Or, more accurately, Don Quixote, meet today’s Democratic base. Why Don Quixote? Because a “quixotic” quest is one which is fantastical and romantic, but impractical and likely a lost cause, or has very little chance of success,. And that’s exactly what the current push on the left against the recent revelations about Clarence Thomas’ ethical improprieties are: a quixotic quest.
Why? Because although Thomas is a loathsome creature as a SCOTUS Justice – an incurious, ideologically rigid tool of the far right, and his actions would likely be a firing-level offense in any lesser jurist, there are no rules which govern the conduct of the Supreme Court. Perhaps there should be, and perhaps it will be this incident which convinces of the need for some…but as things stand right now, there simply aren’t any such rules. The Code of Judicial Conduct applies to every other judge in the United States except the nine who sit on the Supreme Court. Those nine members of that highest judicial body are supposed to be self-policing, and are – by design of the framers themselves – not subject to oversight or review by either of the other two branches of government (except as noted below). That’s what it means to be “co-equal”: Supreme Court Justices don’t work for or under the authority of any other branch. Their actions and conduct are non-reviewable by either Congress or the President. That’s what gives them the autonomy to act in the interest of the constitution and rule upon questions before them as they see fit, not as they worry their “bosses” (if they had any) might feel about their rulings.
Indeed, the only method of redress for a theoretical SCOTUS Justice run amuck is the same one which exists for a wayward or criminal President: impeachment. And the bar for that is – also by design – set just as high for Justices as it is for Presidents. There are three hurdles to clear to impeach a Justice and remove him or her from office:
- Articles of Impeachment have to be forwarded to the entire House of Representatives by the appropriate committee (usually Rules or Judiciary).
- The full House has to vote the accused guilty (this is the official “impeachment” – though it does not carry with it any specific remedy or penalty).
- The Senate then has to vote whether to remove the impeached official from office.
This just. isn’t. gonna. happen, folks. And pretending it will is a waste of organizing energy.
The first two of those three steps occur in the majority-rules House of Representatives. Quick, anyone: what direction has the GOP gone in over the past decade or so – say, since Bill Clinton left office? Have they become more reasonable, more bipartisan, more willing to put country before party? Or has it been the exact opposite, becoming more rigid, more disciplined, and more settled upon their-way-or-the-highway tactics? If you answered the latter, you’ve been paying attention. In other words, the likelihood that a House of Representatives with its current large GOP majority would even forward the charges out of committee to the full house is effectively zero, and if the committee were, by some miracle, to do it, the likelihood that the full House would impeach Clarence Thomas on a roll-call vote is even more remote. To be blunt: it’s about as likely as Larry Craig’s insistence that he has never been gay.
Even if both of those extremely unlikely events occurred, the next step would be, if anything, still less likely. Ironically, the one chamber of congress where the Democrats still have a majority (albeit a wavering one, with blue dogs who frequently cross lines and vote with the GOP making up the bulk of what adds up to over fifty theoretical “Democratic” votes) is also the chamber (the Senate) where simple majority does not rule. No, I’m not talking about the filibuster, though you can be forgiven for assuming that, since the GOP has used it so pervasively and to such great effect (in terms of gridlock) since 2006. In the specific case of impeachment trials, however, the constitution mandates a 2/3 majority to remove the impeached official from office. Even counting Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, etc, the Democrats have a total number of votes in the low fifties. Does anyone really think that thirteen or fourteen Senators from a party which has exercised the filibuster lately so often, and with such relish, could be persuaded to vote to impeach perhaps the most rock-solid dependable vote for their far-right agenda on the Supreme Court…knowing that doing so would allow the loathed Kenyan Marxist terrorist President Obama to appoint his replacement?
Don’t make me laugh.
