The wrong turning point

Exactly 24 years ago today, the U.S. Senate defeated Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. As far as the New York Times‘s Joe Nocera is concerned, it was an ugly turning point in American politics.

His nomination battle is also a reminder that our poisoned politics is not just about Republicans behaving badly, as many Democrats and their liberal allies have convinced themselves. Democrats can be — and have been — every bit as obstructionist, mean-spirited and unfair.

I’ll take it one step further. The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics…. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.

Nocera’s larger point, in fact, is that mean ol’ liberals are largely responsible for the toxicity and breakdowns in Washington. “The next time a liberal asks why Republicans are so intransigent,” the columnist concludes, “you might suggest that the answer lies in the mirror.”

It’s hard to overstate how remarkably wrong this is. Indeed, nearly every paragraph in Nocera’s piece includes a fairly significant error of fact or judgment.

The columnist argues, for example, that Bork was an intellectual giant who was unfairly labeled as an “extremist.” I suppose it’s a subjective question — an extremist to one is a moderate to another — but I’d note for context that Bork had endorsed Jim Crow-era poll taxes, condemned portions of the Civil Rights Act banning discrimination in public accommodations, and argued against extending the equal protection of the 14th Amendment to American women, among other things. Nocera may be comfortable with Bork’s ability to justify these positions as a matter of legal theory, but considering Bork’s conclusions as “extreme” seems more than fair.

Indeed, as recently as last week, Bork was still arguing that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment doesn’t apply to women.

Nocera also suggests to the reader that it was Democrats who destroyed Bork. What the column neglected to mention is that Dems didn’t filibuster Bork’s nomination; they simply brought the nomination the floor. At that point, six Republican senators agreed that Bork was simply too radical for the high court.

Nocera sees the vote as an example of Democratic “obstructionism.” That’s silly. It wasn’t obstructionist and the vote wasn’t along party lines.

The columnist also argues this one ordeal poisoned the Washington well. But the Democratic Congress and the Reagan White House continued to govern and pass significant bills after Bork was defeated, as did President George H.W. Bush with a Democratic Congress. This was not some kind of unhealed wound that made bipartisan cooperation impossible.

Nocera goes on to argue that Bork’s opposition to Roe v Wade is somehow comparable to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s questions about the ruling’s rationale, but to equate the two is just foolish.

The columnist’s understanding of history related to judicial-nominee fights is woefully incomplete.

There have been plenty of modern turning points that have created the breakdowns of our political system. The Gingrich Revolution and the far-right takeover of the Republican Party seems like the big one to me, as do the unjustified impeachment of a Democratic president, the dubious legitimacy of the 2000 presidential election, the Bush White House’s post-9/11 strategy of dividing the country for GOP gain, the Republicans’ scorched-earth strategy of the Obama era, etc.

But the bipartisan opposition to Bork is the real culprit? Please.