Wednesday, August 23, 2006

COLUMN -- Where are the big-issue discussions in the Klobuchar-Kennedy race?

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:22 AM |  

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Not exactly the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The Minnesota Senate race between DFLer Amy Klobuchar and Republican Mark Kennedy to replace Democrat Mark Dayton has all the intellectual nuance of a campaign for a seat on a junior high student council. Wait — that's unfair to junior high student councils.

We have two candidates running for arguably the highest elective federal office south of the presidency. Klobuchar and the DFL raise the important issue of whether an inactive CPA license gives Kennedy the authority to call himself a CPA. Kennedy and the Republicans raise the crucial issue of noun versus verb — can Klobuchar call herself a prosecutor when she only manages other prosecutors and doesn't actively prosecute cases herself?

Yes, both candidates have also addressed the pressing issues of the day. Their Web sites and speeches are peppered with clichés and bullet-point plans that have little substance and less chance of passing through the legislative process. More to the point — from bullet to bullet, the plans are ideologically inconsistent. Lost in translation for the masses are fundamental principles that define just what Klobuchar and Kennedy really stand for.

Not everyone can be an Abraham Lincoln or a Stephen Douglas. However, the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates were not significant just by virtue of the personalities of the Senate candidates from Illinois. Their seven debates focused on the extension of slavery into the territories, but as contentious as that issue was, the discussion went beyond simply "for it or against it." At the heart of the debates lay the fundamental concept of popular sovereignty, the doctrine that citizens could vote whether to be admitted to the union as slave state or free.

Douglas, a Democrat and a strong proponent of popular sovereignty doctrine, crossed party lines and opposed the pro-slavery constitution drafted by the Kansas territorial legislature, arguing that it was fraudulently approved. His principled vote garnered him support among anti-slavery Republicans and forced challenger Lincoln to push the immorality of slavery over the legal question. Lincoln demanded that Douglas reconcile his support for popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision, which implied that any prohibition of slavery was unconstitutional. Douglas did so by defining the "Freeport Doctrine" — a state could popularly exclude slavery by not passing legislation necessary to enforce it.

The brief review of popular sovereignty illustrates what's lacking in the Klobuchar-Kennedy contest. The Lincoln-Douglas debates had their share of political rhetoric, but they also struggled with big ideas and fundamental questions about the direction of American government.

"I sometimes wonder if people in Washington ever passed ninth-grade civics," said the outgoing chairman of the National Governors Association, Mike Huckabee, R-Ill., at the association's summer meeting. Huckabee was referring to the attitude of the federal government "that states are mere satellites of a centralized federal authority."

Federal and state government authority is defined constitutionally. The 10th Amendment specifically states that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or the people." However, the reality of the way government works provides plenty of wiggle room for creative legislation.

Blurring the line between federal authority and state prerogative is a proliferation of federal grant programs that coerce states to adopt federal requirements to get federal funds — to impose standards "voluntarily" that could not be imposed constitutionally. Think No Child Left Behind and performance standards for K-12 public schools. Think highway funds contingent on seat-belt laws and a 0.08 legal alcohol limit. Think energy credits and subsidies to favored energy producers.

A more dramatic example of the federal government stepping on state toes is the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which would authorize the president to take control of state national guard units under vaguely described "emergency" circumstances, usurping the 230-plus-year history of governors as commanders in chief of state guard units.

Where Klobuchar and Kennedy stand on those issues is just a starting point for debate and discussion. The elephant in the room is the fundamental question of the increasing centralization of power in the federal government. How do Klobuchar and Kennedy reconcile their own proposals for federal programs with the notion of separation of federal and state powers? Or is centralization in and of itself a good thing?

Addressing that question makes for a lot more interesting and relevant debate than who's not a CPA and who's not a prosecutor.