Politics: January 2007 Archives

Article on Justice Thomas

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Jan Crawford Greenburg has a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal called The Truth About Clarence Thomas [hat tip: SCOTUSblog]. It recounts some of what she learned about his first term or two on the Supreme Court from the records of other justices, especially Justice Harry Blackmun. I think this pretty much destroys the last vestiges of several of the common myths about Justice Thomas, e.g. "Justice Thomas is stupid", "Justice Thomas is simply Justice Scalia's lackey" (some would even call him his slave), "Justice Thomas doesn't have any original thoughts", "Justice Thomas' opinions aren't intelligent or well-written", "Justice Thomas isn't smart enough to ask questions during oral arguments", and so on. I've long wondered how much of this is buried racism that isn't allowed to come out with political liberals but is tolerated when it comes to conservatives, but I'm sure that even if it is it's not the sort of racism the person is aware of. I've blogged about some of these issues before here, here, and a series I started here but regrettably haven't gotten around to finishing yet. [Update: See also here.]

It turns out that, according to Justice Blackmun's notes, the first year with Justice Thomas on the court changed things drastically. He'd vote in conference as a lone dissenter, but then when the other justices saw his opinions several of them would change their vote and sign on to his dissent. This is especially true of Justice Scalia, which means it's more true that he was Justice Thomas' lapdog than the reverse, although neither is really true, and a more accurate description would just be that Thomas had just convinced Scalia with arguments that Scalia's original vote was wrong.

Oh, and as for oral arguments, apparently he's got a philosophical conviction against asking questions during oral arguments. He thinks it's the lawyer's job to present the case without much interruption. He considers it a violation of his oath to do otherwise. I simply thought he was the sort of person who takes a while to digest things over the long term but not quickly on his feet, something true of some of the best philosophers I know. But he's actually deliberately holding back for principled reasons.

When Is Flip-Flopping OK?

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I very much enjoyed Saturday Night Live's spoof of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) being interviewed by MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Most of it was terribly unfair to her (and probably to several others too), but there's a grain of truth behind enough of it for it to be funny. I'm not posting this just because I liked it, though. I found one particular segment of it to be especially interesting, and I wanted to comment on it:

CM: What about those Democratic primary voters who are still upset about your initial vote for the war?
HC: Chris, I think most Democrats know me. They understand that my support for the war was always insincere. Of course, knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it.
CM: Uh-huh.
HC: I mean, for heaven's sake, look at my record. I don't even support necessary wars.
CM: Well, a lot of Democrats like the fact that Obama was always against the war.
HC: Chris, let me say something about Senator Obama, for whom I have the greatest respect. He seems to take positions based on studying an issue and then following his convictions, which is perfectly alright, bt suppose he were to go to Iraq and conclude that the war was necessary after all. He might decide to support it. Do you really trust someone like that?
CM: I never looked at it that way.
HC: Whereas, with me, the Democratic base knows that I am not going to reverse my stance on the war a second time, unless of course they want me to.

I have two thoughts from different parts of this, one brief one and one that requires a little more reflection.

People of Color

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Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log has an interesting post about his dislike of the term 'people of color'. I've never been taken with the term myself, but I don't think there are any very strong objections to it that don't also apply to other terms that I readily use. For example, it seems funny to act as if white people have no color, but we do speak that way when we call white people white and non-white people non-white. If it's bad to speak of people of color, then it's bad to speak of people who are non-white. In terms of economy of words, it's awkward to say "people of color" as opposed to "colored people", but the former doesn't have the negative connotations now usually associated with the latter, and if grammatical sleight-of-hand allows for a good result without changing the actual terms much is that so bad? There's no really strong linguistic or moral reason against it. So why not?

Well, Pullum just doesn't like the term. That's it. He doesn't judge anyone as linguistically or morally on the wrong side for using it. He just doesn't like it and doesn't use it himself. I'm not sure I dislike it as strongly as he does, but I've never been especially excited about it, and it has nothing to do with the reasons he gives in his slightly unfair characterization of conservative views on race. (I say slightly unfair, because I think what he's describing does happen, but he doesn't seem to allow for people who have views very similar to his on the moral questions but different views on the political ones, which is exactly where I stand.)

I first encountered the term during orientation in my first year of college, and it struck me as very strange. I can't say I've taken to it more over the years, but I don't have any reason I can think of why I shouldn't like it except ones that rely on bad arguments. I suppose it's better than 'non-white' in one way, because it's not defining people in terms of what they aren't.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I can think of a way that 'people of color' makes any sense to refer exactly to the people it refers to except in the sense that they aren't white. So maybe I just find it deceptive as a way to avoid saying something else that might offend some people. In other words, maybe it avoids overt offense by relying on offensive assumptions that aren't immediately discernible without reflection. But I think this might take more argument than I'm prepared to give at this point.

James Dobson used to be a helpful resource to Christian parents on issues related to childrearing. Lately he seems to prefer being a political hack whose only two goals are preventing gay people from calling their unions marriages and stopping abortion. I think the abortion issue is very important, but I also believe in certain ways of pursuing change on that issue, and he has a more expansive view of how pro-lifers can implement changes to limit abortion than I do. I disagree even more strongly on gay marriage. I'd prefer to have the government out of the business of declaring anything a marriage, which I'd prefer to keep as a private category for religious groups to define as they see fit. But if you have to tie that particular sound in the English language to particular legal rights like hospital visitation, health insurance benefits, adoption and other parental issues, and so on, then I can't for the life of me figure out why it's pro-family rather than anti-family to treat families with gay parents as non-families.

