Wednesday, July 12, 2006

COLUMN -- Trading principle for popularity

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:55 AM |  

Thursday, July 12, 2006

Correction: I screwed up. Plain and simple. No excuses. I messed up. Looking for the 2004 smoking ban language in the 2006 Republican Platform, I didn’t find it. Searching the document electronically to double check, “smoking” and “ban” didn’t turn up. I just plain missed that the language had changed. Opposition to smoking bans in bars and restaurants is still there. From the 2006 Republican Platform, Section 7 – "Enjoying and Protecting Our Natural Resources" item N. --

Support for the right of all commercial property owners to govern the
legal consumption of tobacco within their properties.
I’m glad it’s still there and that the Republican platform is holding to its principles. My characterization of the Republican Party on smoking bans is wrong in the following column, but the argument vis a vis the characterization of Reps Meslow and Severson still holds. Should a statewide ban surface at the legislature this year, it will be interesting to see how the GOP vote breaks.

Again, the Republican Party continues to support the right of property owners to govern how tobacco is consumed on their private prperty. Without any sarcasm and egg on my face, I was wrong.


In Sunday's Pioneer Press, Republican Reps. Doug Meslow and Dan Severson criticized my characterization of opposition to smoking bans as a "traditional Republican position." I was going to respond by quoting the Republican Party platform: Republicans stand for "Opposing any state or local adoption of a smoking ban on privately owned restaurants and bars."

That phrase is found in the 2004 party platform. The "tradition" of opposing smoking bans conveniently disappeared from the 2006 Republican Party platform. So I stand corrected — principled opposition to smoking bans in privately owned restaurants and bars was never a Republican position.

Yes, that was sarcasm.

Let's be intellectually honest — just as they took the safe track on public financing for the Twins stadium, the GOP is backing off a traditional principled position because smoking bans are politically popular.

Correction: The Republican Party has not backed-off the issue as noted above, but Representatives Meslow and Severson are bucking the party position, which is what I hoped to say in the first place. Nonetheless, I was wrong about the GOP. The Republican Party still maintains support for property owners to control legal tobacco use on their properties.

Analysis versus whim. "Republicans don't blindly endorse every regulation that is proposed," write the representatives. Nor, they say, do they automatically oppose them. They consider regulations on a case-by-case basis. A large majority of Republicans, they point out, have concluded that "removing dangerous airborne toxins from public gathering spots is the right thing to do."

Great. Nothing wrong and a lot right with changing one's position — for good reasons. However, a case-by-case approach to regulation requires issue-independent criteria by which such judgments are made. Otherwise, "case-by-case" judgments are simply autocratic whims. Consider Meslow and Severson's case-by-case analysis supporting a smoking ban.

As "conservatives," they believe smokers "have every right" to inhale tobacco smoke into their own lungs, but they won't fight for smokers' right to blow the "poisons in tobacco smoke into the lungs of innocent bystanders in indoor workplaces and public gathering spots."

Small nit — the surgeon general has stated there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Nada. Zero. Zilch. If one really believes the surgeon general's analysis, smoking anywhere is a health threat to innocent bystanders. Inside bars or outside on patios. In public buildings, on private property where the public gathers and in private homes.

Where, I would ask the representatives, does that analysis lead?

Politically popular vs. the right thing to do. Meslow and Severson contend that banning smoking in privately owned public gathering spots frequented by and employing consenting adults is the "right thing to do." Yet, they ignore much stronger scientific evidence that secondhand smoke negatively affects the health of children.

If "doing the right thing" is what Meslow and Severson are all about, then why, to protect children, are they NOT clamoring for much broader regulation of smoking or even a complete ban?

Why? Because their support for smoking bans is less about public health, less about doing the right thing, less about protecting children, than it is about getting on the politically correct side of the issue. I find that position disingenuous.

First, Republicans desert conservative principles — abandon defense of private property rights and individual choice ostensibly to protect public health. Then they ignore the arguably more significant public health threat to innocent children while soliciting kudos for imposing restrictions on consenting adults. That may be popular, but it's not "doing the right thing."

Correction: That the Republican platform still maintains support for property owners right to govern tobacco use, this paragaph should not have been generalized to "Republicans" but should have been confined to Reps. Meslow and Severson, who claimed to speak for many Republicans.

Politically risky versus politically popular. If one really believes the surgeon general's claim that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, and one believes government should do something about it, anything less than a total ban on smoking anywhere is irresponsible policy.

I don't agree with the total ban position (science doesn't support it), but at least it is intellectually honest.

Meslow and Severson, on the other hand, believe smokers blow poison into the lungs of "innocent bystanders." That premise — that smokers are literally poisoning those around them — does not support an incremental, public-places-only smoking ban approach. It does not justify preventing an adult from smoking in a bar that people freely choose to enter but then putting no restrictions on that adult smoking at home with children present. Poison is poison.

I am not naive. I can kick and scream all I want in principled opposition to smoking bans, but popular sentiment makes supporting bans a risk-free no-brainer for opportunistic politicians. Smoking bans are as inevitable as death, taxes and light rail. There is no consolation but much amusement, however, in how quickly Meslow and Severson deny their political heritage, adopt the inevitable and try to make it look like a plan.

A running joke during the Cold War was that the statues of Russian leaders in Kremlin were on wheels, making it easier to roll them out of public view when a history rewrite was necessary. Reps. Meslow and Severson are doing a little of that wheeling and dealing on traditional Republican opposition to smoking bans in privately owned restaurants and bars.

Correction: As noted above, while this is a fair column as it pertains to the specific comments of Reps. Meslow and Severson, I was wrong to extend the characterizations to the Republican Party in general. The Republican party continues to support property owners right to govern the legal use of tobacco on their properties.