Monday, June 6, 2016

Character, the Clintons, and 2016



Have no doubt about what is the best book written about the Clinton Administration.  It is Christopher Hitchens's No One Left To Lie To (Verso, 1999), and I have loved it for a long time...as I still love Hitchens, warts and all, may he rest in peace.  Here is just one reason why:
Two full terms of Clintonism and of "triangulation," and of loveless but dogged bipartisanship, reduced the American scene to the point where politicians had become to politics what lawyers had become to the law: professionalized parasites battening on an exhausted system that had lost any relationship to its original purpose (democracy or popular sovereignty in the first instance; justice or equity in the second).  The permanent political class and its ancillaries held all the cards by the 2000 campaign, controlled all the money, decided on all the predigested questions in all the manipulated polls.  They did their job almost too well, leaving insufficient room for illusion and inadequate grounds for maintaining any steady or principled party allegiance.  As a result, the only realists were the cynics. 
You won't find a better summary of what Bill Clinton's two terms accomplished in American politics or of what has been, in hindsight, a significant factor contributing to the rise of Donald Trump.  The Clintons gave us the remarkable falseness that pervades our political discourse--not dishonesty necessarily in every case so much as the nagging ring of inauthenticity that has turned so many Americans off the party system entirely.  That's an important irony to bear in mind this year.

But just to be clear about it and to avoid any subtlety--I don't like Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton at all.  I never have.

Still, I face the same choice everybody else will face in 2016.  And, now comes this new book from a former-Secret Service agent assigned to the Clintons' protection detail in the 1990s.  It's core claim can be found in its title.  Byrne believes that Hillary Clinton lacks the character to be president.

The advance press has disclosed little about the specifics of what Mr. Byrne witnessed that 'made him sick.'  But what we have seen about his book already actually is nothing new.  Keen observers of the political reporting have known for a long time about Hillary and Bill Clinton's White House shouting matches, the coarse language, and even about a time when Hillary threw a lamp at Bill.  None of this, or anything like it, is new information.

I have no doubt that it all will play like new information, though, or that Donald Trump will seize on it and dominate a few news cycles.  That is, after all, why this book exists and those are the politics we have.  (Ironically, we can thank the Clintons largely for that.  But I repeat myself.)

But let's slow down and think about it for a minute.

If Hillary Clinton has a short temper, she hardly is alone.  If she has had an ugly argument with her spouse, let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.  These are not deep character flaws.  They are human foibles.  They are nothing remarkable.  Every president has had his share.

For the record, I don't think Hillary (or, Bill) Clinton has the right character for the Oval Office, and I've felt that way since pre-Lewinsky.  There are a lot of other reasons to feel that way, reasons that have nothing to do with shouting matches.  But we no longer live in that simpler time when I formed that opinion, and things look a little different in 2016.

Here is the good news about Hillary Clinton.  She is thoughtful about public policy and keenly aware of the things government can and cannot do effectively.  Her campaign promises specific policy positions that are based on reasonable conclusions from data.  I do not agree with her about much.  But I have to say this--she is practicing something I can recognize as politics.

By contrast, Clinton's 2016 opponent is a blow-dried, cyberbullying reality-TV star whose issue positions seem to be settled by a method something like letting Bull Connor, David Duke, and the drunkest, angriest uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table take turns on the spinner from Twister.

I'm sorry to say that the 2016 contest for president of the United States does not rise to the level of being a contest about character.  The question we face this year is something more essential and simple--do we choose to solve our common problems by means of politics, or not?

I believe in politics, and the only candidate nominated by a major party to be president who also believes in politics, unfortunately, will be Hillary Clinton.  That's the sad fact of where we are.

Hillary Clinton would be a bad president.  But voting for her would not be the same kind of destructive act that a vote for Trump would represent.  Both lack character.  But at least one still represents something of the political system that we all have always believed in.  The best that can be said for Hillary Clinton is that she still makes arguments about issues.  Hillary Clinton is not a raging, race-baiting Id spewing ad hominems.  That is literally the best thing I can say, and it is no endorsement...except, in 2016.

