But Congress is the place to watch.
Why were so many people surprised to learn Friday that no sitting president ever has visited a federal prison? Inmates don’t vote, or have any political power or the reasonable expectation of getting some, and politicians and their handlers discovered ages ago that they can make whatever political points they wish to make about being “tough on crime” by using ominous photographs (sometimes darkened) of prisoners. It’s always been safer and smarter in American politics to pose with a prosecutor or a cop or a victim or even a witness than it has been to pose with a convicted felon.
Nor should anyone be surprised that our president has chosen to be the nation’s first chief executive to visit inmates in federal custody, traveling later this week to Oklahoma to visit corrections officers and their wards — low-level drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals — at the medium-security prison called FCI El Reno. The time is right for such a bold visit. There is today national bipartisan support for reforming the way we deal with those who break the law.
We can safely assume that movement is both the cause and, potentially, a beneficiary of this historic visit. The trip to Oklahoma surely wouldn’t be happening if Charles Koch and company (and a growing group of Republican legislators and presidential aspirants) weren’t already on the record in support of some version of criminal justice reforms that have traditionally been a Democratic agenda. (As an aside, it will be fascinating this week to see how the president’s justice campaign cleaves the Republican field. What will Mike Huckabee say this week, and how will it contrast with what Rand Paul says?)