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Pryor and Restraint

At first glance, it was narrow considerations of policy that prompted the separate decisions by two Jewish organizations to oppose one of President Bush’s latest judicial nominees, Bill Pryor of Alabama. To the National Council of Jewish Women, Pryor’s militantly anti-abortion views made him unacceptable as a federal judge. For the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, it was his extreme views on separation of church and state.

But there are larger considerations at work here, both practical and symbolic. As his opponents have noted, Pryor is not just another conservative thinker. He’s used his position as Alabama state attorney general, along with his considerable skills as an activist and legal tactician, to put his views into action. Elevated to the federal appeals bench, he shows every promise of becoming a leader in the long-term campaign of the Republican right to remake our society and roll back the values of liberal democracy that have guided us for the last century and more.

At this moment, groups that stand for values of democratic pluralism, as the women’s council and the Reform action center surely do, are not merely entitled to speak out; they are obligated to do so. The wonder is that other organizations claiming to speak for the American Jewish mainstream have seen fit to stand on the sidelines.

To be sure, opposing judicial nominees is no simple matter these days. Bush has flooded the Senate with a non-stop roster of astoundingly rightwing judicial nominees. That puts Democrats in the untenable position of either obstructing the process or rolling over in the face of a historic assault on their values. Bush and his allies have responded to Democratic efforts to fight back with bullying and bluster. Senate Republicans have threatened to sue the Democrats in court. There’s talk of ramming through a change in Senate rules. Last week the president used his bully pulpit in the Rose Garden to bludgeon the Democrats verbally, labeling their tactics “a disgrace” that “threatens judicial independence.”

Let’s be clear. What threatens judicial independence is not the Senate Democrats’ use of their chamber’s rules to have their say, but the decades-long campaign by the Republican right to pack the federal bench with their own ideological clones.

The Republicans have been at it since the Reagan era, when the party’s right wing first won access to the judicial nominating process. They correctly saw the bench as an arena where decisions can be made today that will affect society for generations. Their efforts were slow and inconsistent at first. But during the current Bush administration it has turned into a full-scale assault.

Democrats were initially slow to respond. Over the years they’ve grown accustomed to treating the right’s nominations with the same civility they expected for their own initiatives. They’ve blocked Republican nominations only sparingly. When they had their own chance to nominate, during the Clinton years, most judicial picks were moderates and centrists rather than liberals.

But the Democrats’ moderation and civility have not been reciprocated. As Ori Nir reports in his Page 1 article this week, Bill Clinton won confirmation for his moderate nominees during his last two years, facing a Republican-led Senate, at almost exactly the same rate that George Bush won confirmation for his startlingly rightwing nominees during his first two years, facing a Democratic-led Senate. Statistically speaking, Democrats have let themselves be walked over.

The Democrats aren’t the only ones who have let themselves be bullied. The peremptory tone of the Bush White House has had a corrosive effect on the activities of Jewish organizations, too. The recent scaling back of lobbying on the president’s Middle East road map, despite the extreme misgivings of many Jewish groups, is one example. The groups’ silence on domestic issues they once saw as critical, from civil liberties to economic fairness, is another. On one issue after another, they’ve let the White House intimidate them into silence. Not altogether unwillingly, mind you: Given the continuing emergency in the Middle East, they look to the Bush White House as Israel’s and democracy’s main defender. They want, rightly, to support the president, and to be seen as supporting the president. And they know he doesn’t cotton to opponents. Talk out of line and you’re out of the loop with this administration.

It is a curious thought: rallying dutifully behind a White House that is leading the worldwide struggle for freedom, but doesn’t tolerate dissent at home.

The National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism are to be saluted for laying down the gauntlet and saying “enough.” To paraphrase David Ben-Gurion, liberals and moderates must learn to fight for fairness at home as if there were no terrorism, and to fight the war against terrorism as if there were no assault on fairness at home.


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