But that's not much of an endorsement, and it's not enough for me.  So when I don't vote for Clinton or Trump (and, skip the race entirely) it won't be because Gary Byrne persuaded me of anything about Hillary Clinton.  I won't even read his hardcover tabloid.  When I skip the presidential race, it will be because neither Clinton nor Trump would pass a test of character, and that still bothers me even in 2016 when most American voters don't really seem to be interested in one.  Or, in issues.

To all appearances, Gary Byrne's book is perfect for those American voters today.  We are polarized and struck by fame, and Byrne trades on both of those.  But he does not make anything like an argument about character.  Hitchens did.  And, Gary Byrne is no Hitchens.

Instead, Gary Byrne has traded on his access to famous people while he was sworn to protect their lives, and he's chosen to sell that access to score political points and make some money.

The wall of his glass house shatters anew for every copy of his book hurled at Hillary Clinton.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Five-Year Headache

The 2011 translation of the Roman Missal into English was integral to the beginnings of this blog.  Together with the USCCB's response to the Affordable Care Act, this blog project was born from a certain frustration at not being able to place op-ed's on those subjects due both to overcrowding on these topics and to the overall diminishing space in print formats.  So, to be fully on the record about it, I am not a new critic of the translation.  I have voiced my criticisms here, and here, and most widely in this article that appeared in America.

In the years since I stopped writing about the translation, I have not stopped being irritated by its regular disruptions of my experience at Mass.  Perhaps that is why Fr. Dwight Longenecker's essay here at Crux moves to me break a long silence on this subject.  Like so much about the new translation, Fr. Longenecker's argument is notably selective about its use of facts and its whole way of thinking not just about the Mass but about the Church as a communion of the faithful People of God.

Let us simply begin with the fact that Fr. Longenecker begins with data from a 2014 survey from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), which found that 75% of priests "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that the language in the translation is awkward, distracting, and needs urgent revision.  Fr. Longenecker is unmoved.  Rather, he glides past those data to blame poor communication of the translation's objectives which fed an already-established "widespread misunderstanding of the purpose of the Mass itself."

To re-read that paragraph, one it tempted to conclude that Fr. Longenecker believes he understands the purpose of the Mass better than three-quarters of his presbyteral confreres.

Certainly however, Fr. Longenecker is correct if, in his praise of "archaic language" and "lofty" turns of phrase, he suggests that misunderstanding was the purpose of this translation.  Among the other findings available to the U.S. bishops when they approved this translation was an evaluation on the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scale.  It seems that the old new translation of the Eucharistic Prayers demanded a ninth-grade level of education, aiming right at the middle of the congregation to catch the ears of adolescents and less-educated adults while not alienating those with more education.  By contrast, the new translation demands an education equivalent to an advanced undergraduate--though, if recent data from the Department of Education should guide us it may be more true to say that a master's degree is required.

These facts were available at the time, as I say.  Indeed, as I watched the spirited (livestreamed) debate on the floor of the USCCB, I was struck by how much obvious concern there was among the bishops...before they went ahead and approved the translation.

I recall most the last bishop who spoke.  (Was it Skylstad of Spokane or Sklba of Milwaukee?  I cannot remember.)  He said (this I remember almost word-for-word), "This translation, in time, will compare poorly with the Book of Common Prayer."  He observed that the language in the Book of Common Prayer was so beautiful it has shaped the English language in the centuries that followed.  Its effect on our language was not unlike the influence Shakespeare had.  In contrast, this translation is ugly.  Simply, it is ugly.  It is ugly not only for its awkwardness and its unwieldiness, but mainly for its take-it-or-leave-it, why-aren't-you-smart-enough-to-get-this approach to laypeople in the pews.  In sum, it is ugly for how it abandons the Second Vatican Council's call for "noble simplicity" in the translated words of the liturgy.

Here is where we come to the real problem of Fr. Longenecker's selectiveness.  Count Fr. Longenecker's four references to the Pope John Paul II-era Liturgiam Authenticam, and then search in vain for one reference to Sacrosanctam Concilium, the Council's 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy approved by 2,147 bishops from around the world (disapproved by 4), and promulgated by Pope Paul VI to join the extraordinary magisterium of the Church.

