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Virginia should say “no” to Real ID

It’s a familiar scene in a number of Cold War era spy movies.  A train is entering East Germany, always at night, on its way to East Berlin and a police officer is walking down the aisle saying, “papers, papers, please...”  The highlight is that particularly tense moment when the officer, eyeing the passenger suspiciously, gives the paperwork the once over.
In all Communist countries, from the Soviet Union, to the smaller states, national identity cards were a given. No repressive national government can live without them.  Citizens were tracked and monitored all the time.  It was just part of life in a totalitarian state.  
While most of the Communist block has withered away, even today, national identity cards and internal travel papers are still common in some countries.  But in the United States, with the exception of the way we use social security numbers, there has never been anything remotely close to a national identity system.  
Nearly forty years ago President Nixon was presented with a proposal to create a national identity program, but he dismissed the notion out of hand saying it was “Un-American.”  Ronald Reagan, in the early 1980’s, was shown a similar proposal.  Reagan said he was thoroughly opposed to any kind of national identity card.
When President Clinton, in the early days of his administration, proposed a national health card, there was an immediate outcry that this was the first step in creating a national identity card.  This charge was quite a stretch.  His health care proposals died for other reasons, but that complaint didn’t help any.
Now, however, thanks to a bill enacted in 2004, it seems we’re on our way to a national identity card after all.  In a way, it sort of snuck up on us.  The “Real ID Act,” passed by a Congress that would approve anything as long as it had the word security in it, requires the standardization of state driver’s licenses.  
On the surface that doesn’t sound particularly menacing.  That is, until you read a bit more.  What the federal government wants to do is substantially enhance the data carried on all licenses and then connect all of the state driver’s license data bases through one hub so that they can be easily searched.  The Department of Homeland Security says that this is for the purposes of making sure that holders don’t have duplicate licenses in other states.  But somehow that doesn’t seem like a convincing argument.  
Real ID is more than just a driver’s license.  The legislation includes a number of new information requirements, ones that don’t have a lot to do with operating a vehicle to include fingerprints, biometric information, machine readability and possibly a data chip.  This all takes time and money to implement, and to make it a reality, the states, and each legislature has to do this, have to pass special legislation.  
The federal government is pushing hard on this one and is threatening not to recognize a state’s driver’s license, for say, purposes of air travel, unless it conforms to the Real ID requirements.  That’s a powerful incentive, particularly, if on some date in the future, people without a nationally approved driver’s license can’t travel.  
As the result of this mandate most states, some reluctantly, have gone along with the idea.  There has been relatively little resistance.  However, with the deadline approaching several states, and even a few who have already approved the legislation, are having second thoughts.   Virginia is one of them.
Under the law, everyone born after 1964 will have to have a nationally approved driver’s license by 2014 and anyone born before that will have until 2017.  These requirements are going to make getting a driver’s license more expensive and time consuming than it already is.  The data requirements are considerable, and could involve, at least in some cases, some form of a modified background check.
However, there are several legislators in Virginia who are having second thoughts about complying with the federal mandate.  They think that Real ID is an invasion of privacy and they aren’t at all comfortable with the notion of a national identity system.  Many in the state are also concerned about the cost and inconvenience drivers will face in getting a license in the future.
Real ID has been approved, almost effortlessly in most states, and the modest uprising the Virginia General Assembly, may be too little, too late.  The legislature has a lot to worry about during the upcoming session.  But, the bills that have been introduced, with the support of civil libertarians and conservatives, may at least add a hint of caution to what seems to be a rush towards a national identity card.  
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

