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April 13, 2012

A Beastly articulation of my (foolish?) hope candidate Romney might embrace the Right on Crime movement

I had the great fortune and honor to be asked by folks at The Daily Beast to expound a bit on themes in this post from earlier this week titled "Could Romney appeal to independents and minorities with bold crime and punishment vision?."  The last few paragraphs of this now-published Daily Beast piece of mine adds these ideas to my prior thoughts:

A conservative politician with true conviction on [liberty and limited government] issues could further argue that federal and state governments ought to rely far less on incarceration as a response to less serious crimes, or that the long-running “war or drugs” (which surely restricts individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise as much as alcohol prohibition did a century ago) suffers from many of the same big-government flaws as other top-down efforts to improve society.

Of course, it may be not only naive but even foolish to expect Romney to pioneer change in this arena.  After all, he has not yet shown much boldness in his campaign strategies so far, and I wonder if he has either the political courage or the personal convictions needed to reshape the GOP message on crime and punishment for the better.  Indeed, when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he took heat from both the left and the right when he tried to develop a “foolproof” death-penalty system for the state.  That experience, together with the knee-jerk tough-on-crime stance most politicians still readily embrace, may ensure that Romney will see more political risks than rewards on this path.

But there’s a “toe in the water” opportunity here, provided last summer by none other than Ron Paul. Together with outgoing Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, Paul introduced a bill that, while allowing the federal government to continue enforcing interstate marijuana smuggling, would let states develop and apply their own distinct laws on marijuana production and use so that individuals could grow and sell it in places that choose to make it legal.

If Romney were to express his support for this bill, he might not only pull in libertarian-leaning independents who have helped fuel the Paul campaign, but he would signal to minority groups — who rightly lament the disparate impact of the drug war on people of color — that he understands and respects their concerns.  Further, if Romney adopted this sort of “states’ rights” approach to marijuana laws and regulations, he could reinforce and reiterate the nuanced principles behind his claims in the health-care-reform debate that there are some areas where the federal government ought to butt out.

But Romney’s apparent lack of conviction isn’t his only obstacle.  In the last few election cycles, traditional criminal-justice issues have not been a topic of much discussion, perhaps because of recent declines in the crime rate and because, post-September 11, voters seem to care more about how candidates view the war on terror than how they view the war on drugs.  Tellingly, Romney’s official campaign website has an Issues page with detailed positions on two dozen topics, none of which address traditional crime and punishment concerns.  Yet that same page asserts that the “foundations of our nation’s strength are a love of liberty and a pioneering spirit of innovation and creativity,” and another page champions a “simpler, smaller, smarter government” and asserts that “as president, Mitt Romney will ask a simple question about every federal program: is it so important, so critical, that it is worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?”

The important recent work of many Republican governors on sentencing reform, as well as the existence of prominent conservatives supporting the Right On Crime movement, indicate that many on the right would support and even help champion a commitment to reconsider the efficacy of drug war and to question which parts of the massive federal criminal-justice system are not worth the cost.  Perhaps with prodding from those on both sides of the aisle, this election could bring us more real talk about criminal-justice reform from candidate Romney than from President Obama.

April 13, 2012 at 05:32 PM | Permalink

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Comments

If he truly cared enough to risk controversy for "libertarian-leaning independents," his positions on social issues wouldn't be so Rick Santorum friendly. Ron Paul might support something like this -- he did get around eventually to be against the death penalty -- but he gets single digits in actual elections these days.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 13, 2012 6:52:42 PM

Spot on and well written.

If Gary Johnson -- the former governor of New Mexico and the Libertarian candidate for President -- were included in the general election debates, this issue would be addressed. Unfortunately, the debates will be limited to two unprincipled, empty suits.

Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | Apr 13, 2012 8:50:29 PM

Romney is going to have trouble enough winning this election, although he might pull it off. The guaranteed way to lose, however, is to campaign for the legalization of drugs (more euphemistically termed "ending the war on drugs"). Not only would it further expose him as a flip-flopper (has he ever taken such a position before?), but it is vastly unpopular. Most polls show a majority still opposed to legalization of marijuana (CBS, CNN, Pew, Newsweek; contra, Gallup (50%)), and the legalization of any other drug whatever is so unpopular it isn't even polled.

It's no coincidence that those pushing for Romney to do this are not friends of the Republican Party. To be successful politically, it really helps understand what a majority of the electorate wants. The idea that anything close to a majority wants drug legalization is not merely wrong but crazy. Where's even a shred of neutral evidence for that view? It's simply a druggie fantasy, occasionally dressed up as libertarianism.

