The Supreme Court and Disaffected Progressive Voters

Last minute appeals to disaffected progressive voters are now being made, with the Supreme Court at the forefront of the debate as always. Although I come down emphatically  on the side that argues for all to vote to re-elect President Obama and always have for a number of reasons, it’s not hard to see how the way this debate has played out has done a disservice to all involved.

A brief overview:

Calling the current iteration of the court a Republican majority isn’t as simplistic and misleading as it would have been with the Rehnquist court in 2004. Since Souter and Stevens stepped down there are no moderate to liberal appointees of Republicans presidents left on the court and there aren’t going to be any more where they came from. Supreme Court justices now broadly reflect the party of the president that nominated them: five conservative Republicans appointees and four moderate to progressive Democratic appointees.

The conservative side has two relatively young George W. Bush justices, a George H.W. Bush justice and two Reagan justices. The Democratic side includes two relatively young Obama justices and two Clinton justices. Over the next four years the seats currently filled by Clinton and Reagan justices will be watched closely. Reagan appointees Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia are both 76. Clinton appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg will turn 80 early next year and has batted cancer. Clinton’s other addition to the court, Stephen Breyer, is 74.

That Anthony Kennedy, the champion of Citizens United, is the swing vote speaks to the nature of the conservative majority on the court. Kennedy is often labeled a “moderate” because he changed his mind and broke with the right on Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Chief Justice John Roberts was effusively praised simply because he ultimately decided not to strike down in its entirety the Affordable Care Act and it’s most controversial component, the individual mandate, that originated at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Kennedy and Roberts have successfully cleared a very low bar.

If Romney were to win and replace Kennedy or Ginsburg the right’s majority would be solidified for a long time. If a “President Romney” were to replace both, a  real possibility if he were to win, it would be difficult to overstate the damage the conservative majority could inflict. If President Obama is re-elected there’s a chance that he will be able to replace a Reagan appointee and end the right’s majority. A durable majority mainly consisting of relatively young Obama appointees isn’t out of the question

Some disaffected progressives contend that there isn’t much difference between the Democratic appointees and their Republican counterparts. I disagree. Yes, Justice Kagan may be an open question on a handful of things and other Democratic appointees may only look like progressive stalwarts when compared to the right. But that doesn’t mean the differences on reproductive rights, effective regulation in the public interest, the right to organize, campaign finance and civil rights are small or inconsequential. It’s possible to advocate for more of a difference in future Democratic appointments without diminishing the differences in the present.

Other disaffected voters argue that elected Democrats haven’t fought the right’s Supreme Court nominees. I wouldn’t dispute that in 2003, even though George W. Bush had lost the popular vote and it was well understood that his eventual nominees would be stealth regressives, there were Senate Democrats privately and perhaps publicly giving voice to the traditional view that Senators should default to voting for a president’s Supreme Court nomination, almost regardless of context and consequence. Some Senate Dems may have even patted themselves on the back for their display of inordinate reverence for what the norm might look like in a perfect world in which elected Republicans are not, you know, elected Republicans.

However, the Democratic conference in the Senate has improved since 2006 and will improve further with the additions of  Baldwin, Hirono and Warren. As always, advocates will still need to push Senate Dems on a range of issues but that looks more doable than it used to. This isn’t Mission Accomplished it’s Mission Possible.

Spend some time reading what progressive disaffecteds are thinking and it quickly becomes apparent that what they resent the most, and understandably so, is the notion that the two words “Supreme Court” render profound disagreements on other issues invalid. The Supreme Court is a very good reason to vote to re-elect the president. What Romney appointees would do on the court really is scary. But the Supreme Court is not cause to end all uncomfortable discussions and internal debate. The disaffected are right that if something is wrong or counterproductive it doesn’t become any less so just because the president who is doing it is one we voted for; they’re right that dissent is integral to progressive change; and they’re right that “better than Republicans” is a woefully inadequate standard.

I would hope that any progressive voters making a last minute decision would separate the way the Supreme Court has been invoked from the issue itself. Because although it should never be used to try shut down all debate and dissent about things like foreign policy, the future of the Supreme Court is at stake in this election.



