When President Obama ran for office in 2008, his Democratic platform was simple: Hope and Change.
Five years later and in the opening stretch of a second term, it’s a little ironic where some of his team’s changes are coming from.
Just a couple weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would relax enforcement of some mandatory minimum sentences (most notably in the nonviolent drug crime area). As Michael Ames of Harpers deftly points out:
…it’s the type of move that the Obama administration has promised for awhile now. But after years of inaction, where did the sudden change come from?
Twice now this year, Rand Paul has flanked the Obama Administration from the left. The first time, when Paul staged a dramatic thirteen-hour talking filibuster to protest the government’s secretive drone-assassination program, the episode could have been written off as an opportunistic stunt. But with his latest move as the tacit leader of the disorganized libertarian-populist movement, Paul staked out less impeachable ground: America’s cruel, racially biased, and generally nonsensical drug-sentencing laws.
Up to this point, the Obama administration hasn’t been completely silent on drug policy reform. As the WhiteHouse.gov website notes, they previously eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for simple crack cocaine possession; reduced the powder vs. crack cocaine sentencing disparity; established a recovery branch of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to help recovering addicts get treatment.
But do those sound like the sweeping changes that define a plan the administration touts as “A drug policy for the 21st Century”?
It took until earlier this year, when Paul kicked off a string of congressman-led drug policy change proposals for something to actually happen. As Harpers explains later in the piece:
In March, Rand Paul joined with Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to co-sponsor the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would grant judges the latitude to apply shorter sentences for some drug crimes. In an April op-ed, Paul defended the bill on financial, moral, and political grounds. He noted that the federal prison budget has doubled in ten years to more than $6 billion, with nearly half of that money spent on nonviolent drug offenders. ‘Some are simply drug addicts,’ Paul wrote, ‘who would be better served in a treatment facility.’ In July, Utah Republican Mike Lee and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin followed Paul and Leahy’s initiative with their Smarter Sentencing Act, which would also give judges more discretion over sentencing, and would retroactively reduce jail time for some inmates currently serving mandatory minimums.
So where does this all end up going? And is change from an administration that promised lots of it as impressive when someone like Paul essentially forces their hand? The Harpers piece ends with a bit of a prediction.
As the policies of libertarian populism come into focus, Rand Paul’s threat to the establishments of both parties will likely increase…But Paul is nimbly pushing his own agenda to the fore. And with popular opinion about America’s drug laws squarely on his side, the rest of Washington will have little choice but to keep up.
Maybe Paul would use a new slogan. How about something like, ‘Hope and Change, For Real!’
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