I'm Dreaming of a Libertarian Obama


Jeffrey Rosen pens a short essay in The New Republic arguing that Barack Obama can be, in Rosen's words, "the first civil libertarian president."

After Obama was elected to the Illinois state Senate in 1996, he defended individual rights in a way that might have marginalized him: He joined only two other senators in voting against a bill to forbid convicts on probation from having contact with street gangs, and he voted against a bill to expand the death penalty to gang-related murders. But Obama nevertheless won the respect of police and prosecutors in Chicago by building those "alliances of consent." One of his greatest legislative triumphs was a bill to require the videotaping of all confessions and interrogations in capital cases. Initially, police, state prosecutors, and the newly elected Democratic governor were strongly opposed, some death-penalty abolitionists viewed the bill as too moderate, and legislators were afraid of being soft on crime. But Obama led daily negotiations (without reporters) during which he emphasized his opponents' common values. At the end, the bill had the support of all parties, passed unanimously, and today has been adopted as a model by four states and the District of Columbia.

There's more recent stuff and a hashing-out of how John McCain would attack Obama on this front. Rosen expects Obama to parry better than Dukakis did versus Bush; I agree, and I think the criminal issues that sunk Dukakis have less salience than the war on terror issues that inflame the gonads of the McCain Right. I heard way too many arguments that the PATRIOT Act vote would sink Russ Feingold or the wireless wiretap debate would save Denny Haster's job to take that line too seriously.

But what about those other liberties? Aswini Aburajan reports from Obama's last presser, which came after the NIU killings.

Asked to comment on Cheney's decision to add his signature to a brief supported by 55 senators and 250 congressmen to have the Supreme Court overturn a ban on handguns by the District of Columbia, Obama said he wasn't familiar with the statements made by either the Vice President or members of Congress.

However, he went on to defend the right of municipalities to establish their own handgun laws. "The city of Chicago has gun laws, so does Washington, D.C.," Obama said. "The notion that somehow local jurisdictions can't initiate gun safety laws to deal with gangbangers and random shootings on the street isn't born out by our constitution." Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty is an endorser of Obama.

Asked to elaborate on his understanding of what the second amendment actually means, Obama said that he does believe the second amendment "speaks to an individual's right." But he said that right could be "subject to common-sense regulation just like most of our rights are subject to common-sense regulation. So I think there's a lot of room before you [sic] bumping against a constitutional barrier for us to institute some of the common-sense gun laws."

So: Obama is a civil libertarian, except when he is not.