I offer that historical scorecard about the Constitution to underscore the weight of that document's authority relative to LA, an instruction from a Roman congregation.  By (imperfect) analogy, this is a bit like the U.S. Supreme Court favoring a regulation from the Department of Labor over the Bill of Rights.  It is backwards.

Not only did the Council call for "noble simplicity," but they gave one further and most important instruction concerning the translation of the liturgy: "Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned above"(36).

The "competent territorial ecclesiastical authority" refers to a national conference of bishops, such as our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  When I was watching the livestreamed debate at the USCCB in 2010, the bishops were performing a function required by SC.  They were approving the translation.

Yet, to listen to the debate was to hear how frustrated those bishops were--even the ones who supported the translation.  At least three of them, I recall, spoke about how they had 'no choice' but to approve this translation.  Yes there were problems with the translation, but there was no time or opportunity to fix them.  Their approval was reduced to a rubber stamp.  This visibly grieved and pained them.

To summarize a long and complex history, that grief and pain owed to the fact that there had been an earlier translation, crafted by the English-speaking bishops and submitted for Vatican approval in 1998.  That translation was rejected, and a new Vatican office seized the work of translation from the English-speaking bishops to give us the translation we have today.  Though overseen by English speakers, that office was in Rome.  Its work was done less with an eye toward spoken English than toward the literal translation of the Missal.  If the Mass today sounds like a graduate seminar in liturgical theology, this is why.  If the Mass today seems to lack beauty, nobility or simplicity, stuffed turgid with archaicisms and preening for a theological elite with its flouncy embroideries, this is why.  Quite contrary to the wishes of the Council, the local church that knows its people and its language simply was overruled.

Fr. Longenecker may draw comfort that, "Articulated properly, the elevated language lifts the soul in worship just as assuredly as a lofty church or the sonorous blast of a pipe organ raises the heart to heaven."  But I don't.  The disciples and the crowds on the shores of the Sea of Galilee raised their eyes to Heaven without flying buttresses or Palestrina.  Like the liturgy promised by the Council, they benefited from something more noble and more simple.

In a similar way, while the Kingdom may not be of this world and we may not be of this world either, we have been placed here in the world.  Our work is here.  Our liturgy not only calls us to communio in Christ, but also with one another.  It calls us to see those are the same thing, and to live for Heaven while we are in the world.  We ascend to the summit of the Eucharist in the Mass and we are sent forth into the world, not as two separate ideas but as one single idea.

This translation has abandoned the world Jesus told us to go forth to.  It builds a wall around the sanctuary and calls us to forget about what is outside.  It talks past us to tell us that someone else will do the hard work of understanding, and we should listen to him.  In those ways, it has diminished the apostolate of the laity and the good theological work done in the twentieth century to bring the Church back out to address the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of all men and women living today.

This translation is a deliberate step into the past taken by a Church promised to tomorrow, that is supposed to be working for the world today.  These are the thoughts, five years later, that still distract me Sunday after Sunday.

I cannot believe I am alone.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You--You're Fired


Ten years ago, I made a prediction.

I told my students that, within their lifetime--maybe mine, one of the two major parties would nominate a reality TV star to become president of the United States.  I wasn't joking, and I didn't have anyone particular in mind.  I never dreamed it would happen so quickly.

Since the Indiana primary yesterday, Donald Trump has become the presumptive Republican nominee and now there is no getting around it.  Donald Trump, who never has held any office or public trust under the United States or any state government, whose greatest fame is for insulting people and otherwise making sure we all know who he is, now stands poised to join the ranks of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.

I made my prediction ten years ago off-the cuff, and I'm not quite sure why I remember making it.  But I do remember why I made it.

In my introduction to American government, my regular theme is how much Americans have lost what I only can call their civic pride.  We no longer respect the sacredness of politics for what it is, our shared effort as a community to solve the problems together that no one can solve individually.  Politics is our common life and our common effort to build something together that is good and that lasts.  As Edmund Burke told us, it is a contract "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born" to work together toward something greater than ourselves, more than can be accomplished in any human lifetime.  We express those hopes and do that work through government.

