Most of the complaints about President Obama are ridiculous (“he didn’t tear down the military industrial complex?” “War criminal!”), untrue (“he’s weak on defense” when he actually made us safer at home and abroad), or perhaps things that weren’t his problems to solve (“why didn’t he heal the divide between black and white Americans?”). The honest truth is that Obama and his administration did a great job for eight years. They had to walk a tight rope with absolutely no help from a hostile Republican Party that irrationally hated the guy’s guts before he even took office. [People comparing this to the way liberals are treating Trump should maybe look at Obama’s behavior as POTUS-elect and Trump’s post-election behavior for a textbook case of false equivalencies.]
Still, no administration is perfect and to me personally the Obama team’s biggest misstep is not pardoning Don Siegelman. Now sure, there are complaints that have received far more media attention (the Benghazi witchhunt, Hillary’s email server, anything Syria-related, etc.) but those are mostly noise makers for people that hate Obama anyway.
Why it matters that Obama didn’t pardon Don Siegelman…
1. It sends a message to red state Democrats that they’re alone…One of the chief complaints about the Obama administration (this one legitimate) is that 1,030 Dems lost their seats while he was President. A lot of this is just timing, and a lot of this is low mid-term voter turnout, but for all intensive purposes it looks like the “Obama coalition” voters mostly don’t care about other Democrats, and are only voting for one man. While the “Anti-Obama coalition” votes for every single election.
This has all but wiped-out red state Democrats. For example, Alabama had a Democratic state legislature until the year 2010 (the first election since Obama won) which turned the state from bright purple to blood red. This may not have directly been Obama’s fault, but it sure didn’t help anything when he won, Howard Dean (who led a successful 50-state solution to rebuild the Democratic Party) was pushed out as DNC head, and Tim Kaine took over, largely abandoing the state parties. Red state Democrats feel like they have no help at all from the DNC or anyone at the White House. And not pardoning Don Siegelman is a clear indication that they’re right.
2. Siegleman’s political prisoner status (and lack of any pushback) scares Dems from running…I can personally say that I’ve known promising Alabama politicians think about running as Democrats but didn’t because “Well, look at what happened to Siegelman. He didn’t do anything wrong and he wound up in jail.” It’s a huge deterrent for people thinking about running as a Democrat in a state where the last Democrat Governor has been rotting in a jail cell for no reason.
That Republicans can get away with this is scary. What’s even scarier? Over 100 former state attorney generals (many of them Republican) sent a letter to Obama asking him to pardon Don, and even they were ignored. How does it work that Chelsea Manning—who never even tried to say they weren’t guilty—gets a commutation, but a man universally regarded as innocent is ignored? Beyond the social media flash and trendy “causes” of the Twitter-verse, this is what’s really scary, and the fact that seemingly no one gives a damn only makes it scarier. And what’s the incentive for Republicans not to try this the next time a Democrat gets any real power in Alabama? Since they completely got away with it this time.
3. He really is innocent…I don’t know if this matters when it comes to Presidential pardons, but Siegelman is innocent. He has spent years of his life rotting in prison (and a few years before that fighting for his life in a witchhunt trial) for something unjust. I’m not saying Obama shouldn’t have pardoned or commuted the sentences of federal drug dealers or Chelsea Manning, but as far as I can tell, no one is saying they didn’t do what they did, while it is almost universally acknowledged that Siegelman’s crime (to give someone a board position that had made a donation to a pro-lottery group, something Siegelman was advocating for at the time) did not benefit him personally, actually did go to the lottery group, and therefore no crime was committed. There is no doubt that if Siegelman had been a Republican he wouldn’t be in jail right now. This is a political prisoner. This is what they look like. Not Chelsea Manning, not Edward Snowden, but Don Siegelman. A man who tried to bring a lottery to the state of Alabama, and was “rewarded” for his efforts by spending his elder years in a prison.
4. Even if he wasn’t, his sentence is excessive…Obama’s big thing for pardons or commutations seems to be less a question of innocence or guilt as it is “was their sentencing excessive?” Even if you judge Siegelman’s case beyond the merits of innocence (which seems absurd to me but still), you have to believe wasting a decade of Siegelman’s life–either in a prison cell serving his time or on trial–is excessive.
End Note: Siegelman’s being in prison is wrong. Even when he gets out (supposedly in August, but we’ll see), he’ll be unable to rebuild the Alabama Democrat Party–assuming he has a desire to do so–because of the restrictions for felons on parole or ex-felons. He will not be able to truly be a free man even when he’s out, and at his age (he’ll be 71 in late February) he may very well die before his full rights are restored or even before August.
Obama not pardoning him is a mistake. And in my opinion, it’s the biggest mistake of his administration.