Kaine is backing the GOP into a corner

Not too long ago I was saying that the Democrats would be hard pressed to find a “wedge” issue to propel them to victory in 2009.  In 2007 they had that issue when it came to transportation and it carried them a long ways.  The Republicans lost their majority in the state senate and the Democrats increased their number in the House of Delegates to 45. That was impressive.  However, this year seemed a bit more problematic.  
Now that we’re in a recession, transportation, while important, just isn’t as important an issue as it was two years ago.  However, maintaining key state services in the face of declining revenue is.  That seemed to be setting the stage for an election where the Republicans could run the kind of campaign they’re good at.  Namely, cutting spending, pruning back government, and opposing any new taxes.  That would have given them the leverage, perhaps, to break the Democratic winning streak and at the very least hang on to their majority in the House of Delegates.  
However, that was until Governor Kaine threw them a curve.  Now, once again, they’re off balance.
Kaine, as the state’s chief executive, is looking to plug a $2.9 billion shortfall in the state’s budget.  Because of the recession, the state’s revenue picture is grim.  Kaine’s problem is in how to fill that gap.   He is cutting departmental budgets, canceling projects, and at the same time looking for some effective ways to make up lost revenue.  That’s where his proposed increase in the tobacco tax comes in.
Thirty years ago Virginia was heavily dependent on tobacco as one of its principal industries.  In those days an increase in the tax on the tobacco would have been politically unthinkable.  No Governor, and very few in the legislature, would have dared propose such a thing.  But times have changed.
Besides, it’s been argued, the state’s tax on tobacco is the 47th lowest in the nation.  That’s why there is such a vibrant and illicit market in buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them in New York City.  So, why shouldn’t the tax be raised?  
The Republicans, probably with a little more vehemence than was advisable, immediately declared the Governor’s proposal dead on arrival.  That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do.  From a political perspective, the wisest thing to have done would have been to taken a deep breath before they said anything.  
But, they didn’t.  
They have a majority of the House of Delegates and if they want can easily derail it.  However, they should have realized that Tim Kaine knows that too.  In fact, many think he is counting on it.  More than likely this tax proposal will get the axe.  The GOP just won’t stand for it.  They have declared it a “job killer,” though this argument is somewhat weak, and want nothing to do with it.
However, they seem to be missing the point.  
Kaine, in proposing this tax, may have given the Democrats that wedge issue they need for November.  If the GOP dominated House kills the cigarette tax the only option the Governor will have is to make further cuts in key services.  This will include, at the very least, education and Medicaid.  Most people, given a choice between the tax on cigarettes and help for the elderly or aid to their local school system usually find that decision easy to make.  
That’s certainly what Kaine and the Democrats fighting to take over the legislature will be telling the voters next fall.  Also, and the Republicans should have taken note of this, the key swing districts, the ones the Democrats need to win in November, aren’t in areas dominated by tobacco interests.  
The same is true for the regions they need to win if they want to capture the Governor’s mansion.  Northern Virginia voters and those in the outer rung of the D.C. suburbs and indeed, in a number of other regions throughout the state, may not react too well if they are told that key services are being cut because the General Assembly wasn’t willing to raise the tax on cigarettes.
Kaine would dearly love to have the additional revenue of a tobacco tax.  It would help him deal with a serious budgetary shortfall.  But if he doesn’t get it, he is ready, and probably chomping at the bit, to use it as a wedge issue next fall.
 

