Of pot and politics


The Justice Department announced this week that the federal government is backing off its previous confrontations with states over their legalization of marijuana.

My first reaction: All those folks who blasted President Obama for years because of draconian enforcement of drug laws were once again — as happens to many other critics of the president — proved wrong. The federal government (as conservatives remind everyone constantly) is large, and that means it sometimes takes time to change policy. In other words, Obama’s critics jumped the gun.

I suspect it’s going to be easy now to go back and find over-the-top complaints about the president on this issue that are now proved, well, over the top — just as I think one could find similar statements about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or marriage equality, or exiting Iraq, or getting bogged down in Libya.

My second reaction, however, was that my first reaction was garbage.

Those over-the-top complaints were part of the political landscape that Democrats in Congress and the White House had to deal with when they made the decisions that eventually satisfied, at least to some extent, the activists who were complaining in the first place.

It’s worth stopping every once in a while and noting something we all tend to undervalue: Different people within the political system have different jobs to do. The job of an activist may involve being over the top at times (though not always; there’s value in being accurate).

And the jobs of the others within the system — presidents, political appointees leading departments and agencies, bureaucrats below them, members of Congress — are all similarly constrained by various rules, norms and incentives.

None of this is to say that everything works out in the end; sometimes it doesn’t. At best, this course of events serves as a reminder to lower our arrogance a tick, or at least to bear in mind that there are often perfectly good reasons why political actors act as they do and that anyone seeking to change those actions often has to change the incentives more than anything else.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics.

© 2013, The Washington Post.

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Whistle blower’s tale with happy ending

    Late last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an oblique news release announcing that it was awarding an unnamed whistle-blower $400,000 for helping expose a financial fraud at an unnamed company. The money was the latest whistle-blower award — there have been 13 so far — paid as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which includes both protections for whistle-blowers and financial awards when their information leads to fines of more than $1 million.

  • High drama in Texas governor’s office

    As moments of high political drama go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Indicted Gov. Rick Perry, we’re ready for your close-up.

  • The ones left behind

    The fire this time is about invisibility. Our society expects the police to keep unemployed, poorly educated African-American men out of sight and out of mind. When they suddenly take center stage, illuminated by the flash and flicker of Molotov cocktails, we feign surprise.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category