

Voters might elect someone president three times: If the 22nd Amendment didn’t exist, I’m sure Bill Clinton would have run for a third term in 2000 and I have no doubt he easily would have beaten George W. Bush. And who’s to say we wouldn’t be better off for it?

Voters might even elect someone four times in unique circumstances, as they did with FDR, but five or six times? No. Presidents, no matter how great, eventually wear out their welcome. Voters eventually desire change. And presidents age. They get tired, like Washington did. They encounter a natural term limit.

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The 22nd Amendment turns presidents’ second terms into a tedious four-year march toward forced retirement. But the main argument against the amendment is it limits our choices as voters. It’s “an infringement on the democratic rights of the people … an invasion of their democratic rights to vote for whoever they want to vote for and for however long,” Ronald Reagan told NBC’s Tom Brokaw in 1989 as his time in office neared its end. Reagan had no interest in someday running for a third term himself, he told Brokaw, but he intended to use part of his time and influence as a former president to push for the 22nd Amendment’s repeal. An Alzheimer’s diagnosis five years later ended Reagan’s intentions. Alas.

A proposal to repeal the 22nd Amendment has popped up in almost every Congress since the mid-1980s, though no such proposal is on file with the current Congress. The effort, such as it is, crosses party lines: Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 1989 and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in 1995 are among the various Democrats and Republicans who have sponsored resolutions to erase the amendment from the Constitution.

I know, I know. Given the current crop of presidential candidates before us, we might want to eliminate the office of president rather than allow someone to be elected president more than twice. But once in a rare while a president comes along whom we should keep for an extra term or two.

Supporters of the 22nd Amendment say it prevents tyranny — an argument that apparently never occurred to the Founders, since they set no term limits for the president, members of Congress or federal judges. It’s not tyranny to have additional choices. It’s democracy.

So, c’mon, people. Sixty-five years is enough time for this infringement on our rights to exist. Ronald Reagan was right. We repealed the disastrous 18th Amendment — Prohibition. Let’s do the same with the 22nd.

(This blog entry revises and expands a similar article I wrote in 2009 for an American-Statesman blog that no longer exists.)

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* Though Teddy Roosevelt was elected president only once, in 1904, the 22nd Amendment still would have applied to him had it existed. Roosevelt was William McKinley’s vice president and became president after McKinley’s assassination. McKinley was only six months into his second term when he died on Sept. 14, 1901.

Any Supreme Court nominee of Obama’s is no nominee of theirs

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Texas Sen. John Cornyn, right, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speak with reporters on Tuesday. Senate Republicans say they will not consider anyone President Barack Obama nominates to the Supreme Court. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

So now Senate Republicans are saying they won’t even meet with President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter on Tuesday to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, assuring the Kentucky senator that they would not schedule any hearings to consider any Obama nominee, no matter whom he or she might be and no matter how qualified. Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both committee members, signed the letter.

News that Scalia had died Feb. 13 in West Texas was less than 90 minutes old when McConnell vowed that Republicans would not consider an Obama nominee to the Supreme Court. Early last week, however, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, indicated he might be willing to hold a confirmation hearing for Obama’s nominee. Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican leader in the Senate after McConnell, also did not rule out scheduling a confirmation hearing.

Well, that was last week. Hints of some leeway have been replaced by a doubling down on obstruction. At a news conference Tuesday announcing their intent to ignore Obama’s nominee, several Senate Republicans said they wouldn’t even meet with whomever Obama chooses. Forget a confirmation hearing; they wouldn’t even say hello. See no nominee. Hear no nominee. Speak no nominee’s name. “I don’t see the point of going through the motions if we know what the outcome is going to be,” Cornyn said.

Courtesy has now fallen victim to Washington’s political divide.

Word floated out Wednesday that the Obama administration was vetting Brian Sandoval, Nevada’s Hispanic Republican governor and a former federal district judge, as Scalia’s possible replacement. The Republican response in the Senate? Doesn’t matter who Obama nominates; he or she will be ignored.

Senate Republicans have turned to history to try to cloak their refusal. “Not since 1932 has the Senate confirmed in a presidential election year a Supreme Court nominee to a vacancy arising in that year,” the Judiciary Committee’s Republican letter says. “And it is necessary to go even further back — to 1888 — in order to find an election year nominee who was nominated and confirmed under divided government, as we have now.”

