Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 27, 2012

Health Care: The Myth of Free Choice

By David K. Shipler
If the Supreme Court overturns the health care law, the best response would be to enact a single-payer system, possibly by expanding Medicare downward by age until everyone is covered: in other words, a tax-funded service that is clearly constitutional.

Democrats in Congress toyed with the idea, but it won’t happen, of course, because Republicans who don’t know what socialism is will scream, “Socialism!” Nor are we open to learning from other industrialized countries, which have fashioned an array of methods to finance and deliver medical care to their populations. Our pride in American exceptionalism seems to make us impervious to others’ experiences.

Therefore, as seems likely after today’s skeptical questioning by conservative justices, the United States will remain buffeted by a semi-private system that creates the illusion of free choice.

March 21, 2012

The Secret Service As Thought Police

By David K. Shipler

A case of security vs. speech, before the Supreme Court for oral argument today, may set important standards for law enforcement agents who make misjudgments in the heat of the moment. As usual on matters of civil liberties, the Obama Administration is on the wrong side.

Under President Obama’s predecessor, the Secret Service was mobilized to suppress political speech. To create glowing television portrayals of President George W. Bush wherever he spoke, White House staffers screened out people wearing anti-Bush T-shirts, had the Secret Service expel them from public presidential events, and even cruised parking lots looking for hostile bumper stickers so the cars’ occupants could be turned away once they reached the door. The Secret Service, which is supposed to protect the president from physical harm, protected him from political dissent as well, by instructing local police to restrict demonstrators to distant “free speech zones,” usually out of sight of both the president and the cameras.

March 13, 2012

The Permanent Emergency

By David K. Shipler

When President George W. Bush went outside existing law to fight terrorism, his unilateral, ad hoc measures were so lacking in authority as to be vulnerable to political pushback and constitutional challenge. They had a transitory quality, cobbled together hastily to address sudden danger. When he ordered the National Security Agency to ignore the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and secretly monitor communications without warrants, when he declared prisoners enemy combatants who could be held indefinitely without lawyers or trials, and when he avoided Congress and established military tribunals on his own, he faced an uproar from both the left and the libertarian right, and the prospect of reversal in the courts.

But now, more than a decade after 9/11, most of the policies that once seemed so extraordinary have been codified in law and practice, and recently portrayed by Attorney General Eric Holder as permanent, justifiable features of the legal landscape. This sea change in the constitutional culture will be difficult to undo, and it may lead eventually to a harsh judgment by history.

March 1, 2012

Church, State, and Santorum

By David K. Shipler

Given the history of religious persecution in colonial America, not to mention elsewhere in today’s world, it’s hard to think why Rick Santorum and his acolytes would so zealously wish to undermine what President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 called the Constitution’s “wall of separation between Church & State.” Jefferson coined the famous, controversial phrase in answer to a worried letter from leaders of the Baptist minority in Connecticut, where religious freedom was not an inherent right but merely a privilege granted by the legislature—one that could be withdrawn.

It had also been Baptists, in Virginia, who had inspired the First Amendment. Baptist preachers there had been jailed at the behest of the Anglican Church, and the growing Baptist voting bloc feared oppression by the fledgling federal government. Their leaders pressed a certain congressional candidate in 1788—James Madison—to abandon his ambivalence about amending the new Constitution. Madison hadn’t seen the need for amendments spelling out specific rights, but he did see a need for votes in a tough election. We know the result: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”