Arizona On My Mind… Or, Immigration, Abortion, Gun Rights, Gun Violence, Birtherism, Religious Liberty, and Labor Union Controversies Concentrated in One State

I have a course curriculum in mind called Fractures in American Politics: Arizona 2010-2011. How does Arizona telescope so many national tensions at once, and in such interesting ways? Immigration, abortion, gun rights, gun violence, Birtherism, religious liberties, labor unions, even tax policy — Governor Jan Brewer just signed a business tax hike, backed by the business community for fear of potentially stiffer tax burdens without it.

It’s too easy to dismiss Arizona’s surge of national profile controversies as the cranky legislative gush of a very conservative state. Those who take this tack betray simplistic ideological “gotcha’ politics” at its worst — as MSNBC commentator Donnie Deutsch and Al Sharpton illustrated back on Martin Luther King Day, when they accused Arizona, utterly falsely, of refusing to recognize MLK Day, and bizarrely, questioning whether Arizona should secede from the union.

That facile dismissal of Arizona, because it is a conservative state, also gave rise at the beginning of 2011 to some truly shameful behavior in the teeth of a tragedy. On Saturday, January 8th, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in Tucson, killing six, and wounding many others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Az). Tucson Sheriff Dupnik immediately blamed the toxic political environment in Arizona. Multiple Democrats denounced the fierce political atmosphere in Rep. Giffords’ district. Paul Krugman, the same day, linked the tragedy to Republicans, the Tea Party, and “scary” opposition to health care reform. The “odds are,” he wrote, “this was political,” and “violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate.” Yet he still writes for the New York Times.

Loughner, as it develops, wasn’t Republican, conservative, Tea Party, or even particularly political. We are a better nation, I believe, because we endured that toxic blame-game nonsense and learned some valuable lessons.

Something peculiarly conservative is going on in Arizona — but it’s not simple. Governor Brewer is no liberal — she signed and celebrated S.B. 1070, the controversial Arizona immigration law now winding its way toward the Supreme Court. She also signed late last month the strange but fascinating abortion law that criminalizes abortion when the decision is based upon the race or gender of the fetus or the parent.

Yet Governor Brewer has vetoed three bills recently that some might characterize as core red-meat conservative enactments:

  • Most recently, she vetoed H.B. 2177, the “Birther bill,” which would have required presidential (and other) candidates to prove their citizenship before appearing on Arizona ballots. On CNN, she ups the ante and says the Birther issue is leading America “down the path of destruction.” She also explains that vesting that much power in a potentially partisan state official “could lead to arbitrary or politically motivated decisions.”
  • The same day — though vastly overshadowed (and I shake my head in dismay) by the Birther veto — she vetoed S.B. 1467, a gun rights bill which would have permitted concealed weapons on college campuses. Her veto letter pointedly criticizes the bill for being “poorly written,” and creating potentially dangerous ambiguities (including the possibility of application to K-12 educational institutions).
  • A week earlier, she vetoed S.B. 1288, an absolute religious exemption bill, which would have affirmed the right to government appointment or government-controlled license without regard to religious belief — but would also have affirmed that a person’s exercise of religious belief cannot be unprofessional conduct and cannot be the basis of denying, suspending, or revoking a professional or occupational license. Her veto letter noted that the “bill could protect conduct that harms the public but cannot be readily addressed if a person claims that the conduct is based on religious beliefs.”

Now that is a remarkable — and admirable — veto record for a week. Arizona gives us, I believe, a most interesting glimpse into the fight for the soul of conservatism. Count me among Governor Brewer’s supporters.

The rush to convert partisan talking points into legislation — whether from the right or the left — demands a sober assessment from mature party elders, the people schooled in the mischief that happens when sound-bites are hastily written into law. Governor Brewer has proven herself one of those mature party elders.

With these three vetoes, Governor Brewer sends this critical message to conservatives: Birtherism is nonsense, get beyond it, expanding gun rights is laudable, but not with careless legislation that conservatives would come to regret, and religious liberty is a sacred American tradition, but not a juggernaut that protects any conduct in the name of religion. Conservatives need to get precisely that sober.

As Paul Krugman illustrated, liberals love the symbolic value of Arizona. The Obama administration has made a frankly shrewd sport of attacking Arizona, beginning with its decision to forego “post-racial” (whatever that might have meant in the early days of promise) immigration policy, and instead file a duplicative lawsuit against Arizona’s S.B. 1070, the immigration law that mirrored federal immigration law, and added state enforcement capabilities.

Not a syllable in S.B. 1070 enacted any provision that was inconsistent with, or not already part of, federal immigration law. Yet there were wild protests and organized boycotts of Arizona for — what? passing a state law fully consistent with federal law that essentially called the federal government to task for abject failure to enforce existing federal immigration law?

Governor Brewer rightly signed that bill, if only to highlight the federal government’s failure. A federal district court let S.B. 1070 stand, but enjoined its most controversial provisions, and the Ninth Circuit recently affirmed in a 2-1 decision (Judge Carlos Bea dissenting).

More recently, the National Labor Relations Board confirmed its intention to sue Arizona and South Dakota over constitutional amendments requiring secret ballots to establish a union. Back in January, when the NLRB first started saber-rattling about suing Arizona, South Dakota, South Carolina, and Utah over this issue, I cautioned that the NLRB position was probably technically correct.

Federal law probably does protect an employer’s theoretical — never-actually-exercised — right to recognize a union even in the absence of a secret ballot. But is this theoretical, never-actually-exercised right really worth a federal government lawsuit? And if so, why sue only Arizona and South Dakota?

