Friday, March 14, 2008

Civil Liberties and Lawyers for Obama

There's a blog for a website called "Lawyers for Obama" but there isn't any content up there yet so let me pinch hit as an economist for Obama.

A highly overlooked issue in this campaign is civil liberties. The perpetual war state developed by Bush and Rove has already eroded civil liberties and its restoration should be a major priority. One hopeful sign is the recent discovery of backbone by the House, Bush might actually have a fight on his hands over civil liberties with the FISA bill.

Obama is not a newcomer to thinking about civil liberties as you might imagine as a former law professor himself. Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago wrote a great piece today where he described his discussions with Obama about FISA.

In the space of about 20 minutes, he and I investigated the legal details. He asked me to explore all sorts of issues: the President's power as commander-in-chief, the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force and more.

Obama wanted to consider the best possible defence of what Bush had done. To every argument I made, he listened and offered a counter-argument. After the issue had been exhausted, Obama said that he thought the programme was illegal, but now had a better understanding of both sides. He thanked me for my time.

This was a pretty amazing conversation, not only because of Obama's mastery of the legal details, but also because many prominent Democratic leaders had already blasted the Bush initiative as blatantly illegal. He did not want to take a public position until he had listened to, and explored, what might be said on the other side.

In this little referenced op ed in the New York Times earlier this month, George Washington University Law Professor Jeffrey Rosen makes the case for why Obama's the candidate of choice:

Throughout his career, Mr. Obama has been more consistent than Hillary Clinton on issues from the Patriot Act to bans on flag burning. At the same time, he has reached out to Republicans and independents to build support for his views. Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, has embraced some of the instrumental tacking of Bill Clinton, whose presidency disappointed liberal and conservative civil libertarians on issue after issue.

Mr. Obama made his name in the Illinois Legislature by championing historic civil liberties reforms, like the mandatory recording of all interrogations and confessions in capital cases. Although prosecutors, the police, the Democratic governor and even some death penalty advocates were initially opposed to the bill, Mr. Obama won them over. The reform passed unanimously, and it has been adopted by four other states and the District of Columbia.

This passage I think is quite important:

The real concern about Hillary Clinton’s record on civil liberties is that her administration would look like that of her husband. Bill Clinton’s presidency had many virtues, but a devotion to civil liberties was not one of them.

Given the well chronicled purging of the civil rights division at the Justice Dept, this is no ordinary time...and in order to inspire the best and brightest to join the DOJ, Obama might make a real difference.

There is an analogous case with respect to economists. My sense is that among center-left economists that it will be tough going trying to get a job on the Obama Council of Economic Advisors as there is a lot of excitement about signing on with a fresh new administration where new ideas might be valued. Although I'm sure there would also be some enthusiasm with Clinton as well (after 8 years of Bush) there's definitely a feeling that she already has her connections to the folks from Bill's administration (e.g. Gene Sperling) and her team will much more likely be a retread of the 90s that already thinks it knows how to run things in Washington.

Thats one downside to the idea that she is "ready on day one"...maybe we need some fresh blood that is, yes, inspired.

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