The Cliffhanger, Feb. 27

Ever since the language of the ???fiscal cliff??? was appropriated to describe the political battle over a tax increase, it???s become increasingly clear that every issue is a ???cliff??? now.  Here are today???s snapshots from the edge???

** Voting Rights Act challenge hits the Supreme Court: Arguments begin today in Shelby County v. Holder, a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a five-year emergency provision against racial discrimination at the ballot box which has now been in operation for 48 years and counting.  This is the legal sledgehammer that Attorney General Eric Holder has used to smash common-sense voter ID laws in the states covered by the Act.  Those states are presumed guilty of racial vote suppression until they prove themselves innocent, and they can’t prove themselves innocent.  It is not necessary to revisit the world of 1965-1970 to see that this law is foolish in the modern age; its serves now only as a weapon against ballot integrity, and a political instrument for Democrats to exploit.  Although it is somewhat amusing to watch “progressives” who otherwise believe in “living Constitutions” close ranks to stubbornly defend a cobwebbed legal relic from the distant past.  Whatever challenges America may yet face, we are past the one that Section 5 of the VRA was meant to address, and we do ourselves a grave disservice by pretending otherwise.

** Voter fraud never, ever happens, so ignore this story: The real problem with American ballot integrity is voter fraud, which certain people like to address by pretending it never happens.  Those people should avoid reading the Miami Herald’s story about a band of hackers submitting fraudulent requests for 2,552 absentee ballots last summer.  “It had all the appearances of a political dirty trick, a high-tech effort by an unknown hacker to sway three key Aug. 14 primary elections,” writes the Herald.  It was, at least on the surface, a bipartisan affair, targeting Democrat voters in one district and Republican voters in two others.  The security software employed by the elections department foiled the plot, but security experts consulted for the story said the plan could easily have worked – evidently this hacker was something of a slacker, and didn’t take a few elementary steps that would have bamboozled the electoral security software.  A grand jury has offered 23 recommendations for enhancing online absentee ballot security, but that’s a big waste of time, because vote fraud never, ever happens.

** Love hurts: So says the Sun-Sentinel headline to another Florida story, in which a romantic fellow by the name of Anthony Brasfield released a dozen heart-shaped balloons into the sky from the parking lot of a motel to impress his girlfriend… and was immediately busted for “environmental crimes” by an alert Florida Highway Patrol trooper, including charges of  “polluting to harm humans, animals, plants, etc.”  As anyone suffering beneath the whimsy of tyranny can testify, it’s the “etc” that always gets you in the end.  This particular et cetera could be worth up to five years in prison, for in Florida this particular eco-crime – which Mr. Brasfield, and most of his fellow citizens, probably didn’t realize is a “crime” at all – is considered a third-degree felony.  This is the same degree of felony reserved for driving with a suspended license after two prior offenses, and committing battery on a person over 65 years of age.  If Brasfield serves time, his “what are you in for?” conversations with fellow inmates should be interesting.

** Hagel confirmed as Secretary of Defense: The final vote was 58 to 41, with a somewhat surprising and confusing assist from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who voted against cloture both times it came up, but then voted to confirm Hagel.  “”I voted no because I wanted more information and I think that part of what the Senate does is try to get information about the nominees,” explained Paul.  “I’ve said all along that I give the president some prerogative in choosing his political appointees.”  What’s the point of the confirmation hearings, then?  Just to make the President squirm a bit when he selects an obviously unqualified and inept secretary like Hagel?  The amount of goodwill Paul will generate from Obama supporters for this deference to the President’s “prerogatives” would require an electron microscope to detect, but plenty of his Republican supporters are angry about it, especially since he could have registered a conscience vote of “no” without derailing the partisan express train Hagel rode into office.  If Paul thinks he’s setting an example Democrats will proudly follow the next time a Republican president – let’s say President Rand Paul – begins making appointments, he’s likely to be disappointed.  Especially if President Paul is trying to get his nominees past Crypt Keeper Harry Reid and a Democrat Senate.

