|FORMER VICE President Al Gore gave a lengthy speech on Wednesday on the topic of Republicans' attempt to eliminate the right to filibuster in the Senate.
The event was organized by MoveOn.org, and MoveOn member Sarah Landon introduced Gore. Landon pointed out that Gore had worked in an administration that saw more judicial nominees blocked by Republicans than the current one has seen blocked by Democrats. We hear about activist Democratic judges, Landon said, but Gore "knows from personal experience that if anything the opposite is true."
That line, a reference to the 2000 election, got a big reaction from the crowd in a large hotel meeting room in Washington, D.C.
Gore's opening comments didn't play quite as well. He talked about his swift agreement to the Supreme Court decision that stole the White House from him by halting the counting of Floridians' votes. Gore had done so, he said, "to reaffirm the bedrock principle that we are a nation of laws, not men."
Gore might have picked a better example to make that point, just as he might have picked a better title for the speech than "An American Heresy" - a reference to the Republicans' power grab, but a title at odds with a speech focused on the danger of religious dogmatic extremism in politics.
"[I]f the judges who formed a majority in Bush v. Gore," Gore said, "had not only been nominated to the court by a Republican president, but had also been confirmed by only Republican senators in party-line votes, America would not have accepted that court's decision. Moreover, if the confirmation of those justices in the majority had been forced through by running roughshod over 200 years of Senate precedents and engineered by a crass partisan decision on a narrow party-line vote to break the Senate's rules of procedure - then no speech imaginable could have calmed the passions aroused in the country."
After quoting Hamilton's and Madison's thoughts on the need for an independent judiciary, Gore presented a summary and compilation of recent quotes from prominent Republicans encouraging violence against judges, or advocating stripping funding from courts or mass impeachment, or proposing that the President can simply dismiss judges, or claiming that the idea that the judiciary should be independent is a "misunderstanding."
"They even claim," Gore said, "that those of us who disagree with their point of view are waging war against 'people of faith'.
"How dare they?
"Long before our founders met in Philadelphia, their forebears first came to these shores to escape oppression at the hands of despots in the old world who mixed religion with politics and claimed dominion over both their pocketbooks and their souls. This aggressive new strain of right-wing religious zealotry is actually a throw-back to the intolerance that led to the creation of America in the first place."
That statement won Gore a standing ovation.
Gore then laid out what he saw as "an American heresy - a highly developed political philosophy that is fundamentally at odds with the founding principles of the United States of America." Our rights, Gore said, are given by God, but "unlike our inalienable rights, our laws are human creations that derive their moral authority from our consent to their enactment." In contrast, Gore said, religious zealots want to "subordinate the importance of the rule of law to their ideological fervor."
Gore said this in a much more longwinded manner, but having read the prepared speech more than once, I still can't make perfect sense of it. When women were given the right to vote, was that God's work or humans'? When an Enron writes laws for secular but anti-democratic reasons, is that any different from legislation driven by religious fervor?
In any event, Gore's primary message was that Republicans are trying to eliminate a democratic check on power, and that they are driven by both religion and corporate greed. Gore said of Republicans:
"If they were to achieve their ambition - and exercise the power they seek - America would face the twin dangers of an economic blueprint that eliminated most all of the safeguards and protections established for middle class families throughout the 20th century and a complete revision of the historic insulation of the rule of law from sectarian dogma."
Gore listed phony crises that have been produced by Republicans simply because there was no other way to win approval of their agenda: Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the imminent collapse of Social Security, and now the vacancies in the federal judiciary. "This one, too, cannot survive scrutiny," Gore said, and he proved it.
"The Senate has confirmed 205 or over 95 percent of President Bush's nominees," Gore pointed out. "Democrats have held up only 10 nominees, less than 5 percent. Compare that with the 60 Clinton nominees who were blocked by Republican obstruction between 1995 and 2000....
"[W]hen President Clinton left office, there were more than 100 vacant judgeships, largely due to Republican obstructionist tactics. Ironically, near the end of the Clinton/Gore administration, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said: 'There is no vacancy crisis and a little perspective clearly belies the assertion that 103 vacancies represent a systemic crisis.'
"Comically, soon after President Bush took office, when the number of vacancies had already been reduced, the same Republican committee chairman sounded a shrill alarm. Because of the outstanding vacancies, he said, 'We're reaching a crisis in our federal courts.'
"Now the number of vacancies is lower than it has been in many years: 47 vacancies out of 877 judgeships - and for the majority of those vacancies, the President has not even sent a nominee to the Senate."
Gore went on to make similar work of false claims that filibustering of judicial nominees has never been done before, by simply pointing to past cases in which it has been done - and by Republicans.
And Gore pointed out that all of this nonsense is distracting us from real crises, such as those in health care and employment.