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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Which Side Are You On?

It looks like Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito will be confirmed. For better or worse – and yes I do think it’s for worse – the Republicans have the votes. Without a Democratic filibuster Alito will glide by. Even if every Democratic senator votes against him, he will make it. Just do the math. There are 55 Republican votes.

And not every Democrat will vote against him. Ben Nelson, for one, will probably vote with the Republicans on this one. To be sure, a Republican or two, one of the moderates from the Northeast, will cross party lines too. Most likely Lincoln Chaffee. But I expect most of them will hew to the party line. Republicans have that kind of discipline, after all.

I’m not happy with this. There’s no way to put a smiley face or false optimism on it. Sam Alito will tilt the Supreme Court as far to the right as it’s been in my lifetime. This means that the rights of women, minorities, the disabled, prisoners – especially in death penalty cases - and those concerned about the tilt of the balance of power in the executive branch will all take a hit. Unlike some of my more liberal colleagues, I don’t think it’s the end of the Republic as we know it. But it will mean fighting the same battles that we thought we had won in the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties all over again. It’s a major setback, no question about it.

However, it’s also an opportunity.

This is one more chance for Democrats to define themselves and their core values and to contrast themselves with Republicans. And it could resonate across the country.

The true nature of the Republican Party has never been clearer. It’s the party of special interests, cronyism, and the defender of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the poor. The Republicans’ draconian budget cuts for programs that benefit ordinary people, their insistence on still more tax cuts for their wealthy benefactors, the Jack Abramoff/Tom Delay “pay to play” lobbying scandal just now making its way into the national consciousness beyond the Beltway, are all throwing into sharp relief where their values really lie.

And Democratic senators should not be afraid to stand up and vocally oppose Alito’s nomination. Although his nomination will be voted out of committee by next week, the next step is a full Senate vote. Democrats should not filibuster. He deserves an up or down vote. But that doesn’t mean that Democrats have to rubber stamp the Republican President’s choice. The role of the Senate is to advise and consent. And that means the Democrats in the Senate are well within their constitutional right to advise “no” and to refuse their consent to this nominee.

The main thing, however, is to have the debate and to explain why they oppose Alito. And at the same time, it’s to explain what they stand for instead. Simple opposition to a candidate isn’t enough. Democrats need to present an alternative vision of what traits and values they’d rather see in a Supreme Court nominee.

Of course, the only people who will be listening to a debate on a Supreme Court nomination are the base. But that’s not a small thing. These are the kinds of issues where you need to stay loyal to your base. The base, after all, are the people who will walk through fire for you. Or, at least, get out and knock on doors for you on a cold, snowy day in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Indeed, politics is the art of satisfying the base while also moving out to embrace the moderates and independents. It’s a delicate balancing act and the Republicans have mastered it far better than Democrats have.

Their base is no less extreme or radical than ours. In fact, at its fringes it’s far more radical. The Democratic left doesn’t even have an equivalent in terms of sheer craziness to the Pat Robertson/James Dobson followers. The organized groups of anarchists on college campuses who show up to protest G-7 meetings don’t participate in Democratic Party politics. They’ve written off the two party system.

However no matter how extreme their rightwing appears, it is more disciplined than even our more moderate leftwing. Sam Alito is the victory they’ve been working toward for years and through at least three Republican presidents. They have mostly held their fire, sucked it in and supported presidents who have alternately ignored them and picked more moderate nominees such as David Souder, who have greatly disappointed them, and championed the Robert Borks only to see them lose in Senate confirmations.

This was the year, though, that their base drew their line in the sand and said no more. This was the victory that they had worked so hard for through all these years and Republican Administrations, and they would not be denied. This was also probably their last shot at finally getting that victory. After Bush’s term ends, they have no guarantee that they will get anybody as conservative as him again or even another Republican who identifies as much as one of them, that is a self-proclaimed born again Christian, again. If to the victor go the spoils, this was their last shot at the spoils that they had worked for so long and so hard.

If hard work, discipline and loyalty make one deserving of a victory, regardless of their nominee’s actual worthiness, they deserve it. They’ve earned it.

When we win, we’ll deserve it too.

And that’s where this becomes an opportunity. Not to block this nomination, no matter how appalling it actually is. Yeah, I’m pretty appalled by it too.

But the opportunity is to use it as the jumping off point for a debate on the direction of our nation. Sometimes, you gotta use tough love. That is, as hard as it is, you have to let people make the mistake and live with the consequences. The thing is to point out why Alito is a bad choice and then every time he tilts the Supreme Court in the wrong direction and it erodes another liberty that we as a nation take for granted, to point it out again. And again, and again. It’s the consequence of voting for somebody as extreme and radical and ideological as George Bush is.

Another thing, to go back to satisfying one’s base. The Democratic Party has spent far too much time losing it’s core values in trying to satisfy conservative Southerners and Midwestern rural voters who will never be our base or our constituency while ignoring Northeasterners who are.

There are many Republicans who win in so-called moderate to socially liberal northern parts of the country – starting with the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Spector, who have been given a bye for far too long. What about the Spectors, the Susan Collinses, and the Olympia Snowes? These so called moderates win in Northern states specifically by running as pro-choice Republicans. It’s their base, their voters who now need to look at how deeply conservative Sam Alito is and challenge those moderate Republican senators who vote for his confirmation. There’s an old union song with the refrain, “which side are you on.”

“Which side are you on?” is a fair question to ask these moderates. I am angrier with them than I am with Ben Nelson, Nebraska’s Democratic senator. Although the media persists in calling him a moderate, Nelson’s no moderate. He’s a conservative Democrat. That’s what he ran as. That’s what his constituents elected. If he is representing them, I have no quarrel with his crossing party lines to vote his conscience. He is who he is. He also is who he told the voters of Nebraska he is.

But exactly who are the moderate Republicans who told their voters in New England, New York and Pennsylvania that they were pro-choice? If a conservative Democrat can follow his conscience and break rank with his party, why can’t they? What is more important to them, party loyalty or loyalty to America and to their own vision of where America should go?

It’s a question Democrats have to ask in elections in those states. Because another way to take back the leadership in the Senate and the House is to win back seats from moderate Republicans in liberal and swing states. Instead of concentrating only on supporting conservative Democrats down South, as we’ve been doing, our strategy should also be to challenge so-called liberal Republicans up North. To me, that’s a better, more comfortable fit because many of their voters actually already have core Democratic Party values. Perhaps it would be more productive for us to point that out to them by running stronger candidates and giving more Democratic money to those challenges. And to point out that when the chips are down, no matter what those moderate Republicans say about being pro-choice, they have sold their more liberal constituents down the river.

Just a thought on the eve of a sad day in our history.

1 comment:

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