fresh voices from the front lines of change







During the 2008 campaign Rick Perlstein offered some important advice to Democrats on how to steal GOP rhetoric, advice that they have, so far, failed to heed:

Reagan didn’t praise FDR. He stole from him. As in, “This generation has a rendez vous with destiny.” We should steal from Reagan too. As in: “There is no left and right. Only up or down.” He would then use that intro to frame some outrageously right-wing notion as “common sense.” We should do the same for left-wing ideas.

Also, use Reagan to mess with righties’ heads. As in: I agree we need a Reaganite foreign policy. When Reagan realized we were caught in the crossfire of a religious civil war in Lebanon, he got the hell out. He would have done the same thing in Iraq. The rule isn’t “never say anything nice about Reagan.” It’s “use Reagan for progressive ends.”

I couldn’t help thinking about this when I heard Obama’s complaint about “unelected judges” and judicial activism. I think it’s clever to turn their rhetoric around on them, but you have to recognize that these are not people who recognize hypocrisy. Therefore, you have to be more explicit and directly attribute your remarks to one of their heroes — or the Republican party itself.

For instance, he could have said:

“As Ronald Reagan said back in 1986, ‘we’ve had too many examples in recent years of courts and judges legislating. They’re not interpreting what the law says. In too many instances they have been actually legislating by legal decree what they think the law should be.’ I agree with Ronald Reagan and I’m concerned they’re going to do just that with the Affordable Care Act.”


“In 2008, my opponent and I didn’t agree on many things. But when it comes to this particular issue, I agree with John McCain when he said,”With a presumption that would have amazed the framers of our Constitution, and legal reasoning that would have mystified them, federal judges today issue rulings and opinions on policy questions that should be decided democratically. Assured of lifetime tenures, these judges show little regard for the authority of the president, the Congress, and the states. They display even less interest in the will of the people.”

Now, I realize that’s a mouthful so maybe it wouldn’t have worked. But there are decades worth of quotes he could have used.

At the very least, Democratic operatives should be passing out copies of the Republican Party platforms whenever any right winger has the nerve to clutch his pearls and demand that the president apologize for offending the great majesty and dignity of the Court. Here are a few worth quoting:

1984 Platform:

We commend the President for appointing federal judges committed to the rights of law-abiding citizens and traditional family values. We share the public’s dissatisfaction with an elitist and unresponsive federal judiciary. If our legal institutions are to regain respect, they must respect the people’s legitimate interests in a stable, orderly society. In his second term, President Reagan will continue to appoint Supreme Court and other federal judges who our commitment to judicial restraint.

My stars! Fetch me the smellin’ salts Miss Mellie.

1996 Platform:

Some members of the federal judiciary…make up laws and invent new rights as they go along, arrogating to themselves powers King George III never dared to exercise. They free vicious criminals, pamper felons in prison, frivolously overturn State laws enacted by citizen referenda.

The federal judiciary, including the U.S. Supreme Court, has overstepped its authority under the Constitution. It has usurped the right of citizen legislators and popularly elected executives to make law by declaring duly enacted laws to be “unconstitutional” through the misapplication of the principle of judicial review. Any other role for the judiciary, especially when personal preferences masquerade as interpreting the law, is fundamentally at odds with our system of government in which the people and their representatives decide issues great and small.

I’m fainting …

2004 Platform:

In the federal courts, scores of judges with activist backgrounds in the hard-left now have lifetime tenure. Recent events have made it clear that these judges threaten America’s dearest institutions and our very way of life. The Pledge of Allegiance has already been invalidated by the courts once, and the Supreme Court’s ruling has left the Pledge in danger of being struck down again—not because the American people have rejected it and the values that it embodies, but because a handful of activist judges threaten to overturn commonsense and tradition…We believe that the self-proclaimed supremacy of these judicial activists is antithetical to the democratic ideals on which our nation was founded.

I don’t know about you, but those all seem to me to be an attack on the legitimacy of the federal courts, something which was condemned as nearly treasonous and unAmerican by right wingers this week. I suspect one of the reasons they reacted so strongly (other than team solidarity) is that on some level they know that when the president uttered the words “judicial activism” and “unelected judges” it triggered a reflexive recognition on the part of casual observers who don’t know the details.

In that respect, these conservatives are victims of their own success. By sheer repetition, they’ve managed to indoctrinate a good portion of the population to instantly loathe anything associated with those phrases. Obama uttering them probably caused at least some dissonance among their faithful, although they have no problem rejecting anything that he says. But it’s the busy, average voter that could “take that the wrong way” and assume that Obama is just talking common sense. After all, doesn’t “everybody” know that the judiciary is filled with judicial activists who are legislating from the bench? Certainly, that’s all we’ve been hearing from Republicans for the past 40 years.

Update: And yes, there is this. They just can’t help themselves.

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