Despite the separation of church and state, politics and government are a kind of holy work.  We should think of them that way.  Our founders did.

Yet, that is not how Americans think about government or politics any longer.  Americans today (if the people I meet are any guide) no longer seem willing to appreciate politics or government.  The social forces that explain it are complex.  We have heard too many times that, "Government is the problem," and our use of the word "politics" expresses our disdain for special interests wherever they may be found (always overlooking that each of us has his own special interests, too).

David Brooks had an unusually good column in the New York Times around the time I made my prediction, observing that our age is one where we "see politics as a competition for recognition." We enter the community only to express our own self-regard, press our own interests. He also wrote that people are driven "to rage if others don't recognize their worth."  That's a good place from which to begin to understand the 2016 presidential race.  We do not feel that our interests are recognized.  We feel rage.

All along while we have been told government is a problem and our relationship to politics has been distorted and dirtied during these last several decades, tremendous inequalities have crept into American life that have left behind the middle class and the working poor.  The mixture of that brew has been toxic, and its effects were not necessarily first most clear in politics.

Over the last two decades, polarization has grown.  Political disagreements have become sharp social divisions.  It has become casually acceptable to say that some other member of our community does not belong in it because they have the wrong ideas.  Gun culture has grown.  This became the nation eager to watch the histrionic dramas and ugly take-downs of reality TV.  We want to see the brawl on Jerry Springer or the splash of wine in the face because we all know someone who deserves it.

We have become a coarse and vulgar people, each of us self-absorbed so much by our rage at not being recognized that we have stopped participating in politics.  This, what we have today, is more like a feeding frenzy.  It's not entirely our fault.  The social forces, like our political problems, are bigger than any one of us.  But it is the inescapable conclusion.

Little surprise that so many of us no longer can tell the difference between politics and a sporting event or a reality TV show.  Why should Donald Trump not seem ready to sit in the White House?

Years ago, Tom Wicker wrote a book about Richard Nixon, One of Us.  Wicker explained the rise of Nixon to the White House in the simplest, most direct way.  The American people elected Richard Nixon, chose all that he would do as president, because they recognized themselves in him.

Donald Trump is a vulgar loudmouth, thumping his chest, demanding recognition, making showy insults, and angrily defending his personal greatness against everyone.  He is 'one of us.'  We are the people who have brought Trump to this moment.

Don't express too much surprise this morning.  This all has been not that hard to see coming.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

He Doesn't Win Anymore

This story arrives in today's New York Times like a confirmation that Donald Trump is unprepared to be the president of the United States, and that his vaunted skills for negotiating and dealmaking are vastly overrated.  In all, he is no more than bluster and bully.

(Note--I said above this is a "confirmation," not a revelation.)

Trump objects that, “'Our Republican system is absolutely rigged. It’s a phony deal,' he said, accusing party leaders of maneuvering to cut his supporters out of the process. 'They wanted to keep people out. This is a dirty trick.'” And, in what seems to me like an unusual bit of front-page editorializing, the Times adds that, "By blaming the process rather than his own inadequacies as a manager, Mr. Trump is trying to shift focus after Senator Ted Cruz of Texas outmaneuvered him in delegate contests in states like Colorado, North Dakota and Iowa, losses that could end up denying Mr. Trump the nomination."

Trump's loud objections to a "rigged" process may gain him some traction, since most of the voters are as ignorant about the party nomination process as he (evidently) is.  But that won't make him right, probably it won't be enough to help him, and it seals the case against his qualification to be president.

What Trump fails--and, admittedly, most people fail--to understand is that the party nomination process is just that--a closed process within a private organization.  Like any other club or even a corporation, the Republican Party has rules by which it selects its presidential nominee who, if successful, will become the leader of the organization.  Trump can object.  But the rules are being followed.  The rules were disclosed a long time ago, they are available to anyone on the planet who wants to acquaint himself with them.  That Donald Trump was so pitifully unprepared to win under these rules is a signal about how slack he is intellectually, how incompetent he is managerially, and how much he has gotten by in this campaign and his career just by shouting louder.

