Remember the discussion of the significance of a number of "present" votes in Barack Obama's Illinois State Senate voting record? The Clinton campaign, including Sen. Clinton herself during one of the debates, pointed to these as evidence that Sen. Obama was somehow afraid to take a tough stand or tried to duck issues. Well, a pretty impressive source has now spoken up with his take on the meaning of those much-discussed "present" votes, and I don't think the Clinton campaign can be too happy at what he has to say -- although they'll find it pretty difficult to impeach his credibility.
Abner Mikva was President Clinton's White House Counsel. And today he has an op-ed piece in the New York Times. Here's the link: Mikva's NYT op-ed
Before he was Bill Clinton's White House Counsel, Abner Mikva was a federal judge -- in fact, he was the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit -- and he served four terms in the U.S. Congress. And before that he served for ten years in the Illinois State House of Representatives.
The man knows a thing or two about the legislative and legal systems. And he pretty much blows away the idea that by voting present Obama was somehow ducking the vote. He reminds Sen. Clinton that she herself was once taught in school that the Illinois Constitution itself gives particular significance to "present" votes.
SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON should probably be forgiven for not remembering the course on the state Constitution that she would have had to take as an eighth grader in Illinois. But had she remembered it, she would have known that Senator Barack Obama was not ducking his responsibility in the Illinois Senate when he voted "present" on many issues.
Unlike Congress and the legislatures of most other states, each chamber of the Illinois Legislature requires a "constitutional majority" to pass a bill. The state Senate has 59 members, so it takes 30 affirmative votes. This makes a "present" vote the same as a no. If a bill receives 29 votes, but the rest of the senators vote "present," it fails.
Mikva then explains that there are often strategic reasons for casting a "present" vote, such as indicating basic agreement with a bill but a problem with certain language or the bill's scope or cost. He says that he cast numerous "present" votes himself and gives as an example his vote on an annual highway appropriations bill when he wanted to see more spent on public transportation but certainly did not oppose the principle of maintaining the state's roads and bridges. He then notes:
It never occurred to me or to any of my critics that I was ducking responsibility for a making a decision. Mr. Obama was an outspoken member of the Illinois Senate, and not someone known for dodging questions, whether they were on ethics, police responsibility, women’s choice or any other hot-button issue.
Finally, Judge Mikva drives the point home with a personal reminiscence about what a certain former boss used to like to tell him -- a boss that Sen. Clinton would be hard-pressed not to recognize:
Even if Senator Clinton does not remember the constitutional majority requirement in Illinois, one of her advisers might have explained it to her. When I was White House counsel, President Clinton frequently reminded me that he had taught constitutional law before he ran for public office. I would hope that he would assume that another constitutional scholar — Barack Obama — would be aware of his voting responsibilities as a state legislator.
Sen. Clinton, you can do better than to try to score cheap points by distorting the record. As an Illinois native and the wife of a former constitutional law instructor -- and no slouch at constitutional law yourself -- you must have known better on this one. Lift the tone and debate the real issues instead of making up phony issues to score political points.