Forgive me a moment of despondency and anger; only a moment though, there’s work to be done. According to the New York Times, the elevation of Judge Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court represents “a watershed for the conservative movement;” the culmination of a crusade to capture the federal judiciary that goes all the way back to 1982. I can do them one better. For me, Alito’s confirmation is the culmination of a gnawing fear over just what sort of justices would become the soul of the Supreme Court — a fear going back even further — all the way to 1968.
That’s the year Richard Nixon was elected president; it was razor close, but the SOB won. In a harbinger of things to come, this was the first presidential campaign in which I heard fellow liberals argue, in George Wallace’s snappy phrase, that there wasn’t a “dime’s worth of difference” between the Republican and Democratic candidates. Fed by justifiable anger over the nation’s betrayal in Vietnam, this pox on both of your houses sentiment was a powerful undercurrent within the anti-war movement; and although most liberals ended up voting for Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the end, many stayed home on Election Day. Probably enough did so to make the difference, given the photo finish ending to the race. But I heard few of the non-voters ever express regret.
Even later, as Nixon was sliding into disgrace, the diehards held to their self-righteousness. I remember sitting in a classroom years after the election, in the middle of the Watergate scandal, listening to a liberal classmate saying contemptuously, “Humphrey and Nixon? I still don’t get what the difference between those guys was supposed to be.” The professor, who was also, by the way, a professed liberal, agreed with him, adding a haughty little laugh.
I knew what the difference was. Hell, I had known it back at age 13, sitting in science class in junior high school the day after the election, trying to keep from making a fool of myself by crying in front of my apolitical classmates, when the principal came on the PA system to announce that the last state had fallen; it was official, Tricky Dick was to be the next president. Yeah, I knew. The Supreme Court was the difference. There were a lot of other differences between Nixon and Humphrey too, but the Supreme Court was the difference.
You see, Nixon had been running against the “evil” liberal Warren Court, promising to put “strict constructionists” on the Court. That, in fact, is when that maddeningly meaningless term, strict constructionist, first entered the political lexicon in a big way. And even then, not yet old enough to drive a car, I understood that it was a big deal whether we had a Supreme Court that was fair to little people and protected civil liberties, or one that primarily served the powerful. And as for the people who could never seem to get that through their heads, well, as I said before . . .
And so, like a lot of other annoying people, I’ve been talking about the critical nature of Supreme Court appointments in anticipation of presidential election after presidential election — through Nixon and the birth of the Burger Court, through four disappointing years when Carter didn’t get a single appointment, through Reagan and the birth of the Rehnquist Court, through George HW and even through Clinton, with two appointments, but not a lot of progress made in changing the direction of the solidly far right wing Court. Then came election 2000. And to anyone with a third grader’s understanding of the boundaries of the human aging process it was clear: The next eight years would tell the tale.
So along comes Sir Ralph; and right there with him, by the way, was much of the intellectual leadership of the left — leaders in their own minds anyway. And, sure enough, there we were again, the sniveling, whiny legions of the Supreme Court obsessed. “The sky is falling. The sky is falling,” we shouted far and wide. God how they ridiculed us. When people wonder why so many Democrats are so bitter at Nader, and to a lesser degree certain of his high profile followers, they forget about the ridicule.
I still remember the ravings of two old “friends,” both columnists for The Nation at the time. Let’s start with the always out there, as in out there somewhere in outer space, Alexander Cockburn. Here are the concluding words from a column in July of 2000,
Would liberal Democrats want a nominee picked by a man with this political record (Gore)? Actually, they couldn’t care less. If they did care, they’d be out campaigning for Ralph Nader. All they want to do is scare the pants off liberals with the idea that Bush would finish off Roe v. Wade. It’s a substantively vacuous and bankrupt position, but it’s all they’ve got left.
At about the same moment the perpetually grumpy Mr. Cockburn was checking in above, we also heard from that future neocon darling and George W. Bush enabler, Christopher Hitchens, this back in his “liberal” days (God how we don’t miss him),
Now I know that many of you are sincerely, gravely, brow-furrowingly worried about which future monarch gets to appoint which future Justice. But why not admit it? You don’t really know, and you won’t really be asked, who will fill the next Supreme Court seat. (And it was the Democratic majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, not George Bush senior, who made Clarence Thomas a Supreme.) It is as possible, in theory as well as practice, to imagine Gore making a safe and stupid reactionary appointment as it is to picture Bush making an “unpredictable” centrist one. The point, though, is that it is servile to wait upon their pleasure and caprice in this way.
And no, it probably isn’t fair to keep blaming Nader for everything bad that happens in the world, given the fact the Supreme Court, not Nader, stole the election, as well as the fact the Democrats failed to win the election after that (though if Gore had been the incumbent who led us through 9-11, instead of Bush, there would still be a Democrat in the White House today), but still . . .
And, yes, I’m also far from happy with the Democrats in the Senate (with some honorable exceptions), or for that matter, with the leadership of the various civil liberty, environmental and feminist organizations. Taken together, they did a down right crappy job fighting Alito. Through a devils trio of inadequate planning, poor-to-absent organization and (in many cases) an extraordinary display of gutlessness, they not only blew any chance of stopping Alito, they also let the GOP get away with shoving a fanatic down America’s throat without making them pay a political price for it.
Now to be fair, dumb or not, the truth is that these Democratic Senators and interest groups have very limited culpability in the ultimate fact that Alito is on the bench. The realist minority among the netroots has a point here: Given a 55-to44 (plus Jeffords) Republican majority in the Senate, Bush was ultimately going to succeed in putting a Neanderthal on the Court whatever the Democrats and their supporters did. What I think some of the realists overlook, however, is that it made a big difference how he succeeded.
This goes to something important — something too often overlooked in all the political scheming: The bottom line here is that the American people did not want an extremist on the Supreme Court. Even right wingers understood this. As many others have noted, this is why they had to hide Alito’s extremism during the confirmation process, rather than embracing it.
Thus, if the opposition had done a better job in communicating Alito’s true colors to the electorate (something that would have required spending a lot of money to be sure, but was certainly doable) most likely the nomination would still have gone through, but at least Bush and the GOP would have paid a political price for this crime against the popular will. And that price would not only have increased the chances of the Democrats taking control of the Senate in 2006 or at least in 2008, it would also have given Bush reason to pause before appointing another right wing nut in the, God forbid, but all too likely, event he gets to make another appointment. What incentive does he have now?
Okay, enough bellyaching. 37 years of frustration, and more than a little grief over what just happened, and as to its likely consequences, had to go somewhere, so it went into this post. I’ve blown my gasket and gotten a little accumulated anger out of my system; now that’s over. No more recriminations. God knows there’s enough blame to go around. And there’s still a battle to be fought.
Later, some thoughts on fighting that battle.