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Byron Williams: A pertinent question of legacy

Byron Williams: A pertinent question of legacy

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Former President Lyndon Johnson was famous for giving what was known as “The Johnson Treatment.” By combining his imposing size and intimidating personality, Johnson, from the Oval Office, cajoled legislators to see his point of view.

After withstanding the grueling process, Johnson would often put his arm around his victim's’ shoulder and ask, “How do you want to be remembered on your gravestone?”

The hyperbole of “The Johnson Treatment” notwithstanding, “How do you want to be remembered on your gravestone?” is a salient question that should be put to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues, as they consider fast-tracking President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

McConnell famously opined in 2010, “The single most important thing I want to achieve is to make President Obama a one-term president.” The feelings of 62,498,516 citizens who voted for Obama apparently did not concern McConnell.

If we lived in a world of normalcy, my understanding of the Constitution suggests the president is perfectly within his rights to put forth a nominee to the court, and the Senate is duty bound by Article 2 Section 2 to provide “advice and consent.” But we’re not living in a world of normalcy.

The political world that we inhabit is a hypocritical zero-sum game that uses the phrase “the American people” as a reductive term referring only to those who support a particular side.

When President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court in March 2016, it became a barometer as to how far America had drifted from its stated values. With Republicans holding a majority in the Senate, they collectively decided, given Obama had less than a year in office, the incoming president should nominate the next justice. It was McConnell as majority leader who felt that since an election was underway, “the American people” should decide the next Supreme Court justice.

With the passing of Justice Ginsburg, suddenly Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, are engaging in some fuzzy math whereby eight months is too soon in 2016, but less than 60 days before the election in 2020 is more than ample time.

Without some unforeseen occurrence, which is not out of the question in 2020, the requisite votes are there to confirm the president’s nominee. But what may appear as a short-term GOP victory may prove to be a long-term defeat, not only for them, but more importantly, for the nation.

The first casualty would be trust. Already on life-support, a Senate confirmation for a Supreme Court nominee before the election, inauguration or a lame-duck appointment, would effectively remove the plug. It would permanently transform the body that George Washington proclaimed was the “saucer” to cool the hot tea into a punitive institution that operated exclusively by the will of the majority.

How can the republic function if trust becomes the remnant of a bygone era?

Endowed with the arrogance of certainty, voting to place someone on the court before the results of the election could bring to fruition James Madison’s fears in Federalist 10, specifically his concern about the corrosive nature of “factions.”

Madison defined factions as “amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Are not Senate Republicans potentially conducting themselves as a common impulse of passion adverse to the rights of other citizens?

Unfortunately, all Supreme Court nominations come down to the future of Roe v. Wade, which affirms the right for women to choose an abortion. In a recent Gallup poll, there is a statistical tie between those who consider themselves personally pro-choice or pro-life on abortion (48-46%). But when the question was posed in a 2019 NPR/PBS News-Hour/Marist poll, whether to overturn Roe, 77% said the landmark case should be upheld.

Does any of this matter to a party that has seemingly placed the immediacy of self-interest above the national interest? At the point Democrats become a majority in the Senate, they will, predictably, unleash reactionary measures, moving the nation further from its stated commitments.

Is this the moment we acknowledge that virtue and compromise have been replaced by a permanent tyranny of the majority? Will historians look back on this date, pinpointing it as the demarcation when the ethos of the American experiment went from liberty and equality to the ends justifying the mean?

If any of this comes to fruition, there won’t be any need for McConnell to ask: “How will I be remembered on my gravestone?”

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@publicmorality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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