Has it always been like this?
by Charlie Leck
A good friend wrote a long email to me in response to a number of my blogs about the dominance of politics in the federal legislative process these days. He posed a convincing argument that it “has always been thus so.” He used the process of appointing Supreme Court Justices as his prime example. He pointed to nominees all the way back to Abe Fortes during the Lyndon Johnson administration and G. Harold Carswell by President Richard Nixon. He also points to the Senate hearing over the appointment of Clarence Thomas by President George H. W. Bush (or George the First, as I like to call him).
I wasn’t nuts about my friend’s reasoning here. Abe Fortes was turned down by the Senate for reasons that went way beyond political. Fortes had some serious skeletons in his closet and even the strength and power of Lyndon Johnson could not save the nomination. Carswell’s appointment by Richard Nixon was an extraordinary mistake. Carswell had a history of supporting segregation and he wasn’t very strong on women’s rights either. His rejection by a highly pressured Senate (45 to 51) went far beyond partisan politics.
I don’t get my friend’s point about Clarence Thomas. Certainly there was a very contentious battle in the Senate over his nomination, but there ought to have been; and the vote did come down to straight political lines and that was too bad. However, I remember the Thomas hearings with great clarity and there was genuine hand-wringing and gut-wrenching on both sides of the aisle during those hearings. Thomas should not have been nominated. The Senate had to decide about embarrassing the President by rejecting him or allowing a candidate with a questionable moral history to take a seat on the highest bench in the land. In the end, there was great torment among a good number of Republicans who voted for Thomas. His confirmation was one of the silliest and bleakest moments in American political history.
Remember, the recent appointment of Sonja Sotomeyor to the Supreme Court was approved by several members of the Republican Party.
Yet, these briefs moments of political bi-partisanship do not change my argument.
To make my point one more time, the sharpness of political division that we are witnessing in America today has no historical precedent in this nation. This has become the standard modus operandi in Congress and in elections to national office.
President Obama has unsuccessfully tried to break down this system in order to fulfill his dream that would establish a Congress that really works for the people and not for political parties. Blame is to be placed pretty evenly on each side of the aisle and the current log-jam looks like it will not be broken up in the next decade. My argument several blogs ago was simply that the current political mood is one created under the direction of Karl Rove during the George W. Bush (George the Second) administration.
Karl Rove is a name that history will remember and I don’t believe history, in its judgments, will be very kind to him.
It is more interesting for me to consider how history will treat Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He has a sharp and informed legal mind. He writes well. He is philosophically unyielding and unbending. Yet, he is an angry and tormented man. He has been on the bench for nearly twenty years and is yet to ask a single question during the legal presentations before the justices. Is that normal? A few of his dissents, such as the one that argues that cruel and unusual punishment does not apply to prisoners, leave me shaking my head in disbelief.
I remain adamant on my point that America has never in its history been as strongly and unyieldingly partisan in its politics as it is at this particular moment. I was naïve enough to believe that Obama might bring some light to Washington and change the current system, but I was emphatically mistaken. The Republican intention has been made clear. It is too embarrass the President and to make sure he cannot be reelected.
This has happened before in American politics, but never to the cruel and perplexing extent that it happens now.
Put simply, political parties are too powerful and have too much sway in determining who will run and who will win in American politics. Legislators, who want to get reelected, are afraid of crossing the Party even though they may, at times, disagree with a stance the Party has taken.
Perhaps the solution to this is strict and harsh term limits so that legislators will not always be worrying about reelection. I like the idea of a limit of two terms for Senators and three for members of the House.