But one thing is clear to me. You can be opposed to gay marriage as a matter of public policy without thinking the right way to implement such a policy is through amending the U.S. Constitution. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) hold exactly that position. But James Dobson is perfectly happy to say that Senator McCain "is not in favor of traditional marriage" [ht: Race 4 2008]. Dobson has a Ph.D. in psychology and shouldn't be stupid enough to be unable to distinguish between (1) being in favor of gay marriage and (2) being opposed to it but also opposed to a constitutional amendment banning it. He has to be aware of McCain's statements on the issue, or he wouldn't have any basis at all for his statements. As far as I can tell, he simply considers someone an enemy for not advocating his particular method of opposing gay marriage, and it doesn't matter to him that someone happens to oppose gay marriage as long as they opposed the amendment. His definition of being in favor of traditional marriage is basically supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. He hasn't just reduced traditional marriage to heterosexual marriage (as if traditional marriage doesn't involve anything more than the fact that the two people who are married are a man and a woman). He's reduced traditional marriage to a constitutional amendment.

I've updated my response to the Mitt Romney flip-flopping charges once more, this time with information about his appointments to the judiciary as governor. Yet again, I don't think the complaints from conservatives stand up. His statements while running for president are perfectly consistent with what he's done over the years, and he's done what you might expect a genuine conservative on judicial matters to do in the environment he's been in. See the update for details.

McCain on Gay Marriage

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Since I've been defending Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) from flip-flop charges, and since he's my favored candidate for the Republican nomination for president for 2008, some might conclude that I'm just saying what I can in favor of him and would then say what I can against his opponents for that nomination. Not so. I think it's important to represent every candidate fairly and accurately, whether the person is my favored candidate or not. For that reason I feel compelled to respond to one of the lamest flip-flop charges I've ever seen, worse even than some of the pretty poor ones leveled against Senator John Kerry (D-MA) in the 2004 race (not that all the charges against Kerry were baseless, but some were just awful, particularly when it comes to his position on abortion, which I think is immoral but is certainly consistent even if he didn't always explain it well).

In several places I've seen people charging Senator John McCain (R-AZ) with flip-flopping on gay marriage not across some long period of time in separate decades (as is the case with the Romney charges) but within minutes, indeed even from one side of a commercial break to another. I'll limit my linking to just the Evangelicals for Mitt posting, since there's a video of it there. As far as I can tell, anyone making this charge is outright misrepresenting the senator or completely incapable of understanding what he said, because I see exactly one position before the break and after it.

I've run across several more flip-flop charges for Mitt Romney, all of them (it seems to me) either at odds with the information or inappropriate in some other way given the circumstances. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that these charges are generated by people who are either (1) immorally twisting the evidence and Governor Romney's words to generate what those who don't know all the information might think are contradictions or (2) just completely unable or unwilling to think very clearly. In several of these cases, it's really not that hard to compare his words and see a consistent position. In others, changing political dynamics explain a change in emphasis.

I've decided to keep my information on this all in the same place for the moment, so you can see the updates at the bottom of my original post on the issue for the new bits.

But You Did It First

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After the election in November, I wondered whether all the talk from Democratic leaders about finally running things as uniters rather than dividers would ever come to anything. The answer turns out to be no. Straight out of the Washington Post:

House Democrats intend to pass a raft of popular measures as part of their well-publicized plan for the first 100 hours. They include tightening ethics rules for lawmakers, raising the minimum wage, allowing more research on stem cells and cutting interest rates on student loans.

But instead of allowing Republicans to fully participate in deliberations, as promised after the Democratic victory in the Nov. 7 midterm elections, Democrats now say they will use House rules to prevent the opposition from offering alternative measures, assuring speedy passage of the bills and allowing their party to trumpet early victories.

The "but you did it first, so it's ok for me to do it too" mentality seems to have replaced Speaker Pelosi's earlier assurances that things would change with Democrats involved. A lot of people voted for Democrats to get the Republicans out of control. Issues of corruption and how government is run were front and center, even if those weren't the only issues people cared about. This move, therefore, seems to me to frustrate the intent of those voters who wanted to remove Republicans from control of Congress primarily because they were led to believe Democrats would do things differently. They should feel betrayed.

President Ford Quotes

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Here are two interesting quotes from the late President Gerald Ford, which I found in this SCOTUSBlog post:

What, then, is an impeachable offense? The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body [the Senate] considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has been trying to place himself as the conservative alternative to more moderate presidential candidates, most notably former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York City and Senator John McCain of Arizona. He's been doing much worse in the very early polling in early primary states, much to the surprise of pundits who have been predicting him to be a close third to the two early leaders. One reason for this seems to be that the religious right is refusing to get behind him (see, for example, here; ht: DaveG), claiming that he isn't conservative enough. He may not be conservative enough for some people, but he seems to me to be the most conservative candidate in the arena right now who would have a chance of winning the election. Maybe another governor will pull forward a bit, e.g. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin (who also has federal government experience as Secretary of Health and Human Services) or Frank Keating of Oklahoma (who hadn't been in office very long before the Oklahoma City bombing incident). Kathryn Jean Lopez has been defending him, and I thought I should do the same.

As I just said, I think at this point Romney has the most chance of the more conservative people in the arena. Even so, all that is really my fallback argument for why I would support him. I actually think the social conservatives who are criticizing him are doing so extremely unfairly. I don't have much problem with the various combinations of positions he's taken on gay rights issues, and I think he's offered a plausible explanation of the change in his positions on abortion.

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