Monday, April 25, 2005

Borking mad

I cast my first votes in 1980 while a college student in Arkansas. I voted for both Jimmy Carter (for President) and Bill Clinton (for governor). Both lost.

The guy who beat Clinton, a Republican named Frank White, ran an administration that was an unmitigated disaster. I say this without rancor; indeed, my Sunday School teacher at the time was one of the new governor's aides, poor fellow. Frank White was the man who signed the infamous Act 590, which required "balanced treatment" of creationism and evolution in Arkansas public schools. This law was later struck down by the courts after a rather wild court case. It did not help that Governor White more or less admitted that he had signed the bill without reading it. (Though this admission made headlines, it was not really a big surprise to anyone. One seldom went more than a day or two without wincing at something that Governor White said or did.) So in 1982, the good people of Arkansas repented and re-elected Clinton, and basically said that he could be governor for as long as he wanted. I would have voted for Clinton in 1982 as well, except that by then I'd moved to Texas.

The guy who beat President Carter, of course, was Ronald Reagan. My friends and I were upset by this, in the over-dramatic way that college students can be upset. We wore black armbands the next day. In retrospect, we were wrong. Ronald Reagan did not bring about a nuclear apocalypse. In fact, on several fronts -- the economy and the Cold War come to mind -- he arguably did a great deal of good. Still, in 1984 my next presidential vote went for good old decent liberal Walter Mondale.

I therefore started out my political life voting for Democrats. But more than twenty years later, I realize that it has been a long time since I voted for a Democrat for national office. Why the change?

There is an interesting series of posts at Neo-Neocon (which I learned about from Roger L. Simon, himself one of my daily reads) describing the political evolution of the writer from a fairly typical antiwar leftist in the 1960's to a "neoconservative" in the 2000's. One of the interesting features of this story (still in progress) is that the writer has training in psychotherapy, so she has some interesting insights into the difficult and dicey process of personal change. Simon is evidently coming out with a book on his own similar political journey.

My own story would be much less interesting. I was never particularly liberal in the first place. I tended from the start to line up on the conservative side of a whole bunch of social issues, for instance, and socialism never seemed like a moral imperative. On national security, I thought that the "Nuclear Freeze" movement (remember that?) was simple-minded and rather dangerous. In the 1980's, anyway, such opinions did not necessarily mean that you voted Republican in the election, especially when that cowboy actor person was running. I was the sort of guy who could and did subscribe to both National Review and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the same time. (This combination got me on a lot of weird mailing lists.)

But there was one political event that did have a huge effect on my thinking -- not necessarily about the basic issues, but about who was who and what was what in this era of the political life of our country. That event was the nomination and subsequent rejection of Robert Bork to the U. S. Supreme Court.

I watched some of the Bork Senate hearings on C-SPAN, and I found them very troubling indeed. Bork came across as smart, cool-headed, learned, decent. Even if you did not agree with him, he seemed like the sort of man you would want in the debate. But the Democrats on the Senate committee treated him like a war-criminal. I saw them try to cast Bork's peripheral role in Watergate (he was essentially the last man standing in the senior eschalon of the Justice Department when Nixon fired the AG in 1974) as something nefarious. (See Update below.) I watched as one Senator grilled Bork about the lucrative corporate work he had done while at Yale, leaving the impression that the judge was in the pocket of big business. Then I heard the rest of that story, under questioning by a Republican -- how at that time Bork's wife had been dying of cancer, and he had taken on the outside legal work to pay the medical bills.

And who can forget Senator Kennedy's appallingly memorable outburst:
Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, school children could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens of whom the judiciary is — and is often the only — protector of the individual rights that are at the heart of our democracy.
In other words, Robert Bork, distinguished jurist and law professor and constitutional scholar, author of some of the definitive studies of anti-trust law, who had served the nation both as Solicitor General and as a judge on the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals, was a racist and a fascist. (Is there another reasonable way to read Kennedy's remarks?) Even now, a couple of decades later, this sort of poisonous rhetoric stinks. It was effective, though. Bork lost the vote 58-42.

It was clear to me then that the Senate Democrats were so ferocious about Bork precisely because he was actually a great choice for the Court. He had the intellectual horsepower to resist trendy but dubious ideas and to be able to sway other justices to his own views. Bork and Scalia (another sharp customer who had become a Justice the year before) would inevitably become the intellectual center of the Court.

