The problem he wanted to address was that too many confessions, rather than being voluntary, were coerced — by beating the daylights out of the accused.
Obama proposed requiring that interrogations and confessions be videotaped.
This seemed likely to stop the beatings, but the bill itself aroused immediate opposition. There were Republicans who were automatically tough on crime and Democrats who feared being thought soft on crime. There were death penalty abolitionists, some of whom worried that Obama’s bill, by preventing the execution of innocents, would deprive them of their best argument. Vigorous opposition came from the police, too many of whom had become accustomed to using muscle to “solve” crimes. And the incoming governor, Rod Blagojevich, announced that he was against it.
Obama had his work cut out for him.
He responded with an all-out campaign of cajolery. It had not been easy for a Harvard man to become a regular guy to his colleagues. Obama had managed to do so by playing basketball and poker with them and, most of all, by listening to their concerns. Even Republicans came to respect him. One Republican state senator, Kirk Dillard, has said that “Barack had a way both intellectually and in demeanor that defused skeptics.”
The police proved to be Obama’s toughest opponent. Legislators tend to quail when cops say things like, “This means we won’t be able to protect your children.” The police tried to limit the videotaping to confessions, but Obama, knowing that the beatings were most likely to occur during questioning, fought — successfully — to keep interrogations included in the required videotaping.
By showing officers that he shared many of their concerns, even going so far as to help pass other legislation they wanted, he was able to quiet the fears of many.
Obama proved persuasive enough that the bill passed both houses of the legislature, the Senate by an incredible 35 to 0. Then he talked Blagojevich into signing the bill, making Illinois the first state to require such videotaping.
(Some additonal process discussion on Kevin Drum’s blog; apparently the bill had very hot opposition, which Obama had to work deftly to overcome,)
Now, I hardly needed any more persuading on the Obama question, but I find this (along with the other examples Peters cites) incredibly persuasive, for three reasons:
1. Obama was completely right, and on an issue directly relevant to the more recent debates about torture. Taping interrogations is an issue that really only has one legitimate side, since there’s no reason to think it prevents any true confessions, while it certainly prevents false confessions (over and above the legal and moral reasons for disapproving of police use of “enhanced interrogation methods”).
2. Pursuing it had very little political payoff, as evidenced by the fact that Obama has not (as far as I know) so much as mentioned this on the campaign. Standing up for the rights of accused criminals in a contemporary American legislature requires brass balls.
3. Getting it through required both courage and skill. The notion that Obama is “too nice” to get things done can hardly survive this story: he won’t face tougher or less scrupulous political opponents than the self-proclaimed forces of law and order. Yes, in this case the change was helpful to the cause of crime control, since every innocent person imprisoned displaces a guilty person. But that didn’t make the politics of it any easier.
Can anyone name a comparable-sized accomplishment — as opposed to effort — by any of Obama’s rivals for the Democratic nomination?
Update Hilzoy points to a wide range of useful but non-flashy Obama iniatives in his first two years in the Senate: on loose nukes, bird flu, lead, genetic testing standards, and chemical plant security, among others.
Footnote The notion that Obama is “too nice” to win may well survive two or three more crushing defeats inflicted by him on his rivals, just as the myth that GWB was stupid survived his string of political triumphs. As the Bush story demonstrates, being misunderestimated can be advantageous.