There’s a reason this part of the committee’s letter is so intricately constructed. Because the precedent it cites, such as it is, is largely meaningless.

Supreme Court justices rarely die in office, at least not any more. Only seven of the 46 justices who have served since 1900 died in office, and only one, William Rehnquist in 2005, has died since 1954. And justices even more rarely die during an election year.

But election-year vacancies do occur. Take 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican running for re-election, picked William Brennan to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton. It seems amazing now, but only 39 days went by from Minton’s retirement announcement on Sept. 7 — two months before that year’s election on Nov. 6 — to Brennan taking his seat on the court on Oct. 16, three weeks before the election.

Oh, OK, technically Brennan was a recess appointment to the Supreme Court. Eisenhower and the Democratic-controlled Senate made Brennan’s membership on the court formal and permanent in early 1957 after Eisenhower officially began his second term. The point is, Eisenhower replaced Minton less than a month before the 1956 presidential election and no one screamed that he had no right to do so. Because he perfectly had the right to do so. He was the sitting president. But the Democrats of 1956 aren’t the Republicans of 2016, are they?

Never before have the members of an opposition party used an approaching election as a reason to turn their backs on a Supreme Court nominee, name unknown, sight unseen. And in choosing to ignore Obama’s nominee, Senate Republicans are choosing to deliberately leave the court short a member not only for the rest of this term, which can’t be helped, but effectively for the court’s next term, too.

In their letter, the members of the Judiciary Committee said their decision not to hold a confirmation hearing was “based on constitutional principle and born of a necessity to protect the will of the American people.” Baloney. Protecting the will of the American people has nothing to do with it. This obstruction is about diminishing a president they have never accepted as legitimate. It also is about protecting the Republican majority in the Senate by protecting vulnerable Republican senators running for re-election in blue states from having to cast a controversial vote on a Supreme Court nominee.

And it’s about gambling that the next president will be a Republican who not only will keep Scalia’s seat conservative, but also will swing the court further to the right should another vacancy occur before the next presidential election in 2020. The next president potentially could be picking replacements for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who turns 83 on March 15; Anthony Kennedy, who is 79; and Stephen Breyer, 77. Scalia was 79 when he died.

The American people expressed their will when they re-elected Obama in 2012 and they did it again two years later when they elected a Republican majority in the Senate. Our government is designed to function based on what voters have done, not on what they might do. That’s why it is Obama’s constitutional duty to nominate Scalia’s replacement, and that is why Senate Republicans have the Constitution on their side if they want to reject Obama’s nominee.

But first they should play their part seriously and sincerely. There’s nothing constitutionally principled about a predetermined outcome.

 

A biblical alternative to ‘religious objection’ laws: submission

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The Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs held a hearing Feb. 17 in the Senate Chambers at the Capitol to examine measures to protect religious beliefs. (Ralph Barrera / American-Statesman)

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other leaders of the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature want to protect the religious liberties of Texans who oppose same-sex marriage. To that end, Patrick has charged the Texas Senate’s State Affairs Committee to study and recommend so-called religious objection measures for lawmakers to consider during next year’s legislative session. In essence, Patrick wants the Legislature to let those who feel their “sincerely held religious beliefs” are under assault to decide for themselves which laws and Supreme Court rulings to follow.

The State Affairs Committee met Wednesday, and it quickly became apparent, as the American-Statesman’s Chuck Lindell reported, that protecting one person’s religious beliefs risks opening discrimination’s door. (When is a religious belief “sincerely held” and when is it not, and how can you tell the difference, is anyone’s guess.) The American-Statesman’s editorial board urged caution in an editorial published Sunday. It will not be easy keeping religious freedom and faith-based discrimination separate.

I can’t speak for other religions, but allow me to indulge here in the common practice of cherry picking biblical verses to point out that the Bible offers a remedy for conservative Christians who feel the federal courts and other government entities have infringed on their religious liberties by upholding gay rights and passing various nondiscrimination laws. Submission.

