In the summer of 2005, President George W. Bush nominated John Roberts to the Supreme Court after Sandra Day O’Connor retired. When William Rehnquist died that fall, he nominated him to be the next Chief Justice.
At the time, Barack Obama was serving his first year as the junior Senator from Illinois. He voted against the confirmation of Roberts. You can read his speech explaining that position here. Roberts was confirmed by a vote of 78-22, with 20 of 42 Democrats voting in favor. Shortly thereafter, then-Senator Obama wrote an article at Daily Kos. It was partially about that vote. But more importantly, it was a response to some progressive activists who were pretty viscously attacking Democratic Senators who voted to confirm the nominee.
Over the years there have been several things that Barack Obama wrote or said in a speech/interview that have done a good job of capturing his worldview and/or approach to politics. This article stands out among those. At a time when Supreme Court nominations are back in the news and the Democratic Party is in the midst of deciding who will be the next presidential nominee, his words back than are particularly poignant and instructive.
Obama begins by suggesting that the American people aren’t as ideologically partisan as Democratic activists often assume.
It’s this non-ideological lens through which much of the country viewed Judge Roberts’ confirmation hearings. A majority of folks, including a number of Democrats and Independents, don’t think that John Roberts is an ideologue bent on overturning every vestige of civil rights and civil liberties protections in our possession. Instead, they have good reason to believe he is a conservative judge who is (like it or not) within the mainstream of American jurisprudence, a judge appointed by a conservative president who could have done much worse (and probably, I fear, may do worse with the next nominee). While they hope Roberts doesn’t swing the court too sharply to the right, a majority of Americans think that the President should probably get the benefit of the doubt on a clearly qualified nominee.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not Roberts has actually lived up to that description. But Obama was absolutely right about Bush’s next appointment (Samuel Alito) being far more ideological. The last bolded sentence is something Republicans should keep in mind today.
Obama then mentions why neither he nor the Democrats in the Senate mounted a filibuster against John Roberts (notice how quaint that all seems 11 years later).
…a fight that would have effectively signaled an unwillingness on the part of Democrats to confirm any Bush nominee, an unwillingness which I believe would have set a dangerous precedent for future administrations — blocking Roberts was not a realistic option.
He then launches in to his concerns about the reaction to Democrats who voted “yes” to this nomination.
In such circumstances, attacks on Pat Leahy, Russ Feingold and the other Democrats who, after careful consideration, voted for Roberts make no sense. Russ Feingold, the only Democrat to vote not only against war in Iraq but also against the Patriot Act, doesn’t become complicit in the erosion of civil liberties simply because he chooses to abide by a deeply held and legitimate view that a President, having won a popular election, is entitled to some benefit of the doubt when it comes to judicial appointments. Like it or not, that view has pretty strong support in the Constitution’s design.
It is that belief of Feingold’s that is under assault by the Republicans today.
Obama continues with words that also apply to some of the arguments in the Democratic presidential primary today.
…to the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, “true” progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive “checklist,” then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted.
The reason that straightjacket is a problem is because the job of progressives is more difficult than that of conservatives.
After all, it’s easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it’s harder to craft a foreign policy that’s tough and smart. It’s easy to dismantle government safety nets; it’s harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for. It’s easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it’s harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion. But that’s our job. And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
It is the last half of that paragraph that I return to often as a synopsis of Barack Obama’s analysis of what is wrong with our politics today. Here is his alternative:
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.
Obama titled this article “Tone, Truth, and the Democratic Party.” He ends by saying that this doesn’t mean that we unilaterally disarm in the face of Republican attacks, but that tone and truth matter.
In fact, I would argue that the most powerful voices of change in the country, from Lincoln to King, have been those who can speak with the utmost conviction about the great issues of the day without ever belittling those who opposed them, and without denying the limits of their own perspectives.
Whether or not you agree with this analysis, I think it is clear that it summarizes the approach to the man who has been our President for the last seven years. That he wrote it more than a year before he made the decision to run for that office tells us that anyone who assumed we were electing a firebrand ideologue back in 2008 simply wasn’t paying attention. It is true that his speeches were often inspiring and he ignited the passions of hope for change. But all along he has been clear that he is open to new ideas (no matter where they come from), that we have a difficult job ahead of us, and that the way to build a lasting majority for progressive ideals is to develop a “consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.” That is why tone and truth matter.