On the bright side, Hagel as Secretary of Defense is perfectly positioned to use the “Incompetence Defense” favored by Obama Administration officials to ward off serious charges.  This is the novel strategy in which the official – Attorney General, Secretary of State, etc. – explains that they don’t really keep tabs on their underlings and have no idea what their department is doing, so they cannot be held accountable for disasters and outrages that occur on their watch.  Under extreme duress, they might be forced to mouth the words “I take responsibility” before scurrying off to a puff-piece interview on a friendly TV network.  This is all going to sound extremely plausible and sincere coming from Chuck Hagel.  He won’t even need coaching from Obama’s political team.  He probably won’t even have to say a word – he’ll just show up at the Congressional hearings after some Defense Department debacle, and the chairman will stare at him for a moment, remember those hilarious confirmation hearings, and say, “Yeah, all right, pick two underlings to blame and skedaddle.”

** All aboard the Titanic II: No, that’s not a smarmy crack about the second Obama Administration.  There really is going to be a Titanic II setting sail in 2016, a fairly accurate replica of the original ship bankrolled by Australian mining tycoon Clive Palmer.  Its designers assure prospective passengers that “it will be absolutely the most safe cruise ship in the world.”  The video presentation accompanying this announcement uncomfortably resembled an episode of “Downton Abbey” – which began with the sinking of the Titanic.  Everyone involved in the announcement skirted around declaring her “unsinkable,” but Palmer said there’s no reason to worry, even though Titanic II will follow the same route as her ill-fated namesake… because “there are not so many icebergs in the North Atlantic these days” due to global warming.  Dear God, they might as well start launching the lifeboats right now.

** Pope Benedict delivers farewell address:  The Pope deployed a seafaring metaphor in his farewell address in St. Peter’s Square, comparing his Church to a ship that sails through stormy waters, but “God will not let her sink… It was a part of the journey of the church that has had moments of joy and light, but also moments that were not easy.”  According to CNN, “Those words will be seen by many as a reference to the series of child sex abuse scandals and corruption claims that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the course of his pontificate.”

Referring to his historic decision to resign rather than dying in office, Benedict said, “Loving the church also means having the courage to make tough choices.”  Love is unquestionably the best source for such courage.  The Vatican is still working out the rules for this first papal retirement in six centuries.  It has been decided that he will keep the title Benedict XVI instead of resuming the use of his given name, Joseph Ratzinger, will still be addressed as “His Holiness,” will be known as the pope or pontiff emeritus, and will wear a white robe with brown shoes, foregoing the papal red cape and slippers.  His level of continuing involvement in Church affairs remains a matter of speculation, but he is said to look forward to a quiet retirement of study and prayer at a Vatican City monastery.

** World not to end, film at 11: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell takes a dim view of President Obama’s sequestration theatrics.  “Personally, I don’t believe the world will end if the President’s sequester takes effect,” said McConnell, neatly reminding listeners just whose idea this whole thing was, although it would also be prudent to remember who else signed onto it, and why.

“But our country would be much better served if the Democrats who run Washington would get off the campaign trail and work with us to trim the budget in a more rational way,” McConnell continued.  It’s charming that he still thinks any of this is about serving the country, rather than dividing it as bitterly as possible.  The Democrats have had over a year to produce those “smart spending cuts” they keep talking about.  What makes anyone think they’ll start now?

The first endgame to sequestration begins after the cuts go into effect on Friday, and it really sinks in with voters that Obama is working overtime to make the cuts as agonizing as possible.  The second endgame comes later, when Democrats say that we can’t possibly ever consider a single dollar of spending cuts again, because the country barely survived the trauma of sequestration – which will cause government spending to increase 1.6 percent instead of 1.7 percent next year.  The American endgame begins shortly after that.  Nobody will feel particularly well-served when those days arrive.