In 2013, a New York Times article about the president’s policy frustrations mentioned that Obama “has talked longingly of ‘going Bulworth,’ a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought”—a movie my mother would definitely not have allowed me to watch, unsupervised, in high school had she been aware of its contents.
The gist of the film is that Senator Bulworth, originally elected as a Bernie Sanders-style socialist Democrat, has sold out on his principles, ruined his marriage, and generally hates his life. Bulworth hires a hit man to assassinate himself—and then he starts saying and doing exactly what he wants.
As his horrified campaign staff look on, Bulworth tells the unfiltered truth to a public at once shocked, offended, and impressed. When a woman asks why her community never got the funding Bulworth promised, he replies, “What happened was that we [politicians] all knew that was gonna be big news for a while, so…we got our pictures taken, told you what you wanted to hear, and then we pretty much forgot about it.”
Outraged, another voter asks why Bulworth hasn’t helped her neighborhood. “Well, you haven’t really contributed any money to my campaign, have you?” he answers, explaining how much money crony capitalist corporations give him to buy his votes.
The campaign staff, aghast, pull the fire alarm.
More than two years later, of course, the inevitable has come to pass: Obama has not gone Bulworth.
This was predictable. “Probably every president says that from time to time,” said Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod—who seems like he would pull the fire alarm way faster than Bulworth’s staff did. But, he added, “you also want to be practical about whatever you’re saying.”
In a sense Axelrod is right. It wouldn’t be good if the president got drunk and explained his policies in profanity-laden freelance raps. And, though I’d hope that Bulworth-Obama might hearken back to some of the more attractive parts of his 2008 candidacy—like his acknowledgement of congressional war powers, or his opposition to raising the debt ceiling, or his push for transparency, or his promise to close Gitmo, or his support for civil liberties—in practice, a free-wheeling 2015 Obama might simply mean government expansion on steroids.
But there is one policy area where Obama should definitely go Bulworth: presidential pardons.
You see, one of the abilities explicitly given to the president by the Constitution is the power to pardon, and as constitutional powers go, this one is very unrestricted. While the Bill of Rights places extensive limits on what the government may do in the process of putting people in jail, the Founders were much less concerned about the president abusing his power to let people out of prison.
As English jurist William Blackstone, a contemporary of the American Revolution, famously said, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
So how could Obama go Bulworth with his pardoning power? Well, as Ryan Cooper documented at The Week, Obama “has been more stingy with this power than any president in American history [and] many of Obama’s pardons have been for people who were already released from prison, making them more PR efforts than victories for justice.”
This is the case despite the fact that there are thousands of people serving unnecessarily long and cruel sentences for minor drug offenses. Some of them are doing time which is “literally illegal” thanks to changes in sentencing laws which have occurred in the five years—meaning if they were on trial today instead of pre-2010 they’d get a much shorter sentence for the same crime—and yet the Obama administration has not only not pardoned them, but it has actively worked to keep them locked up.
The most ridiculous part is that if Obama did go Bulworth with his pardoning power, it wouldn’t even be scandalous. His actions would be unquestionably constitutional; and 8 out of 10 Americans want to get rid of harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Criminal justice reform is unique in the backing it gets from left and right alike.
In fact, pardoning nonviolent drug offenders who shouldn’t be in jail might not qualify as going Bulworth at all. Maybe instead we should just call it “doing the right thing.”