Just opposing Bork in a serious argument about judicial philosophy was not an option for the Democrats in 1987. Nobody on Capitol Hill, then or now, was a match for him in serious debate. If the battle were to be joined on the field of ideas, Bork would almost certainly win confirmation, despite the new Democrat majority in the Senate. So to keep their ideological hold on the Supreme Court -- a powerful friend of political liberalism for thirty years -- the Democrats had to paint this good man as a kind of freakish monster. And as Bill Kristol points out in a recent editorial, the damage done thereby to the political health of the nation has been incalculable.

Kristol is thinking about this, as am I, because of the current dust-ups over filibusters for judicial appointments, and also the confirmation hearings for John Bolton. Does anyone really think that Priscilla Owens, for instance, is especially unsuited to sit on the federal appeals bench? No, the real objection to her is that she is smart and effective and likely to make a difference. Miguel Estrada was kept out precisely because, as someone with impressive credentials, an Hispanic background, and a generally conservative legal viewpoint, he was a likely up-and-comer. They'll try the same with Janice Rogers Brown, who is black. (Better squash their careers now before they goes on to bigger things. Can't be too careful about these minority crossovers. Remember Clarence Thomas!) Charles Pickering is an honorable and decent man with an excellent legal background and a proven record of enforcing laws with which he disagrees. But he is a devout Catholic, which means at some level he is, like the Pope, wrong on the Big A, and so he must be stopped. Et cetera. It's Bork times ten -- except this time the Democrats do not actually have the votes to prevail in the Senate, so they must resort to proceedural shennanigans to make sure that the nominees never get to a vote at all.

And is there anything wrong with John Bolton except that he is a smart and effective guy who supports the policy of the President? I don't think that Bolton has said anything about the UN that I didn't learn from Daniel Patrick Moynihan's great book on his own tenure as UN Ambassador, thirty years ago. (Indeed, Bolton himself played a role in undoing some of the nasty stuff the UN did in Moynihan's day, like the notorious resolution equating Zionism with racism.) The accusations that he treated some of his subordinates harshly are not very serious, even if true. But his opponents in the Senate will put on long faces and declare, in tones ranging from the solemn to the unhinged, that Bolton eats babies for breakfast and wants to blow up UN Headquarters. And weak-minded and uninformed colleagues on the Republican side -- my own Senator Voinovich for instance -- will think, Gee, if they are so worked up, maybe this guy must really be bad.

We've seen this before, though. The Democrats are not afraid that Bolton will be a failure. They are afraid that he will be a success.

Not all opposition to a Presidential nominee is based on this sort of political animus. For instance, I think that the failed 1989 nomination of John Tower to be Secretary of Defence probably had a serious element of worry that he would not be able to carry out the job well. (As I recall it, there were concerns about ties to defence contractors and Tower's alleged history of alcoholism, among other issues.) So instead we got Dick Cheney as SecDef, a man at least as conservative as Tower. Cheney was confirmed unanimously. I choose this example because, unlike the present cases, the fact that Cheney was bright, experienced and likely to be effective was actually a point in his favor.

The federal judiciary and the diplomatic bureaucracy at the Department of State have been two famous strongholds of the left side of the American political spectrum over the last few decades. The Democrats, who are increasingly in trouble in national electoral politics, are desperate to hold onto these. If those diabolical Republicans seed such institutions with talented and principled conservatives, they might have influence for years to come. It increasingly seems that the Democrats are willing to do anything at all to prevent this.

Update: I had remembered my Watergate history a bit wrong. Nixon instructed Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. The AG resigned rather than do this, as did his deputy. Bork, as Solicitor General, discussed with the two of them whether he should resign as well, but it was decided that he should remain at his post (to keep continuity in the DOJ management) and carry out the President's order to fire Cox. This became known and the Saturday Night Massacre.


Blogger aram harrow said...

Hi Ben,

I'm too young to know about Bork, but I think the issue with Bolton is not so much that he treated his subordinates harshly but that he did so when they gave intelligence assessments that he disagreed with. And we all know what happened next....

Kevin Drum has a response to the Kristol article along those lines at .

But maybe I'm just going to see this differently from you because I'm farther left. For example, I can't for the life of me understand how anyone could say that Zionism isn't racism.

7:46 PM  

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