David Brooks offers up another fine bit of sophistry in today’s New York Times. And yes, it’s another example of what I call the Dover Beach column, wherein the lofty-minded pundit sadly surveys the madness of partisan conflict from a spot high above the fray, and then proceeds to offer a lofty-minded solution that happens to coincide with one party’s agenda.In this case, the subject is abortion, and here is the gist of the Brooksian argument: (1) Roe v. Wade whisked abortion policy from the legislative to the judicial arena, making compromise impossible and empowering extremists on both sides of the issue; (2) legitimately frustrated Republicans who can’t pursue legislative remedies on abortion are now poised to Do the Bad Thing and assault both the judiciary and the essentially conservative traditions of Senate debate; and thus (3) the solution is to give Republicans what they want by overturning Roe. Neat, eh?As is generally the case with Brooks these days, his transition from bipartisan-sounding analysis to endorsement of a partisan position is greased by a big fat planted axiom of extremely dubious quality: the idea that making abortion a legislative issue will facilitate “democratic debate,” compromise, sweet reasonableness, and in general, a de-emphasis of the issue in our political system.Give me a break. Without Roe, abortion politics would be a 24-7 preoccupation of both Congress and many state legislatures, with those determined to eventually outlaw abortion altogether offering an infinite variety of incremental, poll-tested restrictions. How do I know this? Because that’s precisely what’s happened in the limited sphere of legislation allowable under Roe. Look at the last “reasonable compromise” offered by Democrats in Congress, the Daschle Amendment of the late 1990s, which would have banned third-trimester abortions with an exception for the health of the mother. It was not only opposed by some abortion rights advocates, but by right-to-lifers and Republicans generally, who weren’t interested in any “solution” other than their own contrived “partial-birth” ban, which recognized no exceptions.Moroever, look at what’s happening in the U.K., one of those wise jurisdictions where abortion policy is set through “democratic debate.” The Tories have made abortion a big issue in the current parliamentary campaign by proposing an incremental restriction of the period where abortion is allowable, in an overt attempt to peel off Labour-leaning Catholic voters.The truth is that abortion politics are toxic not because the courts have intervened, but because the issue involves very fundamental differences of opinion on matters that are more important to some people than politics itself. It’s possible to make the argument that letting “democratic debate” decide abortion policy is the right thing to do, but Brooks’ idea that it will reduce the passions involved in this issue, or keep right-to-lifers from demonizing judges or seeking to override Senate traditions, is absolutely wrong.We just learned in the Schiavo saga that conservatives are willing to demonize judges if they don’t interpret federal and state statutues to suit them. Accepting, as Brooks does, the thread-bare argument that they are only interested in reasserting the right to “democratic debate” is tantamount to total surrender to the GOP position, which is, of course, where Brooks would have us go.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
As a old guy and a history buff, this topic attracted me like catnip, and I addressed it at New York:
Seth Masket did something important and admirable at Politico this week: He examined the historical premise for some advice being offered to President Biden by many voices and found it to be ill-founded:
“Joe Biden needs a ‘Sister Souljah Moment.’ At least, that’s according to the quickly congealing conventional wisdom in Washington. That is, Biden and Democrats are in dire danger of losing control of Congress next year, and the one thing that could save them would be by bashing someone to Biden’s left on matters of race.”
The allusion is to a speech famously made by Bill Clinton in the summer of 1992 (when he had already nailed down the Democratic presidential nomination) to a conference of the Jesse Jackson–chaired Rainbow Coalition criticizing the organization for holding a panel the previous day that included Sister Souljah. The rapper had recently made remarks related to the L.A. riots that some interpreted as promoting the killing of white people (a claim she denied).
Jackson (who had expressed pride in Souljah’s appearance at his conference) was sitting on the stage near Clinton as he spoke and understandably felt blindsided and exploited by what Clinton said. So it has gone down in legend as a “moment” when a Democratic politician pandered to swing voters (and perhaps to white racists) by conspicuously separating himself from Black political activists. And that, as Masket notes, is what some commentators want Biden to do to stem the political bleeding over controversies surrounding racial justice, including Black Lives Matter protests, the “defund the police” movement, and the alleged influence of critical race theory in public-school classrooms.
The principal trouble with the claim Biden can do wonders via a little measured race-baiting, Masket explains, is that it didn’t do Clinton much good in 1992. A lot of factors lifted him to victory that fall, but clearly it was the economy (stupid!) and the temporary withdrawal of Ross Perot from the race that were most important. There is little-to-no evidence that the Sister Souljah “moment” had any particular effect on the contest. Yet the legend persists:
“Is it possible that Clinton got some help on Election Day from his bashing of Souljah five months earlier? It’s possible, but unlikely. Campaign effects just generally don’t last that long. It was a very old story by then, and it’s hard to even discern much of an effect when the story was fresh. Polling that year shows that voters were more likely to trust Clinton on issues related to racial politics, but that was true prior to the Souljah moment, as well.
