Ask Auntie Pinko
September 1, 2005
By Auntie Pinko
How much of a disaster will it be to have John Roberts on the
Supreme Court? What should Democrats do about it? Some people are
saying we could shoot ourselves in the foot if we oppose Roberts
when there are so many worse candidates. My father-in-law (a conservative
Democrat) says that we'll only make ourselves look bad and turn
off the majority of moderate Americans if we're too strident.
On the other hand, my wife (who works at a Family Violence
Resource Center) believes that Roberts will provide a reliable majority
for those trying to deny women protection from discrimination, the
freedom to make their own decisions regarding reproduction, and
the right to privacy. From what I've heard about his attitude toward
women, she's right. What can we do?
New Canaan, CT
Both your father-in-law and your wife make good points. Mr. Roberts'
available record demonstrates strong and consistent support for
conservative priorities, and a puzzlingly misogynistic streak to
his personality. (Dr. Freud would doubtless have many interesting
speculations to offer.) But the lack of a judicial track record,
his social skills, and his intelligence and knowledge of the law
combine to undercut many potential opposition tactics.
To some extent, the issue of "what Democrats can do"
is a moot point. There is a sufficient majority of Republicans and
conservative Democrats to approve Mr. Roberts' nomination, and there
appears to be little doubt that (absent some shocking revelation
of either demonstrable malfeasance or hitherto unsuspected liberal
sympathies on his part) he will be confirmed. If Auntie Pinko were
a Senator, the course of action I would pursue would be to simply
state that what I know of his record reflects Constitutional biases
harmful to the well-being of the Republic and its citizens, and
therefore I would vote against his confirmation.
There has been enough coverage of the little information available
on Mr. Roberts' record to make it abundantly clear why anyone concerned
with protecting the rights of Americans who are not white, male,
and/or corporations might reasonably oppose his appointment. And,
as with most political and ideological questions nowadays, it is
unlikely that anyone's mind will be changed by repetitive arguments,
so I would also refrain from being drawn into such discussions.
What I would not do would be to calculate how to get "mileage"
out of this issue. I think the Democratic Party has done too much
of that kind of strategizing lately, and I've seen little evidence
that Party leaders basing their utterances and actions thereon produces
positive results. If they believe Mr. Roberts is a good choice,
they should vote for him, if they believe he isn't a good choice,
they should vote against him. Attempting to explain, rationalize,
argue, convince, etc., in today's already-polarized political environment,
can backfire too easily. We must state our convictions, and act
upon them, consistently and transparently.
There is a place for explaining and defending a stance on an issue,
certainly. Some complex legislation has so many contradictory goals,
effects, and motivations that the reasons why a particular representative
votes often do need clarification. In a case where the major issues
are so clear, explanations can too easily sound like waffling, spin-doctoring,
pandering, or political cowardice. A Senator may be excused for
not examining every consequence of every provision of each drop
of legislation in the flood, but in the case of the confirmation
of a Supreme Court Justice, Americans can reasonably expect all
Senators to devote substantial time and effort to studying the candidate
and understanding the issues as thoroughly as possible.
Now, none of this will console your wife, not to mention the millions
of other women, minorities, and working people who have good reason
to fear Mr. Roberts' arrival on the Court. He will be confirmed.
However, we should not be too gloomy about it, either. Yes, it means
that the Supreme Court, which has been valuable in the ongoing fight
to render America a more just, equitable, and sustainable society,
will become part of the problem. On the other hand, we should remember
that for the last forty years, conservatives have been expending
incredible efforts to limit the effectiveness of the Court.
The strategy behind conservative attempts to hobble the court
rested on their perception of the Court as a "liberal tool." In
applying Constitutional standards to matters of civil rights, equity
before the law, etc., the Court effected sweeping changes with great
efficiency. Battles did not need to be fought "state by state."
Those who disagreed with the changes found such efficiency appalling.
Yet in today's political environment, returning to a "state
by state" change model might be a very effective strategy for
Democrats. Conservatives have been so successful in exciting suspicion,
distrust, and hostility to the Federal government (not without help
from some liberals,) that a great many Americans now harbor a visceral
sense that "nothing good can come out of Washington."
And that is not going to change just because the conservatives control
all three branches of government - indeed, it will almost certainly
Yet most people still feel some measure of connection to state
and local governments. In bread-and-butter issues, state and local
governments lack the enormous "purse power" of the Feds,
but they have tremendous impact on peoples' lives. If we work thoughtfully
and with an eye to the long term, we may yet weather the disaster
of Justice Roberts.
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