At some point, even the loudest and rudest bully runs into the hard, flat surface of a fact.  The fact, here, is that the party nomination process is not a democratic process.  It looks like one.  But, it isn't one.

The voters are members of the Republican Party, to be sure.  They even get to vote.  But, to put this into a language Trump should understand, they don't get to run the party anymore than ordinary shareholders get to run a publicly held corporation.  Rather, there are leaders within the Republican Party who make the real decisions.  In this case, the leaders who matter aren't even in Washington.  They are in local communities and states all over the nation.  They know the rules, and they are using the rules to get what they want.  They understand how their organization works.

Donald Trump could have known the rules, and could have had a post-ballot box strategy that could reach farther than a TV camera.  But, he didn't.  It never entered his mind that he would need to do more than he still is only doing now--talking, shouting, insulting, objecting.  And so, Donald Trump has reached the negotiating table unprepared.  He won't be able to make this deal. This all comes as a powerful reminder Trump has no place in national leadership, his skills being better suited to cut-and-run capitalism or reality TV.


Put it another way: How will Trump beat China at the negotiating table when he couldn't even beat the Colorado Republican Party?

Like the electoral college system our Constitution set in place to preserve us from an unqualified president, the parties have these rules and delegate selection mechanisms to save them from an unqualified nominee.  By falling prey to those mechanisms and rules, Trump proves he is unqualified.

The system, in fact, works.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Losing by Winning



A considerable amount of ink has been spilled, and even more electrons, to document the ideological and intellectual incoherence of the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump.  All that is good work.  Perhaps, though, it is time to consider something entirely different.

In fact, there is at least one way in which Trump is remarkably coherent, and it tells us even more about American politics than it tells us about Trump.

Trump's slogan may be, "Make America great again," but it should be, "We don't win anymore," because there is no phrase he repeats more often in his rambling rally speeches and debate appearances: Mexico is killing us, China is beating us, we don't win anymore.

Winning is the center of Donald Trump's political ideas.  Americans should understand that and what it means.

The prelude of 1970's Patton finds its title character addressing the audience, standing in front of a huge flag as if at a political rally.  He tells us that,
Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.
In general, that is a hard proposition to argue with.  Everybody loves to succeed--to win--whether a five-year-old playing Go Fish or Charlie Sheen, who hashtagged his tiger blood-fueled feud with sitcom producers--#winning.  We admire successful individuals, we pity those who fail.  Anybody can understand that, from the playground to 2 and a Half Men to the boardroom.

In fact, it stands to reason that a businessman would place such heavy emphasis on winning.  The world of business is the world of the quick and the dead, winners and losers.  The author of The Art of the Deal would appreciate that as well as anyone.

Consider his own words--
My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward.  I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing to get what I'm after.
No one who has watched Trump's political rise could be surprised by that candor.  Trump's worldview is zero-sum: he wins, or someone else wins.  No middle ground.  Among real estate developers and celebrity pitchmen, maybe that even is good business.  But it is not good politics.

Think just for a moment just in terms of the American political contest between Republicans and Democrats.  The say-anything, do-anything, winning-is-all-that-matters approach should sound very familiar because it is a fairly accurate description of the kind of establishment politics that has alienated the voters so much.

A generation of politicians using poll-tested language to say whatever is needed to win, and who have polarized our politics by insisting that every question is an all-or-nothing, total-win or total-loss proposition, has created an environment where we cannot legislate, we cannot confirm a Supreme Court justice, and the system barely will budge at all.

Does anyone in the United States today think that situation is healthy?  Does Trump's be-a-winner worldview not, in fact, already describe the broken political culture that has created the frustration to bring him to within two steps of the presidency?  And, should he be elected, why exactly should we think that more of the same would improve anything?

But then, go back to China and Mexico.  Think of American foreign policy, our relationship with every other nation in the world.  When has America been most successful?

It would be difficult to match the success of World War II, when we did not fight alone but as an Allied Power with more than two dozen other nations.

