Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Parsing the Vote on the Flag-Burning Amendment

The U.S. Senate yesterday failed, by one vote, to adopt S.J. Res. 12, which proposed this amendment to the Constitution: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." The House already had passed the same "flag burning amendment," and so it would have gone to the States for ratification had one Senator voted "yea" instead of "nay."

I am against any statute (e.g., campaign-finance "reform") or amendment to the Constitution that limits freedom of speech. (I might favor a law making it treasonous to publish, knowingly, classified information pertaining to the conduct of an on-going war, which is not speech as the Framers understood it.) I am therefore against any amendment to the Constitution that limits symbolic speech, such as flag-burning. Let the flag-burners and their ilk be known for the post-patriotic, post-Americans that they are.

That said, I wonder what motivated the 34 senators who voted against the flag-burning amendment:

Akaka (D-HI)
Bennett (R-UT)
Biden (D-DE)
Bingaman (D-NM)
Boxer (D-CA)
Byrd (D-WV)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Carper (D-DE)
Chafee (R-RI)
Clinton (D-NY)
Conrad (D-ND)
Dodd (D-CT)
Dorgan (D-ND)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feingold (D-WI)
Harkin (D-IA)
Inouye (D-HI)
Jeffords (I-VT)
Kennedy (D-MA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Kohl (D-WI)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Leahy (D-VT)
Levin (D-MI)
Lieberman (D-CT)
McConnell (R-KY)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Murray (D-WA)
Obama (D-IL)
Pryor (D-AR)
Reed (D-RI)
Sarbanes (D-MD)
Schumer (D-NY)
Wyden (D-OR)

Those who undoubtedly voted nay to defend freedom of speech are easy to identify. They are the two conservative Republicans who broke ranks with their party: Bennett of Utah and McConnell of Kentucky.

I'm sure that many of the Democrats voted nay for the same valid reason as that of Senators Bennett and McConnell. But many others, I am equally certain, voted the way they did for one or both of these reasons:

  • They can no longer find it in themselves to believe that America, in spite of its faults and mistakes, is better than its enemies.
  • Their partisanship so consumes them that they oppose the Republican president's efforts to defend America -- of which the flag is a reminder.

I won't name names. That's an exercise for the reader.

What about the 66 senators who voted for the flag-burning amendment? The lineup on the yea side consists of yahoos and panderers -- patriotic though they may (or may not) be. The yahoos are those who sincerely believe in restricting freedom of speech. (John McCain, take a bow.) The panderers are those who voted yea to placate "the base" or to take a stand that might help them win re-election in the fall.

What might have happened if the proposed amendment had gone to the States? A look at Senate votes by State offers a clue. The States that probably would have gone against the amendment are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. That's 12 States, one shy of the number required to block ratification of the amendment.

In other words, the flag-burning amendment might well have been ratified had the Senate approved it. One senator's vote averted national embarrassment. I hope it was cast by a senator who believes in freedom of speech, but I fear it was not.