An answered prayer at Valley Forge

During its long history the American military has celebrated many wartime Christmases.  Often, these are in difficult circumstances a long ways from home. At this very moment our men and women in uniform are doing the same in Iraq and Afghanistan.  
However, perhaps the most desperate Christmas ever celebrated by members of the armed forces occurred early in our history.  In December of 1778 the Continental Army was retreating in the face of a British advance on Philadelphia, but they also needed a place, as armies did back then, to make winter quarters.  The army’s commanding general, George Washington, chose a spot on the Skuylkill River called Valley Forge.  It was a hamlet and hardly anyone lived there, but it was defensible, and there were lots of trees to build winter huts and fortifications.  
It was also strategically located.  In the unlikely event the British broke winter quarters and began to move, the Continentals, from Valley Forge, were well positioned to intercept them.  However, given the poor state of the Army, this was something Washington hoped didn’t happen.
Pennsylvania winters are harsh and the army was tired. They had neither winter clothing nor a regular supply of food.  Most of the soldiers lived on near starvation rations.  When Washington arrived at Valley Forge, just days before Christmas, his army numbered about 10,000 and his situation was desperate. But his objective that winter was to keep the Army together.  As the military strategists say today, he wanted to maintain a “force in being,” and thereby keep the dream of American independence alive.
However, as desperate as the situation was the army still celebrated Christmas.  Washington considered this important.   There was heavy snow on Christmas Day and since they were still working on building cabins, most of the men were still in tents. They hadn’t been paid, didn’t have enough food, and many had no shoes, but Washington did his best to see that the men had some kind of Christmas.
He hosted a somewhat meager dinner for his officers, and then saw to it that each soldier had an allotment of rum, very important in those days, and something to eat.  Both the General and Mrs. Washington did their best to visit each encampment.  
It was also at Valley Forge that Washington is said, on Christmas Day, to have ridden into the woods to pray.  It’s presumed that the General prayed for strength and guidance, but no one really knows.  Besides, what he prayed about is his business, but his need to find some time to be alone and to talk to God suggests the spiritual side of this remarkable individual.   It could also be argued, given what followed, that God was giving a little extra attention to the General’s prayers.
Amazingly enough and this was recorded by several of the foreign officers, including the Marquis De Lafayette, the morale of the Continental Army at Christmastime revived.  Even without adequate rations and amid appalling living conditions, the men sang, told stories, and enjoyed their Christmas.  
But Christmas in Valley Forge was also a dramatic turning point for the army.  It gave them the lift in spirits, and by shared hardship, a camaraderie that started a transformation.  Those that remained were committed to the cause of independence and most, if not all, were willing to see it through.  
There was also an almost miraculous early running of the Shad, a fish well known to local fisherman here in Stafford that is high in protein; that saved them from an even more desperate food shortage.  
As the winter continued, under the direction of Baron Von Steuben, a former Prussian officer, the Continental Army remade itself.   Baron Von Steuben wasn’t really the Baron he made himself out to be, but he was an experienced soldier and he knew a lot about training. The men drilled each day and began regular field exercises.
 The officers, under Von Steuben’s direction, got experience in handling their men.  This hard work, even while done under the worst of conditions, would bear fruit.  Just a few months later, at the Battle of Monmouth, the British saw for the first time, not a ragtag collection of continentals and militias, but a real Army that would fight them to a standstill.  
Christmas at Valley Forge may have been harsh, the conditions may have been grim, but it was also a time that began a transformation.  One that helped build the Army that would win the war.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Why I am a Christmas music junkie

There are several radio stations in our area that start playing Christmas music, non-stop, immediately after Thanksgiving.  
There is also even one station that for some bizarre reason offers a day of Christmas music in July.  Why?  I have no idea, but I always tune in.  That’s because, no matter what time of year it is, I enjoy Christmas music.  It’s cheerful, it’s moving, it’s festive, and for many of us, it has a deep and abiding meaning.
 However, I think there must be an unwritten rule someplace, maybe it’s an FCC thing, that you can only listen to Christmas music, two or three weeks before Christmas, and then immediately after the holiday it has to disappear.  So, like any junkie, at this time of year, I try to get in as much as I can, while I can.
My favorites are what most people would consider the traditional carols.  “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a carol which is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ famous story “A Christmas Carol” is my number one pick and I can listen to it over and over.  If I close my eyes, I am at Trafalgar Square, a very long time ago, on a snowy Christmas Eve.  If it is sung by a chorus, with a full orchestral accompaniment, then all the better.  That just gives it a little majesty.  
“Silent Night” is another favorite, written in 1818, with the German title “Stille Nacht.”  On Christmas Eve 1914, during the First World War, it was the song the Allied soldiers heard from the other side of “no man’s land” being sung in German.  It didn’t take long before they realized it was one of their favorite Christmas carols too.  Its simple beauty pierced night and led to what has become known as the “Christmas Truce.” This short cessation in the fighting began with a Christmas carol.
I also tend to like the carols that offer a view of the lighter side of Christmas.  “Jingle Bells,” which I think I first sang with the rest of my class in the first grade at Belvedere Elementary School, is one carol I think I know all the words to.  
 And yes, I can almost, but not quite, do the same for “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”  Rudolph might have started out as an advertising gimmick for Montgomery Wards, but his story, and his TV special, airing every Christmas since 1964 has made this song one of my favorites.
There are some Christmas songs, that even I, Christmas music aficionado that I am, would prefer go away.  Never to be sung or played anywhere ever again.  It’s not a long list.  While it was cute when it was first released several years ago, I would be very pleased if I never, ever, heard “Grandma got run over by a Reindeer” again.  If it could somehow be purged from human memory, that would be good thing too.  
The same goes for Alvin and the Chipmunks and their Christmas songs.  For some inexplicable reason, they always seem to slip into radio station play lists.  
There is another genre of Christmas music, not too often captured, certainly not sharing radio air time with Rudolph, that involves one of my favorite instruments, the harp.  In this case it is a unique and relatively little known smaller version of the instrument known as the Clarsach.  The Clarsach is Scottish, actually, it’s more accurately described as Celtic, and there is a recent release of its music, by a former resident of the Northern Neck, Jo Morrison.  Her “Christmas Gifts” CD, perhaps because it allows me to “time travel” a bit, to when I lived in Scotland, is one of my favorites.
Perhaps one of the most famous Christmas carols, at least here in America, written by Irving Berlin and originally sung by Bing Crosby is “White Christmas.”  In 1954, the song led to a movie with Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby by the same name.  
However, by itself, this one song had a remarkable ability, even for people who grew up in places where it never snowed at Christmas time, to bring back memories.  The Captain aboard my Dad’s ship in World War II who was fond of having music played aboard ship, specifically directed that this song not be played.  He liked it, but he also noticed that it made some of his most seasoned sailors cry when they heard it.  
That, in a way, probably sums up why I find the Songs of the Season, both religious and secular, so compelling.  They tell a story, warm the heart, and sometimes, in a few stanzas bring back some warm and wonderful memories.  

