Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

NARAL AND ROBERTS....A regular correspondent writes today with some advice:

If you'd like to get a jump in viewings from right-wing readers, we'd all really like to see some mainstream leftwing blog denounce the NARAL ad.

I have my doubts about that, but still, this email, along with a barrage of other emails and dozens of blog posts, finally aroused me from my August torpor. So I went and looked at the ad that's causing all the fuss.

The text is on the right, and when you cut through the thousands of words of chaff written about it, there appear to be two main complaints. First, that the ad doesn't make clear that Roberts' brief was filed seven years before the Birmingham bombing, and second, that it's outrageous to say that Roberts was "supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber."

Well, is that outrageous? Sure. Roberts was defending a legal principle, and the beneficiaries of legal principles are frequently pretty odious characters. Defending the principle doesn't mean you're defending a particular person or group, a distinction the ACLU makes all the time.

However, on the overall scale of outrageousness, I have to say that this ad ranks pretty low compared to conservative benchmarks like Willie Horton and the Swift Boat lunatics. In fact, here's what I think is weird: NARAL could have addressed both these complaints and made the ad better in the process.

Take the timeline issue first. Wouldn't it actually be more effective to put this front and center so that the 1998 bombing appears to be the inevitable result of Roberts' winning 1991 argument to the Supreme Court? Sure it would.

As for "supporting violent fringe groups," why say it that way in the first place? Why not take the high road and acknowledge that Roberts was defending an abstract principle, but then condemn the ivory tower ideology that they believe produced such appalling real world results?

So even though no one asked me, here's my rewrite of the NARAL ad:

Announcer: In 1991, Supreme Court nominee John Roberts filed court briefs arguing that federal law couldn't be used to curb violent protesters outside women's health clinics.

(On screen: Early 90s footage of violent crowds surrounding a woman trying to get to a clinic door.)

Announcer: The protests continued, and seven years later, a bomb destroyed a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.

(On screen: Footage of bombed clinic.)

Emily Lyons: When a bomb ripped through my clinic, I almost lost my life.

Announcer: John Roberts was just doing his job: he was defending conservative ideology for the first Bush administration. But conservative ideology has real world consequences.

Emily Lyons: I'm determined to stop this violence so I'm speaking out.

Announcer: Call your Senators. Tell them to oppose John Roberts. America can't afford a Justice whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans.

It's more accurate this way and it acknowledges Roberts' actual role explicitly, but it's every bit as inflammatory as the original version. Hell, maybe more inflammatory.

Of course, what's ironic is that ads like this are only necessary because of the peculiar convention we've adopted that says court nominees can't be asked any genuine questions about their judicial views. So we have to guess based on scraps of writing from their past.

But really, what's wrong with simply asking Roberts, "What do you think of the majority's reasoning in Roe v. Wade? Do you think it's sound?" That's not prejudging a future case, it's asking him his scholarly opinion of a past argument. If he says that he thinks the reasoning is suspect, then abortion rights groups have every right to oppose him because they think his judgment is wrong.

Instead we get a kabuki dance. What a waste.

Kevin Drum 6:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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