But if we did want to imagine something that could match World War II, perhaps the security we built during the Cold War with our North Atlantic allies offers a good example.  That security framework--NATO--still guards us today (though, Trump has talked recently about abandoning it), and like our World War II alliances it depends on the delicate work of forging partnerships and building relationships.

Of course we never abandon our own interests.  But when we have been most successful, it has not been when we have treated our partners like obstacles and adversaries such as during the 2003 invasion of Iraq (which Trump, himself, called a mistake).  America has been great when we have been a good neighbor, a leader of a global community, and not when we have tried to "win" at any cost and at someone else's expense.

Trumpism, or the Trump Doctrine, is as simple as it is unsuited to the real world of challenges facing the United States.  It is, however, a mirror of the people who support Trump and have made his political vision something to be taken seriously.

This nation, glutted on professional sports and the in-your-face ethos of reality TV seems no longer able to think about problems except in terms of who's-up, who's-down, winners and losers.  Our politics has been caught up in that larger cultural phenomenon so that now, for a large number of Americans, only the anger of Trump and his determination to humiliate someone else seems to speak to them.

Like an endzone celebration dance or a showy slam dunk, Trump leaves no room for good sportsmanship.  Like a glass of wine splashed in someone's face, Trump sees no value in sparing someone else's dignity.

And, like appreciative stadium fans or the millions who tune in to see a reality TV villain get comeuppance, we don't want him to.  That's not who we are.

The political vision of Donald Trump is an American vision to which he give voice.  We the people, to all appearances, believe more than anything else that, "Winning isn't everything.  It's the only thing."  Whether we are talking about ISIL or China or the Democrats, it means seeing other people mostly as a measure of our own success.  That must exclude working together with them as equal partners.

In Trump, that destructive notion has found its champion.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"This is Not the Gospel"


Is it the case that a religious leader no longer has a valid opinion about religion?

I ask the question because Donald Trump seems to believe it is "disgraceful" for Pope Francis to pass an opinion about who is and who is not a Christian.

Pope Francis's exact words bear some repeating, since they have been misquoted and mischaracterized throughout the last few hours since the Pope's comments were reported. He said:
A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.
So, let's agree that this all is true.  The Gospel is not about walling people off.  The message of the Gospel in quite specifically the opposite of that, so much as a salvation once available only to a Chosen People now by gift of grace becomes available to all the peoples of the world.

Let's also agree that Pope Francis referred only to "A person," and not to Donald Trump.  It is true that a person who thinks only about building walls is not a Christian.  Whether Donald Trump is that person is a matter that Donald Trump has decided, not Pope Francis.

And, whether Donald Trump is a "nice person" (he insists he is, just ask him) could not be farther from the point.  As a good friend once observed, there is a big difference between being nice and being good.

As bizarre as were Trump's reactions, Catholics Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio did not much better.

Somewhat absurdly, Rubio said that, "Vatican City controls who comes in and how they come in as a sovereign state."  But if Sen. Rubio ever had visited Vatican City, he would know that people enter and leave as freely as they cross the street.  I entered and left more than a half-dozen times in 1998, and I don't think I even took my passport from the hotel.  If that is the model Rubio has in mind for comparison to the U.S. border, I totally agree with him.

And then, there is Jeb!   Gov. Bush said that, "“I think it’s OK to get my guidance as a Catholic from the Pope,, but certainly not economic policy or environmental policy.”  That Kennedyesque statement has a long history in American political life.  But it's a little strange suddenly hearing it coming from Jeb Bush.

After all, as governor of Florida, Jeb Bush intervened in the court proceedings that ended Terri Schiavo's life by citing to the authority of Pope John Paul II in a political matter.  True, it was not a matter of economics of environmentalism.  It was a question about the dignity of human life--like, for example, how we treat immigrants.

But Bush was even more honest today when he said that, "I support walls and fencing where it’s appropriate."