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 
 

The Democrats get ready for a primary

Democratic primaries in Virginia until very recently have been low turnout affairs.  Getting five percent of the registered voters to show up at the polls was considered an accomplishment.  Individual precincts would be happy to have forty voters by noon.
The Republicans, if they had a primary, usually did a bit better.  But, still, the turnouts were usually anemic.  
However, last year, the Democratic Presidential primary, once a backwater affair on the radar screen, suddenly became “the” primary to watch.  Thanks to a high profile, and aggressively fought Presidential race, over a million people, twenty percent, give or take of the Commonwealth’s registered voters turned out.  Some precincts actually had lines.  It was heady stuff for Virginia Democrats.  
This year, they have another primary.  They’re going to select their candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General.  This isn’t nearly as exciting as a Presidential Primary, but now that a large number of voters know there is such a thing, and what’s more, given the state Democratic Party’s resurgence, the primary is going to be a much bigger deal than it has been in the past.
Most significantly there is going be a hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination for Governor.  The Democrats, now used to winning in Virginia, are awash with candidates.  That can be a good thing.  It raises interest in the party and gears up the political machinery, but it also comes with a down side.  
The party, inevitably, at least for a little while, breaks into factions and does battle with itself.  That’s just the way primaries work.  One of the candidates said this was healthy.  He may be right, but anything that divides a party six months before the election, while perhaps raising the party’s profile, brings with it some risk as well.
There are currently two declared candidates for the Democratic nomination.  Perhaps the one who has the biggest edge at the moment is Delegate Brian Moran.  He is the Democratic Caucus Chairman in the House of Delegates.  
He is young, cheerful, animated, knows the issues, and has already racked up a long list of endorsements from party chairs from all over the state.  That’s an impressive accomplishment so early in the race.
 Opposing him is a man who almost, by the scantest of margins, missed becoming Attorney General in 2005, State Senator Creigh Deeds.  He is a likeable candidate who has already run in a statewide campaign.  However, Moran’s high name recognition in Northern Virginia, the massive number of primary voters he can count on from the region, is a decisive edge.  He is probably the odds-on favorite at this point.
Ah, but nothing is ever that easy.  There is a wildcard.  Isn’t there always?  
And this time it’s Bill Clinton intimate and former Chair of the National Democratic Party, Terry McAuliffe.  
McAuliffe is a Democrat’s Democrat, is well past the early, “gee, maybe I will run for Governor” and is now actively campaigning.  It’s a reasonable concern, however, that this liberal national Democrat, with limited roots in Virginia (can you say Carpetbagger?) may not be a fit with the decidedly moderate politics of the Commonwealth.  He can raise money, lots of it, and he can probably bring in some big names, but if he were to get the nomination he may be just the candidate the Republicans are hoping the Democrats will choose.
The formula, for any Democratic victory, is exactly the one the party has pulled together every year since they began their winning streak in 2005.  They need to carry the now, more or less solid Democratic counties in Northern Virginia by a landslide, pick up the D.C. exurbs, but not by as much, carry Hampton Roads, and hold their losses elsewhere to a minimum.  As they found in 2008, they can even do a little better than that.
The challenge for the Democrats in 2009 is to keep up that momentum.  In many ways, this may be a tougher year for them than any they have faced so far.  The Republicans have a team, Attorney General Bob McDonnell for Governor and Bill Bolling, who is running for reelection as Lieutenant Governor, in place and ready to go.  
Both men are well known and each has a campaign organization in place.  What’s more they face no nomination fights, no divisive battles during the primary or at a convention.  They’re set.  The Democrats by contrast are ready to begin a full scale knock down, drag out fight.  It may be civil, but while the Republicans are campaigning for the general election, the Democrats will be spending the first half of the year campaigning against each other.