Take the opening verses of Romans 13, for example:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

This call to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,” as it is written in 1 Peter, Chapter 2, is repeated elsewhere in the Bible, most famously when Jesus says in Matthew 22:20-21 to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Let’s ignore for the sake of this blog entry how the powerful throughout history have used these passages to justify the divine right of kings, slavery or genocide to say that if it’s true that “there is no authority except from God,” then submission to the authorities is submission to God. If you read the Bible literally, then who’s to say the Supreme Court isn’t “instituted by God” and it’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage wasn’t granted through God?

Perhaps conservative Christians should be content rather than press lawmakers to carve out exceptions for them. Perhaps they should, as Paul instructs in 2 Corinthians 12:10, delight in being insulted and persecuted. God gives strength in weakness.

Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times last week in which he observed how since the beginnings of the republic conservatives typically start cultural battles, but liberals almost always win them. Any religious objection law that the Texas Legislature might pass next year will be a rearguard action fought for a lost cause. But losing, not winning, makes a culture warrior righteous, Prothero wrote. “Each defeat proves that America is in fact going to hell and is desperately in need of a defender,” he continued.

The thing is, those who hold themselves up as defenders of lost causes often win elections. And electoral wins are the wins that matter. Those are the causes the defenders of lost causes verily serve.

Speaking of the Constitution’s original intent …

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The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

The first alert from The Associated Press confirming that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died while in West Texas to hunt quail moved on the news wires Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Less than 90 minutes later, at 5:54 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reaction to Scalia’s death also moved on the wires.

“Today our country lost an unwavering champion of a timeless document that unites each of us as Americans,” McConnell’s statement read. Additional praise for Scalia’s “fidelity to the Constitution” followed as did McConnell’s condolences to Scalia’s family.

Then this obstructionist conclusion: “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”

Senate Republicans quickly echoed McConnell, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz saying he would filibuster any Supreme Court nominee made by President Barack Obama, sight unseen, qualifications ignored. But on Tuesday, some “modest backtracking,” as The New York Times described it. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, indicated he would be willing to hold a confirmation hearing for whomever Obama nominates to replace Scalia. On Wednesday, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a member of the Judiciary Committee, also did not rule out holding a hearing for Obama’s nominee, though he said he agrees with McConnell that the next president should pick Scalia’s replacement and doesn’t think the Senate should confirm anyone Obama nominates.

Obama is president for another 338 days. He has, as he repeated during a news conference Tuesday, a constitutional obligation to nominate someone to take Scalia’s place. The Senate, likewise, has its own constitutional duty to consider Obama’s nominee and either accept or reject the president’s choice. With Republicans holding an 11-9 majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee — Cruz also sits on the committee, along with Cornyn — and with Republicans outnumbering Democrats in the Senate 54-46, the odds would appear to favor rejection.

The Supreme Court is about halfway through its current term, which ends in June. Four major cases out of Texas — on abortion, voting rights, affirmative action and presidential power — are currently before the court, their outcomes now potentially altered by Scalia’s death.

The court begins its 2016-17 term in October. The earliest the next president could nominate Scalia’s replacement is Jan. 20, 2017, when he or she assumes office. The Senate has never taken more than 125 days to vote on a Supreme Court nominee; on average, the Senate confirmed the last four justices to be appointed to the court — John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — 64 days after they were nominated.

Leaving Scalia’s vacancy to the next president to fill means leaving the court one member short for an unprecedented length of time. But who cares for precedent? Or that which was once considered routine? Since they retook control of the Senate in January 2015, Republicans have been negligently and unprecedentedly blocking Obama’s nominees to the federal courts of appeal. So threatening to block Obama on naming Scalia’s replacement continues an action already being done at a lower court level.

McConnell’s statement forms a bookend to the agreement reached by several Republican congressional leaders on the night of Obama’s inauguration to oppose the new president on everything he proposed, no matter what. That determination was reinforced by McConnell in October 2010 when he told the National Journal that Republicans were motivated to make Obama a one-term president.

Their failure to defeat Obama four years ago is why Scalia’s replacement is Obama’s to nominate. And Republicans’ success in the midterm elections two years ago is why Obama’s nomination is theirs to consider. That’s how it’s meant to work, election year or no. The Constitution — that “timeless document that unites each of us as Americans,” to quote one Mitch McConnell — says so.