In other words, there is no chance – NONE – that Clarence Thomas will suffer anything more than some mildly unpleasant publicity for all the work currently being done to expose his misdeeds. There’s been a lot of talk and comparison of Thomas’ current situation to the case of the only removed Justice, Abe Fortas, back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, but unfortunately, those parallels simply do not apply…or at least are almost certain not to apply. Here’s why: partisan wrangling has always existed, in this country and in others. But until some time during the Clinton administration, there was an assumed, implied understanding by both parties that country trumped party. In those days, the cliché “politics stops at the water’s edge” wasn’t just a cliché – it was (generally) respected by both parties, regardless of their differences. Similarly, truly despicable, lawbreaking or unethical behavior by elected officials took precedence over “protecting one’s friends.” Sadly, as any progressive who’s been paying attention since the Clinton years can tell you in their sleep, those days are long gone. Now, GOP Senators and Congresspeople make their own meetings with foreign officials and undercut the President’s stated direction for the country, and whenever one of the GOP’s “team” is attacked, they circle the wagons and mount an all-out defense. It’s why David Vitter is still a Senator, why no one has ever prosecuted or even vigorously investigated the malfeasance of the early 2000s which led to the Iraq war, torture, etc, etc…
And it’s the reason why Clarence Thomas, short of revelations of murder in the SCOTUS chambers themselves, will simply not be removed from office by Congress, nor even impeached. It’s simply not going to happen. Back in Abe Fortas’ day, Republicans were still capable of being shamed by revelations of impropriety. Today, their ideological descendents simply obfuscate, equivocate and make excuses for even the most loathsome and clearly unethical behavior. Then they circle the wagons, dig their heels in and prepare for all-out war to save “their guy.” This isn’t even a debatable idea in progressive circles: we all know this is how the GOP of today operates. So the notion that somehow, a group of wise, elder-statesmen of the GOP would, in historical fashion, head over to the SCOTUS chambers, to solemnly tell Thomas that he’d brought enough shame and discredit upon the institution and upon the party and that he had to resign
now, is simply silly. There will be no such “come to Jesus” meeting with Thomas by the wise, responsible old heads of the GOP because there ARE no longer any wise old heads of the GOP. Or, if there are, they’ve learned to keep their mouths shut for fear of drawing a tea-party challenger and being out of power quicker than you can scream “socialist lackey!!”
All of which is why I’m somewhere between amused and disgusted with the current push to “get” Thomas on the left. Have my friends simply not been paying attention to either the rules of how such a thing would have to work, or to the state of the GOP which would have to agree to help Democrats make them work that way? Looking at all the energy on the left around the Thomas issue over the last ten days or so, you’d almost have to conclude thusly.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand completely the idea of standing up for something because it’s the right thing to do, even if you know you have no chance of success. In fact, since 2009, I’ve found myself far more frequently on that side of the intra-lefty argument about (broadly speaking) “pragmatism vs idealism” that has raged around Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats’ actions (and inaction). I’ve far more frequently found myself arguing that Democrats needed to stand FOR something, visibly and energetically, and THEN they would garner public support, and opposed those who seemed to me to be pre-capitulating on core values by suggesting that we “take what we can get” or “keep our powder dry for other fights” or (in the case of the President himself and his administration) that we seek bipartisanship, even at the expense of standing for our own values. So I get it. I understand the dilemma and completely respect the notion of standing up for something because it’s the right thing, even if it’s a lost cause.
If anything, it’s that very recognition that’s making me even more exasperated about the current anti-Thomas-mania. I keep thinking, “really? Now? Over THIS? This is what you want the liberal movement to throw itself upon the fixed bayonets of? THIS is the hill that you want to die valiantly but in vain on? Not on putting a robust public option into health care to actually control costs and give desperate consumers a real choice in health care? Not on the rule of law and prosecuting those who thought they were above it by torturing and wiretapping? Not on prosecuting the clearly criminal banksters who crashed our economy and made off with billions in bonuses at the same time? Not on any one of so many other issues where the public could truly have not only benefitted or been protected, but also been inspired to believe that liberals and Democrats were not just right on the merits, but willing to truly go to the mat and fight to the last man for the principle of the right thing? NONE of those issues inspired that kind of ‘last stand mentality in y’all….but trying to impeach Clarence Thomas – one of only nine Supreme Court Justices – for being a sleazeball-on-the-take (which we pretty much already knew) — THAT’S the hill you want to die on? The quixotic, impossible quest you want to expend the bulk of our energy on right now?”
Haven’t we got real work that not only needs doing, but is actually possible (at least in comparison to the possibility of getting Thomas impeached)? We’ve got a President who looks ready to cave on appointing Elizabeth Warren to head a hugely beneficial and positive government board, the CFPB. Organizing energy could be spent creating pressure to try to force a recess appointment. We’ve got insane Republicans in dozens of states trying to make fertilized eggs the same as living, breathing people and criminalizing women in the process. Those battles can be won by organizing to make people aware of how insane the GOP agenda is. We’ve got collapsing infrastructure, an economy teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession because we didn’t get enough stimulus last go-round and need more, and a national security apparatus that’s if anything even more invasive of domestic citizens’ rights than it was under the Bush administration, all of which are areas where both progress (if we organize and push) AND backsliding (if we don’t) are possible, yet so many of my fellow lefties want to focus a large bulk of our energies on….impeaching Clarence Thomas?
For fuck’s sake, people. THIS is why we lose election after election. Because we cave when it’s truly important, and we start inexplicably demonstrating spine and feistiness when congressmen on our own side start sending blurry junkshots to consenting women over the Internet, or when a (for practical purposes) unimpeachable conservative hack commits an admittedly impeachable offense.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Just fucking stupid. And I can’t believe I have to be the one saying this, after the last two and a half years, but apparently, I do: it’s time to get “pragmatic,” people. Time to “get real.” There are battles out here – electoral, legislative and ideological – which are both equally correct from a moral standpoint and are actually winnable. Stop being such “purists” and get to work.