Friday, September 28, 2007

Bias crimes: The moment of truth

-- by Dave

Something momentous happened yesterday, but you'd never know it from reading the mainstream press or watching the cable news networks.

The U.S. Senate passed a federal hate-crimes bill, making it the first time in history that legislation placing bias crimes -- including lynching -- under federal purview has ever passed both houses of Congress.

Federal anti-lynching statutes, you may recall, never made it out of the U.S. Senate because of filibustering Southern Democrats and weak support from the White House. And while more recent Congresses have passed various hate-crime related legislation (specifically, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, which ordered the FBI to begin collecting bias-crime data, and the 1994 Hate Crimes Sentence Enhancement Act, which applied only to a narrow spectrum of federal crimes), Congress never has enacted a true federal hate-crimes bill.

So Thursday's news should have elicited some significant coverage, shouldn't it?

Well, you could only find the Washington Post's coverage on A4 of the print edition, and you had to comb through to the bottom of its political section Thursday to find the story. Likewise, MSNBC ran an AP dispatch, but it was likewise buried by midday and no longer even findable in its Politics or Race and Ethnicity sections. Likewise at Fox News. On CNN? Not a thing -- though the only peep seemingly to be found on the cable shows was a brief mention on CNN's American Morning broadcast.

At the same time, has anyone noticed how quiet and muted Democrats are about this achievement? What gives?

George W. Bush is what gives. As in, he gives veto.

We've known ever since the House passed this bill that Bush's veto was all but certain. And right now -- with only 60 votes for the bill in the Senate (as Craig Crain notes, it in fact barely made it past the Senate), and only 237 in the House -- Democrats are well short of the two-thirds they'll need to override the veto.

There's been a lot of good talk about the bill. Harry Reid's office issued a thorough and thoughtful statement about the reasons for Democratic support. Ted Kennedy made an especially telling point, based on the fact that Democrats attached the bill to anti-terrorism legislation:
"The defense authorization is about dealing with the challenges of terrorism overseas," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "This is about terrorism in our neighborhood."

However, the AP report also gives us the press's obvious attitude about the bill:
But given Bush’s veto threat against the provision, it seemed headed for a familiar fate. The Senate in 2004 attached similar legislation to the same authorization bill, but it was stripped out in negotiations with the House.

This may explain why the debate has been so subdued. Indeed, Republicans haven't even bothered to trot out their standard "this law will impinge on free speech rights" or "all crimes are hate crimes" schticks. They know they don't need to:
Republicans were careful not to attack the intent of the legislation, focusing instead on what they said was the “non-germane” nature of the amendment to the overall spending bill.

“There may be a time and place for a hate crimes discussion, but it is certainly not now when national security legislation is being held up,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona. “Forcing a vote on the so-called hate crimes amendment shows an utter lack of seriousness about our national defense.”

Retorted Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.: “For some, it never seems to be the right time or the right place.”

No, it seems that regardless of the alignment, there will never be a right time or place to pass a federal bias-crimes law, because that's part of the kabuki game -- including for Democrats.

Frankly, they appear to be resigned to defeat. That's why there's no push to change some of those Republican votes (what about, f'r instance, those "moderate" Republicans like Chuck Hagel or Mike Crapo or Elizabeth Dole -- who all voted against it -- or John McCain, who sat out?). There's no push to make sure that politicians who vote against the bill pay for it at the polls -- even though doing so (painting the opponents as callous people who don't care about minority rights, gay bashings, and are otherwise soft on crime) is a simple no-brainer.

That's why they seem disinterested in overriding the veto, and making both it and Republicans' congressional support for it a campaign issue for the 2008 vote. But I think there are other reasons for the disinterest as well.

Too many Beltway consultant types love to depict bias-crimes laws as "special interest" and "politically correct" legislation that only serve a small band of the electorate. They play off the media stereotypes created by folks like Andrew Sullivan and try to discourage their political clients for pushing this kind of law too hard.

Of course, the reality is that bias-crime bills are designed to protect everyone. White people, Christians, males -- they're all victims of bias crimes as well, and the law is intended to step protection for them, too, by stiffening the sentences for perpetrators.

Perhaps more important, bias-crime laws (as this week's vote suggests) are a natural cause for progressives and moderates alike, because they are not only about defending minority rights, they're about defending law and order and getting tough on criminals who inflict real harm on us all -- especially on our communities in the efforts to heal the ethnic and religious divides within them.

Democrats are frequently accused, with good reason, of taking their minority votes for granted. They know that they can count on minorities to line up behind them in the election, even though when the right-wingers go to the mattresses, they can always be counted on keeping their powder dry and not firing a shot. So they can make grand but ultimately hollow gestures like this week's hate-crimes vote, but never make the real effort needed to make these bills actually succeed.

But this bill is about all of us, not just minorities. If congressional Democrats are not willing to fight for it, they can just add it to their list of mounting failures in asserting their agenda.

If they're smart, they'll take advantage of this unique political opportunity, handed to them once again by George W. Bush on a platter. Next, I want to talk about why it will be critical not to drop it.

No comments: