Home National Politics Warped Views of President Obama Push “Conservatives” Into Bizarre, Unconstitutional Territory

Warped Views of President Obama Push “Conservatives” Into Bizarre, Unconstitutional Territory


Appearing in newspapers in conservative VA-06.

It is now 60 years that I’ve been following American politics closely. Long enough to get surprised when the way things have always been change dramatically into something never seen before.

I have been surprised, for example, to see people who regard themselves as “conservative” readily support leaders who break well-established American precedent. Aren’t conservatives the people who recognize that traditions are there for a reason — that you respect established norms, not just trample on them?

How is it, for example, that our citizens on the conservative side are OK with the Republicans in the Senate refusing to do what every other Senate in American history has done—i.e., to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court by confirming a justice nominated by the president. In the past, the Senate has rejected one nominee or another for this reason or that. But never has a Senate declared itself unwilling to confirm any nominee.

(In recent times, less than a year before an election, Senates in which Democrats were the majority confirmed John Paul Stevens, William Rehnquist, and Anthony Kennedy after nominations made by Republican presidents.)

So the question arises: what accounts for the willingness of “conservatives” to countenance such a break from what is not only established tradition, but also the clear sense of what the Constitution says should happen?

Two answers have come to me.

First, it seems that, these days, a lot of people who call themselves conservatives don’t really care much about conservative principles, but are more focused on attitude and posture. The rise of Donald Trump to frontrunner in this year’s Republican race demonstrates this: antagonism trumps principle.

Second, it could be that the intense antagonism toward our current president goes a very long way to making any tactic to thwart him seem justifiable.

If President Obama is as terrible a president as many on the right apparently believe he is – and polls have shown that a substantial number of Republicans think that Obama is the anti-Christ, that he is doing things like what Hitler did, that he wants the terrorists to win, etc. – perhaps their abhorrence for him overwhelms any respect for the idea of the president’s rightful role under the Constitution.

People who believe those things may want their leaders to do everything they can – regardless of its violation of traditional American norms and ideals – to prevent such a man from performing his constitutional responsibilities.

But that leads to yet another big surprise in our times: that such a monstrous image of Barack Obama could be held by millions of the citizens of a society in which people have free and almost unlimited access to information.

In closed societies, like the Soviet Union under Stalin and in Nazi Germany under Hitler, people can be closed off from facts and ideas that conflict with the party line being fed to everyone. But in a free society like ours, with an open “marketplace of ideas,” our founders expected the true to prevail over the false.

I’ve no doubt that historians will find plenty to criticize in how Mr. Obama has conducted his presidency. (I myself have written such critiques since 2009.) But I feel equally certain that historians will note how extraordinary it was that it was possible in a society like ours to convince so many people to believe an image of this president that was so completely at odds with what was on display right in front of everyone’s eyes.

Whatever Mr. Obama’s shortcomings, as president he has been: 1) quite moderate, by the standards of advanced democracies generally and the American policy mainstream in particular; 2) eager to compromise – and loath to engage in confrontation– with his political opponents; and 3) devoted to reasonableness.

All of that is so readily demonstrated by information available to everyone, not to mention on clear display on the TV screens of every citizen, that I would never have guessed it possible for any political/media force to sell so many people on the right this image of a presidential monster.

But there it is– a remarkable achievement by the leaders and media of the right. An achievement quite surprising to me and, I would wager, one that would have astonished also founders of our freedom like Jefferson and Madison.

And so the Republican base, having bought this image of the president, applauds their Republican Senators as a bulwark against the monstrous as they take a course of action that not so long ago would likely have been considered a crime against true conservatism.

  • Quizzical

    We won’t really know the Republicans position until President Obama actually makes a nomination, and then we shall see how they react. I interpret their comments to date as meaning that they aren’t going to confirm the progressive equivalent of a Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia. (I was surprised to learn that Justice Thomas is only 67.).

    In other words, it could be pre-nomination posturing to satisfy the Republican base and to deter President Obama from offering such a nominee. Talk is cheap.

    • Andy Schmookler

      I would like to think you’re right, Quizzical. But it seems to me that the Republican statements thus far have been so categorical that they’ve pretty much painted themselves into that corner (or gone all the way out on that limb) such that it would seem to be a surrender if they relented.

      I believe it is conceivable that this surrender could be compelled, if the Dems wage an effective enough campaign on it. But I’m not sure about that and, moreover, we haven’t seen many examples of the Democrats being that tough and that effective in imposing heavy costs on Republicans for their misdeeds.

      More likely, as I would guess at this point, is that the Republicans will not relent, and that the Democrats will be able to make reasonably effective use of this issue to help gain control of the Senate.

      I don’t know what the futures markets are saying right now, but between the likelihood of having Trump at the top of the ticket, and the power play of the GOP in refusing to do their constitutional job in the hope of keeping control of the Court, the Democratic chances of taking over the Senate have been greatly fortified.

      • Quizzical

        I don’t think they would surrender. If the President nominates an eminent Judge who is so fair, so moderate, and so non-political that no one could have any genuine qualms or objections, the Republicans could declare victory and confirm. They could brag to their base that they stood firm and did not let the President appoint a liberal. And in a sense they would be right. But to go back to the President’s speech in Illinois, I don’t think he is interested in staking out an uncompromising position; he wants to get stuff done.

        This is not a heavy lift, there are a lot of superb judges on the US Court of Appeals.

        • Quizzical

          As an example, Judge Sydney Ryan Thomas, Chief Judge of the 9th Circuit. He was on the President’s short list when Kagan was nominated.

          It would be a non controversial pick that adds geographical diversity to the Court.

  • Jim Butler

    I suppose the greatest fault I have with President Obama is that he doesn’t fight back. If he could only just for a few seconds look at what Nixon would have done. I don’t mean break any laws, but use the presidency to get those evil bastards.

    • Andy Schmookler

      I see what you mean about Nixon. But he fought dirty.

      How about what FDR would have done, talking to the American people about the forces arrayed against him, as he did in 1936:

      “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial
      monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism,
      war profiteering.

      “They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs….

      “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it
      the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I
      should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these
      forces met their master.”