The NLRB says it declines to sue South Carolina and Utah “to conserve limited federal and state agency resources and taxpayer funds.” NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland said the agency “doesn’t have enough staff to handle four lawsuits at the same time.”

Pure unadulterated nonsense. If conserving “limited” resources were truly a motivation, the federal government wouldn’t commence any lawsuits to enforce an abstract right that no one exercises. This is about handing Arizona a loss, because Arizona matters in the political calculation of 2012, and how conservatives are viewed nationwide.

That is what Arizona has bizarrely become, a microcosm of some conservative passions and a political target for some cynical liberals. Thankfully, Governor Brewer has stepped up to say, we’re not so simple.

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7 Responses to Arizona On My Mind… Or, Immigration, Abortion, Gun Rights, Gun Violence, Birtherism, Religious Liberty, and Labor Union Controversies Concentrated in One State

  1. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Though I can never ever agree that expanding gun rights to campuses is sensible, your writing on the Arizona situation and on other topics has taught me one thing: An emotional response to decisions, whether they come from a Republican, Democrat, TP member is wasted energy. Too many of us won’t or don’t take the time to look into the actions of our politicians, to investigate the meaning of what has been done. We get a blurry image of the issue but it’s more about how it makes us feel – and we stop there. You take the time to analyze the issues, Kendrick, and we all benefit from that. We may still not agree, but at least you’ve informed the argument and have kept it on the rational side without the usual glib comments and name-calling that never suffices for substance.

    • You’re most kind. Thank you. Perhaps ironically, I’m a frequently emotional person myself, at certain junctures in my life, immoderately. I try not to think of emotion and reason as opposites, or somehow locked in a zero-sum battle. Our emotional responses inform how we reason, and our reason, hopefully, checks emotional excess. But we’re constantly juggling both, and hopefully examining both for evidence of the blindness that is human — and better hidden by reason.

  2. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Another one of my absolutely favorite songs, Texas, by Chris Rea. Hope this link works.

  3. lbwoodgate says:

    Another well-written commentary Kendrick that deals calmly and rationally with sensitive issues. Overall I would go along with your position here. But I would comment on a couple of aspects regarding Paul Krugman and SB 1070.

    Krugman’s comments were based on frayed nerves about the climate of hate that had been ramping up from the likes of Beck, Limbaugh and many others that used words that could have easily incited a whack job to go after “liberals”. In the heat of the moment it was not that far fetched for even moderate conservatives to think this may be “political”. Clearly this has been proven NOT to be the case and unlike “birthers” who will take no amount of evidence to convince them that Obama was born in America, Krugman and those other who thought like this quickly backed off such a notion once that was clear to them. Yes he was wrong for this palpable view at the time but your implication that he should no longer be writing for the prestigious NY Times seems a bit excessive.

    Let’s also not forget that conservatives in general are pro-gun rights and yes, it is political when some crazy like Loughner uses extended magazines that allowed him to kill and maim more people than he otherwise would have and then still see conservatives protest any effort to outlaw such magazines.

    On SB 1070, though it was similar in almost every way there was one distressful part of that bill that did raise legitimate concerns about the serious intent of zealous enforcement of the law that is missing in the federal law. It was that part that put police and other law enforcement officials on notice that if any citizens didn’t feel they were rigorously applying the mandates of the bill that they could be sued by ordinary citizens. Now who do you think would be the type of citizens that would carry this to its extreme limits? Non-hispanic native whites maybe?

    Also, it shouldn’t be a point of contention if the NLRB goes after only two of four states they suspect are in violation of labor laws. It WOULD expend extra resources to address all four and if the result comes out to their liking with Arizona and South Dakota, one could assume that Utah and South Carolina would fall in line without pursuing any further litigation. Why does that not seem like a reasonable approach to you?

    • Thanks lbwoodgate. Well-framed response, and useful perspective. A couple of follow-up thoughts. You see that Krugman really irritates me, and you offer a partial defense and contextualization. But here’s the thing, and one of the reasons Krugman really irritates me: he didn’t apologize when his horrible finger-pointing was proven false. He didn’t even back off. He stuck to his guns. That’s coupling disgusting rhetoric with petulance — not an attractive combination for a New York Times columnist.

      Your raise an interesting point about extended magazines, and sort of confirm George Orwell’s maxim (featured in my About page) that there’s no escaping politics, because all issues are ultimately political. But that’s a very different proposition than pointing the finger at conservatives to blame them for Loughner’s murderous rampage.

      On SB 1070, I’m not sure I see the significance of the private enforcement suit provision. That’s not terribly uncommon in legislation (though I might question the wisdom). Moreover, private enforcement suits would simply commit the matter to neutral adjudication — and I’m sure courts would give Arizona authorities ample latitude as to how they chose to enforce the law. In other words, I don’t see potential enforcement suits as ramping up some kind of scary enforcement, and in any event, no enforcement lawsuit could ever result in Arizona activity inconsistent with federal law.

      And finally, on the NLRB lawsuits, my point really was to say it’s disingenuous to talk about conserving scarce agency resources by choosing to sue Arizona, and not two other threatened states, when the lawsuit itself is a waste of agency resources. But your point is a good one. Hey, conservatives lost Birtherism today. We need to cast about for some more sinister stuff! 🙂

  4. bigdtootall says:

    Thanks Kendrick for your posts and for the educated and moderated responses. Todays political waters are so easily muddied with emotional scare tactics, demonizing, and name calling that it is difficult to find a forum to explore complicated issues, hear diverse opinions, and agree to disagree without being disagreeable. This freedom is worth protecting. God help us all to do just that.

  5. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I offer up my testimonial praising Kendrick’s blog. He keeps it civil and reminds us all that we can learn when we stop shrieking and start listening.

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