Rick Tyler Needs A History Lesson on the African American Vote

This clip of Rick Tyler of the Gingrich campaign on MSNBC after the Florida GOP primary has been making the rounds. During his appearance, Tyler made outright false claims about the usage of food stamps, giving the impression that President Obama has set some kind of food stamp record and is unnecessarily increasing them. Neither suggestion is true. Not only was Tyler simply wrong on the facts, his entire premise is wrong. A broad range of economists will testify that, along with unemployment insurance, food stamps are the most effective recovery spending. They assist struggling Americans who, being people, need to eat, and the money goes right back into the economy. There’s a reason why farm belt politicians from both parties have championed food stamps: they’re good for rural America on a number of levels.

The story Rush Limbaugh and company like to tell about the president spending lavishly on supposedly African American-centric measures is baseless. According to Census data 49% of food stamp recipients are white, 26% are African American, and 20% are Latino. If there’s any record that it’s in the process of being set here it’s the one for right-wing mendacity.

The food stamps falsehood isn’t the only deceptive part of Tyler’s pitch that shouldn’t go unchecked. Tyler repeated the movement conservative line about the African American vote, a profile in strategic clock starting that, to those who aren’t aware of its complete lack of context, may seem vaguely troubling.

Tyler asserted that 98% of African American vote for Democrats. According to CNN’s 2008 exit poll, 95% of African Americans who voted cast their vote for Barack Obama. Limbaugh-type conservatives use this number to argue that the main driver of African American support for Obama in 2008 was his race. It’s probably not uncommon for a more casual observer to hear the 95% number and think the movement conservatives who echo this line are on to something. 95% may seem high, but when you know the full story it’s actually not surprising or troubling in the least.

Tyler started his clock on election night in 2008. The honest place to start is 1965. That’s the year the Civil Rights Act passed, thanks in large part to the bravery of the civil rights leaders and activists whose work pressured national Democrats to do the right thing. In the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the more progressive Republicans starting becoming Democrats while conservative Southern Democrats, like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, started becoming Republicans. In the following decades the GOP turned to the infamous Southern strategy, which the party, through then-Chairman Ken Mehlman, ended up having to apologize for in July of 2005.

You can draw a straight line from the Civil Rights Act to the present. Few people of any background would support a party or ideology that for decades was explicitly and often virulently opposed to their civil rights; for decades after that fomented a backlash against their civil rights; and in the present day regularly insinuates that the first president who shares their background is inherently less American than his predecessors.

Note that Al Gore and John Kerry also got most of the African American vote. According to exit polls, Gore received 90% of the AA vote in 2000 and John Kerry received 88% of the AA vote in 2004. I guess someone could try to argue that the relatively small increase from around 90% to around 95% is somehow telling, but it really isn’t. 2008 was a great election night for Democrats across the board. After eight years of George W. Bush practically any Democratic candidate had a very good chance of winning the presidency. The Crash of ’08 ensured that the Democratic nominee would win. Run any competent Democrat in that election and they’re going to win and win big among groups that make up the backbone of the Democratic coalition, African Americans being one of them.

On top of all of that was Barack Obama immense political talent and John McCain’s “game change” vice-presidential pick. Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention, though widely seen as well-executed, derided community organizers. The McCain campaign’s rile up the base strategy was predictably going to push African American undecideds toward Obama. Think back to the McCain-Palin rallies of October, at which McCain stood in the middle of the proverbial fevered swamps of Wingnutia. Can anyone claim with a straight face that Steve Schmidt of the McCain campaign was surprised that 95% of African Americans voted for Obama-Biden?

It’s certainly true that our country was long overdue for a minority president. We’re still long overdue for more African American Senators (we currently have none) and Governors (we currently have only one: Democrat Deval Patrick in Massachusetts). The same is true of Latinos and women. If we take more strides toward electoral meritocracy, we’ll see more African Americans, Latinos, and women running for and winning statewide and national office. And yes, the history-making nature of the Obama campaign is part of what made it so inspiring. But the suggestion that his share of the African American vote was significantly more than what you would expect with any capable national Democrat, let alone one with Obama’s skill, isn’t accurate.

And for the record, most Democrats get that slavery, segregation, and discrimination have profound, long-lasting consequences. We’re at our best as the party of a broad working middle class and opportunity for all; a party that celebrates diverse backgrounds. This proud tradition is one of our key strengths, not something to be ashamed of.