If one cares to look beyond defense-oriented legal blogs, what libertarians actually care about is getting rid of the Obamacare monstrosity, avoiding the yoke of national bankruptcy, and turning away from the government wet blanket over the lives of LAW-ABIDING people.

Romney in particular is the last candidate who show snuggle up to drugs as an issue. The big knock on him is that he doesn't care about what ordinary people think about -- jobs, the "recovery" from the recession, and out-of-control debt and taxes. If Romney starts going off on, of all things, drugs, it will further reinforce the view that he hasn't a clue about what middle class voters actually want.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 13, 2012 11:20:15 PM

The Republican party is interested in votes. Accordingly, the party's appeal is to the lowest common denominator. Based on my observations from the South Carolina Republican primary, that is low indeed and the lowest common denominator would never stand for consideration of these issues on the merits.

The chances of Romney addressing the above issues is the same as the Cubs winning the World Series, ZERO!

Posted by: Stanley Feldman | Apr 13, 2012 11:27:21 PM

Right on Crime is on the right track. Out here in fly over country there are many fically conservative voters who also value liberty. Romney also needs the many independents who would welcome a republican party that actually acted on their spoken support of a smaller less intrusive government.

Posted by: beth | Apr 14, 2012 12:20:44 AM

beth --

"Romney also needs the many independents who would welcome a republican party that actually acted on their spoken support of a smaller less intrusive government."

That's exactly the reason the Republicans should talk about getting rid of Obamacare and leave drugs by the wayside. The vast swath of middle class voters who will decide this election are, according to every measure of public sentiment, very concerned about the former and unconcerned about the latter.

The legalization lobby is just out of touch with reality. The huge majority of adults don't do pot or any other illegal drug and basically spend zero percent of their day thinking about it. They do, however, think about who's going to control their access to medical care, who's going to pay the bill, and why we still have over 8% unemployment years after the recession.

Obama's people would be overjoyed to see Romney get sidetracked on an issue that will prove, as few others could, how out of touch he is, and simultaneously dilute and help drown out his discussion of the issues that could actually win him the election.

Finally, it's not just that drug legalization is not what people are thinking about. On those rare occasions when they do think about it, they oppose it, as the polls I noted show. It's news to me that a winning strategy for a politician is to highlight issues people don't care about -- at the expense of ones they do -- and then, to top it off, take the side most of them oppose.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 14, 2012 9:23:29 AM

Bill, the latest Gallup poll from Oct 2011 reports that a majority of all voter now support marijuana legalization: http://www.gallup.com/poll/150149/record-high-americans-favor-legalizing-marijuana.aspx. I bet in some interesting swing states -- e.g., Colorado, Michigan -- the numbers would be even stronger

More important for the point of this piece, this Gallup poll shows support is at 62% for voters 18 to 29, at 57% for moderates and independents, and at 55% for those in the west and 54% for those in the midwest. Romney needs to get significant support from all of these groups to have a shot in the general election.

Further still, the key themes here for Romney would be states' rights and individual liberty concerning another heath care/personal choice: using/buying local marijuana for medical/personal reasons. Of course, if you ultimately believe most voters really do not care about these broader values, but only talk about when a convenient way to attack Obama, then your perspective is spot-on.

I harp on this issue because I think it helps reveal whether folks on the right really care about conservative principles or just conservative power. If it is really all about power, your take on this matter is forceful. If it is really about principles, than I think I have a useful point here.

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 14, 2012 12:51:46 PM

Corporations would have to approve first and that is not likely since the private prison industry has an interest. See The Atlantic.

Exposing ALEC: How Conservative-Backed State Laws Are All Connected

Apr 14 2012, 8:00 AM ET 18

A shadowy organization uses corporate contributions to sell prepackaged conservative bills -- such as Florida's Stand Your Ground statute -- to legislatures across the country.

Lisa Graves is executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, the group that built ALEC Exposed. She's also a former Justice Department official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Says Graves on a call this week, "We built out the material using Google, the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine, primary records that were previously on ALEC's website, old old Lexis news clips, and the tobacco library," as in the digital archive run by the University of California of San Francisco as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of the late '90s. "There was a lot of material out there that was just not widely known."">ALEC Exposed. She's also a former Justice Department official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Says Graves on a call this week, "We built out the material using Google, the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine, primary records that were previously on ALEC's website, old old Lexis news clips, and the tobacco library," as in the digital archive run by the University of California of San Francisco as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of the late '90s. "There was a lot of material out there that was just not widely known."

Posted by: George | Apr 14, 2012 3:05:31 PM

Doug --

1. "[T]he latest Gallup poll from Oct 2011 reports that a majority of all voter now support marijuana legalization...I bet in some interesting swing states -- e.g., Colorado, Michigan -- the numbers would be even stronger."