“So why is it important to interrogate this piece of political lore three decades later? Because clearly many opinion leaders take it as an article of faith that a Democratic president can make himself more popular by bashing advocates for racial justice. The evidence doesn’t really support this, but they make the argument anyway.”
I would go a step further than Masket in debunking the “Sister Souljah Moment” theory. I say this not because I have any insider information on what was going on in the Clinton campaign (or in the candidate’s mind) before he made that Rainbow Coalition speech. But I was an early Clinton supporter and later worked for the decidedly Clintonite Democratic Leadership Council, and I sure didn’t think the incident was mostly about race. Obviously, racists in the electorate probably perceived it that way, though few of them at that point in history were likely to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. The broader perception at the time was captured by Tom Edsall’s on-site report on the speech for the Washington Post:
“Clinton’s frank remarks seemed designed to demonstrate his willingness to challenge core Democratic constituent groups and to begin to break his image in the public as a “political” person who would bend to pressure from major forces within his party …
“The power of the Perot campaign, and growing public animosity to both the Republican and the Democratic parties, has been interpreted in the Clinton campaign as a powerful message requiring the Arkansas governor to attempt to regain the status of an ‘outsider’ candidacy — a status first lost to former Massachusetts senator Paul E. Tsongas, then to former California governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. and most recently to Perot.”
Indeed, the idea that Clinton was triangulating against Black folks generally on race was not borne out by the reaction from, well, Black folks, other than those very close to the justifiably insulted Jackson, as Steve Kornacki later observed:
“Clinton did not suffer any discernible fallout among black voters; in fact, many black political leaders — some nursing their own grudges against Jackson — used the occasion to throw their support behind Clinton.”
That could be in part because even if you think Clinton was pushing off the left, he wasn’t exactly moving right. In the same speech in which he chastised Sister Souljah for allegedly smiling upon the hypothetical killing of white people for the sins of their race, Clinton sounded some familiar populist themes that were entirely congenial to his audience:
“The speech included repeated attacks on the Bush administration, with a well received line about Vice President Quayle — ‘I’m tired of people on trust funds telling people on food stamps how to live’ — and praise for ‘the real story of Los Angeles — that most people who live in that city did not burn, loot or riot.’”
So what would a more nuanced understanding of the “Sister Souljah Moment” tell Joe Biden?
First of all, Biden is in a vastly different position than was Clinton in 1992. There is no Ross Perot on the horizon, appealing to a huge block of swing voters temporarily estranged from both parties. When Clinton rejected Jesse Jackson’s advice to run a base-mobilization campaign, there were plenty of reasons to fear that identification of Clinton with Democratic orthodoxy would be disastrous: At the time of the Sister Souljah speech, Clinton was running third in many polls behind Perot and George H.W. Bush. And when Perot did (temporarily) withdraw from the race right after the Democratic convention (I was involved in speech preparations for that convention and remember when the word came down: No more criticisms of Perot!), he basically confirmed that Clinton had succeeded in redeeming his pledge to become “a different kind of Democrat,” as the Los Angeles Times explained:
“’When we started … there was a climate there where we could win outright,’ Perot asserted. But now, he said, ‘the Democratic Party has revitalized itself. They’ve done a brilliant job, in my opinion, in coming back.’
:Perot did not elaborate on that point. But Morton H. Meyerson, a longtime Perot confidant and campaign adviser, later cited the Democratic Party’s platform as something that ‘Ross feels good about.’
“Meyerson added: ‘The Democrats seem to be listening to the people.'”
Biden, by contrast is operating in a highly polarized climate with few swing voters and no Perot-like centrist to challenge him. He has zero reason to gamble on separating himself rhetorically from his party.
Second of all, while Clinton was dealing with decades of perceived Democratic subservience to the party’s interest and constituency groups, Biden is dealing with a conservative media environment in which nothing he says will effectively contradict assertions that he wants to defund the police, open the prison doors, impose “woke” speech codes and racial quotas on colleges and workplaces, and usher in a socialist revolution. It’s all preposterous, but Biden has already tried and failed to challenge the smears with rhetorical signals. Some hypothetical equivalent to the supposed message Clinton sent in the “Sister Souljah Moment” would mostly be heard by those who feared, not hoped, he was separating himself from his party under pressure.
And third, even if Joe Biden thought he needed to “push off” the left (as though defeating Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primaries wasn’t enough “pushing off”), he should stay far away from racially inflammatory subjects. Biden would have never won the presidential nomination without the kind of staunch Black support that destroyed the potentially strong nomination campaigns of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, even though Biden’s history on racial issues was far more problematic than Clinton’s in 1992. Besides, now and in 1992, the idea that “the left” and “Black voters” are somehow synonymous is simply wrong.
If Biden feels the need to make it clear he’s still the moderately progressive Democrat who hates racism but is by no means a socialist or especially “woke,” he should just say so, as often as possible. No “pushing off” is necessary.