Here we go again.
Although I was lambasted for the suggestion, I’ll offer Washington Democrats the same advice I gave Augusta Republicans. The Constitution gives the elected chief executive the right to appoint the men and women they want to offices of state. If your legislative party is in the majority, the natural tension built into our system of checks-and-balances gives you certain power as a co-equal branch. More succinctly, you can use the confirmation power as a cudgel against the bully pulpit.
However, while in the minority, your role is different. There are times when you can sound the alarm about a particularly egregious or unqualified nominee and loudly declare “no.” It may be unsuccessful, but it is an important job to draw the public’s attention. Yet the parable of “the boy who cried wolf” ring true in politics, too.
With the federal shutdown continuing, President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as attorney general has been going through his confirmation hearings. William Barr had been there before; he was attorney general for President George H.W. Bush. He was confirmed unanimously in 1991 by a Democratic U.S. Senate. In fact, the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee thought Barr would be “a fine attorney general.”
The chairman’s name? Joe Biden.
By all accounts, then-Sen. Biden’s prediction came true. Although he was a product of that era in terms of several policy positions, he is credited with peaceably ending a hostage standoff in a Tennessee prison. No scandals plagued him. The organization reportedly ran well. In short, he ably did his job on behalf of the American people.
With that type of resume, you might think Democrats would accept, at least begrudgingly, that Barr is qualified to (once again) serve as attorney general. Not quite.
Several senators-turning-presidential-candidates have already hinted — or outright declared — they will vote against Barr. Elizabeth Warren has said she is a “no.” Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar are both suggesting they will oppose him. The NAACP and National Urban League have come out against him.
Other than a reflexive aversion to Republicans, it is hard to understand their reasoning. Barr unequivocally denied insinuations that Robert Mueller is conducting a witch hunt. He said a president exchanging pardons for protection would present grounds for impeachment. He acknowledged the criminal justice system — and societal needs — are in a very different place from the early 1990s when the Department of Justice wrote “The Case for More Incarceration.”
None of this will stop Barr from being confirmed. After all, the GOP strengthened its Senate majority in last November’s election. But it does reflect a further weakening in our system of government. Indeed, of Trump’s 30 confirmed nominees to federal circuit courts, 18 of them have received fewer than 57 votes. Many were rated “well qualified” — or, at the very least, “qualified” — by the American Bar Association. The commonality shared among these candidates were a nomination by the current president of the United States. And that alone is not a reason for opposition.
The minority party, be it in Augusta or Washington, must be more than a reflexive “no” when they are without power. Ending the federal shutdown won’t mean much of anything if we can’t agree that qualified people should be confirmed to appointment.
So senators should stop posturing for presidential politics and emulate Joe Biden circa 1991. Barr should receive a resounding vote of confidence to serve as attorney general; and here we go again.