David Kerr

 

There is more to the Pilgrims than most people realize

With their abiding faith and their supposedly rigid puritan ways modern historians and academics often marginalize the role of the Pilgrims in early American life.
To many their lifestyle seems too far removed from modern day America to be relevant. That is a poor reading of history.  These early American settlers are not just characters in a school play.  They also represent the formative stages of our present day notions of self government, free enterprise, and what has become the American character.  
In 1620, when this intrepid set of colonists set out on their journey, things weren’t going well on the American Continent. Jamestown, the first English Colony, wasn’t a success.  Disease ravaged the settlement, it wasn’t making money, and the investors lost their capital.  It only hung on because England desperately needed an outpost in the New World.
America, to many at that time, wasn’t a choice destination. But one group saw it differently.  To them the new world was a salvation, and like future immigrants in centuries to come, they would risk everything they had to get there.   Their reasons were based on a principled desire to practice their faith as they saw fit.  In contrast to what they saw as the Church of England’s focus on ritual, they believed in a simpler form of worship where everyone found his or her salvation on a personal level.
Their plan was to secure investors, buy ships, hire men to do the things they couldn’t, such as build houses and organize defenses and go to the Virginia Colony.  However, making their business plan would turn out to be the easy part.  
On their voyage they encountered a storm that was so strong it caused a main beam to buckle.  Showing an impressive sense of innovation, something that would come to be one of the hallmarks to the American approach to life, they used the screw on their printing press, certainly not its intended use, to rig a jack to hold the ship together.   It was an inspired bit of engineering and it saw them all the way to America.
However, that same storm caused them to make landfall several hundred miles north of where they intended.  Their supplies were low and they knew they were on their own.  They also knew that they needed a way to govern their affairs.  Otherwise they wouldn’t survive.  With that in mind, they signed the Mayflower Compact.  This was an agreement to establish a majority-based governance of the colony.  It would remain in force, separate from English Law, until 1691.  It was the first statement of self government and majority rule on the American continent.  John Adams considered it a foundation stone to the Declaration of Independence.
But their most remarkable achievement was in their practical understanding of economics.  Their investors wanted the land farmed in common.  This early form of socialism prompted what the Pilgrims called the “starving time” and the investors got nothing.  But in their third year, citing the Biblical precept, “that which you sow, shall you also reap” they did what they wanted to do in the first place and farmed their own plots.  The result was a massive improvement in agricultural production.  The colonists had more food, were able to buy goods from England, and the investors started seeing a return.  That was something that didn’t happen in Jamestown until the colony began the large scale export of tobacco.
In 1623, after several tough years, the Pilgrims had their first true feast.  The colony was at long last a going concern.  The Pilgrims, through self government, innovation, free enterprise, and faith, had demonstrated some of the most impressive traits of the American character. 
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

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