You ignore the four other polls I cite. The CBS poll, which is slightly more recent than Gallup's, shows 51% against legalization and 40% in favor. That is outside the margin of error. The Gallup poll, by contrast, found 50% in favor of legalization and 46% opposed, which IS within the poll's margin of error.

If Michigan is a swing state, it's news to me. It hasn't voted for the Republican candidate in almost 25 years. And what do you think the voter sentiment is about pot in a genuine swing state like North Carolina?

2. "More important for the point of this piece, this Gallup poll shows support is at 62% for voters 18 to 29..."

...who are the least likely to vote. What you omit to mention is that the more likely to vote you are, the more likely you are to oppose legalization.

"...at 57% for moderates and independents, and at 55% for those in the west and 54% for those in the midwest."

The Republicans are going to win the bulk of the Midwest, and the Democrats are going to win the West Coast no matter what Romney says or fails to say about pot.

"Romney needs to get significant support from all of these groups to have a shot in the general election."

The first thing he (or any candidate) needs is to secure his base. (This is what Obama is doing with this ridiculous "Buffet rule" and his surrogate's attack on Romney's wife). As you implicitly and correctly admit, the Republican base is overwhelming against legalization. That base already distrusts Romney, and if he goes pot legalization on them, he can kiss this election goodbye. You win with your base, not the other guy's.

3. "Further still, the key themes here for Romney would be states' rights and individual liberty concerning another heath care/personal choice: using/buying local marijuana for medical/personal reasons."

What the "health care/personal choice" people are actually interested in has zilch to do with pot and everything to do with the government takeover of the distribution of medical care. The Republicans enjoy a big advantage there, and would be foolhardy to squander it by talking about the wonderfulness of dope. Every successful campaign knows to stay on message.

I also have to smile at how you lump together "medical/personal reasons." "Medical" marijuana is almost (not entirely) a fraud, as even most pot enthusiasts now admit. The "dispensaries" are nothing but drug dealers in storefronts. The real reason people want pot legalized is that they want to have an easier road to getting blasted. It's no great moral crusade, and its invocation of "states rights" is a facade. Very, very few of them give a hoot about states rights, as is shown by the fact that they have had little or no interest in them at any other time or in any other context.

"Of course, if you ultimately believe most voters really do not care about these broader values, but only talk about when a convenient way to attack Obama, then your perspective is spot-on."

The "convenient way to attack Obama" is to talk about what shape the country is in. Record high sustained unemployment. Slowest and weakest recovery from a recession since the Great Depression. Quasi-socialized medicine. Debt out of control. Bowles-Simpson Commission recommendations ignored. Iran building the Big One while we try the 89th round of feckless "sanctions." Apologizing around the world for the United States. The "re-set" with Russia a joke. Divisive and unworthy hate-mongering against "the rich" while ignoring the central problem of entitlement reform, then demagoguing it against Paul Ryan when Ryan at least takes a serious stab at it. Dishing out taxpayer money to his bundler buddies running Solyndra, knowing full well it was headed for bankruptcy. And of late, telling us that judicial review is "unprecedented."

No, Romney doesn't need a "pot is wonderful" plank in the platform.

4. "I harp on this issue because I think it helps reveal whether folks on the right really care about conservative principles or just conservative power. If it is really all about power, your take on this matter is forceful. If it is really about principles, than I think I have a useful point here."

Your mistake is in believing that being pro-legalization is a "conservative principle." It isn't. It's a libertarian principle, but libertarians are a very small segment of the conservative contingent in this country. Were it otherwise, Ron Paul would be where Romney is now.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 14, 2012 11:41:57 PM

For what it's worth, I see the pro legalization movement as very diverse. You will find people of all political persuasions there including a few tea party members. It is internet savy, growing and networking globally. You don't hear them talk about political parties, but about political action.

You will find democrats and republicans there - probably more democrats, but most especially independents. Additionally they are not all young. Obama may have received their vote, but he is by no means revered or admired. They are republicans and democrats who beieve in smaller less intrusive government, fiscal responsibility civil liberties and freedom. There are no talking points from either party, but the occasional sentiment that they are one issue voters now.

I don't know about the swinging changes of opinion polls, but I do know many conservatives who would not tell a pollster that they favor legalization, when in fact they do. Democrats and Independents are a bit more likely to speak up.

As for the question about how supporting legalization would help or harm Romney or Obama, I think it's a moving target. Right now neither of them support it. They will not win a general election by playing to their base. They need a % of the growing independents.

If neither Obama or Romney support ending the war on drugs, but a third party candidate does, that candidate could receive 5, 10, or 15% of votes. Which party do you think they will come from?

Posted by: beth | Apr 15, 2012 4:23:14 PM

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