If the topic was keeping rabbits away from the tomatoes, I would agree with him wholeheartedly.  But something there is that doesn't love a wall.  And, as Robert Frost suggested, it is nature that brings down walls because, just as the Church teaches us, our nature calls us to solidarity with one another.  We are especially called to be in solidarity with the vulnerable, the poor, the sick, and the stranger.

Something there is in the desire to build that wall that says Mexico teems with vermin--"criminals, drug dealers, and rapists."  But they are not vermin.  They are human persons, each the Imago Dei.

To build the wall, to insist we need it, is not to offer anything useful to solving our immigration crisis.  To build the wall is only to say, 'We don't want them."

And, "This is not the Gospel."

Pope Francis went out on a limb today.  He'll take some hits for it.  I'm glad he did it.  For too long, too many Republican and Democratic politicians have leaned too comfortably on the Church.  But the Church's job is to make us uncomfortable.

It's good to have a man in Rome who is willing to do it.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

When Will the Fever Break?

Antonin Scalia's body is not cold, and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has called upon this great and noble nation to wait at least eleven months before trying to fill his seat on our highest court.

Donald Trump has urged Senate Republicans to "delay, delay, delay" to block President Obama's efforts to fulfill his constitutional role by abdicating theirs.

When will this madness stop?

It is easy enough to imagine what motivates Republicans.  They hope to win the 2016 election, so that a Republican will appoint a new justice, so that the balance of the Court will not change, so that they will win future cases, so that..., so that..., so that....

Because, after all, Republican presidents' Supreme Court nominees always do exactly what conservatives want them to do.  Like David Souter.  And, Anthony Kennedy.  And, Sandra Day O'Connor.  And, John Paul Stevens.  And, Warren Burger.  And, William Brennan and Earl Warren.

To ensure certainties just such as these, Republicans would mortgage a branch of government.

This is stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.  I search for a more articulate way to describe what Republicans are presenting as governing, but I fail to find any other way to say it.  This is stupid, and it must end.

Consider just a few small facts:

  • The Court will hear its first major abortion case in a decade later this spring, Whole Women's Health v. Cole.  Pro-life conservatives should have realized by now that failing to replace Scalia does not subtract a pro-choice vote from that decision.  A case that may have been decided 5-4 now would be decided 5-3.  In a best case scenario for pro-life conservatives, if Justice Kennedy were to uphold the Texas statute, the case would tie at 4-4 and the Fifth Circuit ruling would stand.  That would leave the restrictive Texas statute in place--a small win for pro-life conservatives--but it would leave the underlying issues undecided and represent no real progress against abortion.  The issue would inevitably be re-litigated at a later date.
  • Failing to keep the Court at nine justices for an extended period of time will encourage the Court to avoid controversial decisions, entirely, so as to avoid ties.  The effect will be to magnify the importance of the U.S.Circuit Courts, whose decisions would become final in the absence of an appeal to the Supreme Court.  That's good news for conservatives in the 5th and 11th Circuits but bad news for conservatives in the 1st, 8th, and 9th Circuits.  The others are toss ups.  Holding the Court at 4-4 hardly is an overall win for Republicans.



  • Finally, and not inconsequentially, let's be realistic about Republican prospects for the White House in 2016.  Hillary Rodham Clinton hardly is a lock.  But when we consider the practical disarray of the Republican Party and their nomination process, their ongoing estrangement from key constituencies necessary to succeed as a national party, their prospects for winning the election hardly look cheerful.  And even if they did win--does anyone seriously believe they will enjoy a veto-proof majority in the Senate that would prevent Senate Democrats from blocking a Republican nominee?  To follow McConnell's and Trump's logic as far as we can foresee it will go, Scalia's seat could remain permanently open.  There always is an incentive for one party to delay.  Once we have started down this path, why would we ever stop?
What we are describing here, all around, is the practical ending of governing this republic.  This simply is the final victory of partisanship over country, reflected in a willingness to let a branch of government founder as a hostage to the most short-sighted partisan interests.  

What we are watching unfold this weekend is a breathtaking betrayal of a two centuries-old commitment to constitutional government that, at some point, puts country first.

This country is in the grips of a fever.  Unless it breaks soon, something else, more vital, is going to give out.