It's no secret that outgoing Virginia Governor Mark Warner will be a contender for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination. He leaves the governor's mansion this weekend with stratospheric approval ratings (around 70%), a healthy budget surplus, and assured continuation of his policies in the administration of governor-elect Tim Kaine.
As a centrist (or what passes for a centrist in today's Democratic Party) Governor Warner poses a direct threat to other Democrats who plan on running from the middle, notably New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Much of Mrs. Clinton's first term has been devoted to moving her toward the political middle, as evidenced by her work on the Senate Armed Services Committee and her support for the War in Iraq.
That why today's editorial in The New York Times is such an interesting read. With Warner now in his final days in office, the Times editorial board is calling on the governor to restore the voting rights of some 240,000 former felons in Virginia. "It is mainfestly the right thing to do," proclaims the paper, with its usual smugness. Afterall, the NYT really does know what's best for Virginia (and America).
The Times is correct in noting that Viriginia's laws for restoring the vote to convicted felons are cumbersome. And yes, other states have adopted a more streamlined approach, or even offer blanket restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed their jail sentences and parole. But the Times--predictably--ignores the larger question: having committed serious crimes, should a felon automatically regain their right to vote? Supporters argue that the ex-criminals have "paid" their debt to society, but victims rights advocates observe that many violent felons serve only a fraction of their sentence, and never provide any restitution to those who are victimized.
Think about it. Should the democratic franchise be restored to all convicted felons, even those who have committed the most heinous crimes, such as murder or child rape? At one time, it was argued that such crimes should carry a lasting stigma, even after the criminal is released from jail. Denying the former felons the right to vote was a part of that stigma, a permanent reminder that serious crimes should have life-long consequences. It was an important issue for the fouding fathers; the 14th Ammendment specifically permits the states to disenfranchise citizens convicted of participation in rebellion, or other crimes."
But if you'll read carefully, you'll discover that the Times editorial isn't really about the voting issue. It's an effort to "separate" Governor Warner from Senator Clinton, his likely, centrist rival in 2008. The paper notes that African-Americans represent a majority of those disenfranchised by current Virginia laws, a nice little nugget the Clinton campaign can use to target African-American primary voters in 2008.
For the record, Senator Clinton favors blanket amnesty for felons; along with John Kerry, she supported a "Count Every Vote Act" that would have forced states to restore voting rights to felons. As the WSJ noted last year, the felony voter provision was actually a thinly-veiled effort to restore a Democratic majority in the Senate. A study by sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza found that projected felon voting would have been sufficient to keep the Democratis in charge of the Senate from 1986 until 2004, a powerful incentive to restore voting rights to jailbirds and ex-cons.
Today's editorial represents the Times' first "preemptive strike" on the fledgling Warner campaign. The paper clearly has its favorite in '08, and they will use their powers to carefully differentiate between Senator Clinton and her likely rivals. By cherry-picking an issue that has little resonance outside a prison cellblock (or the halls of the DNC), the Times is forcing Governor Warner into a difficult position. If he caves on the voting issue, the paper will claim that he was late to the game; if he fails to act, he may be branded a racist. In either case, the Senator Clinton's cause will be served, thanks to her friends at the NYT.