Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is one of the most polarizing Senators. His favorite form of argument is reduced to the following:
“You are bad, we are good.”
If you were from Rhode Island, as I am, you would understand that this has been Whitehouse’s political character long before he became a Senator. He is arrogant and demeaning towards those who oppose him politically, and reduces policy disputes to moral battles.
Typical for Whitehouse was his now infamous speech on the floor of the Senate in December on the eve of the Senate health care vote. Rather than merely stating the supposed benefits of the legislation, or even criticising the merits of opposing arguments, Whitehouse gave a firebrand speech lashing out at Republican Senators and equating health care opponents to the “birthers, the fanatics, the people running around in right-wing militia and Aryan support groups.”
Recently, Whitehouse accused Republicans of having no compassion for the unemployed, a typical way that Whitehouse frames a debate. What was the justification for the accusation? Republicans thought unemployment benefit extensions should be paid for by savings elsewhere in the budget (for example, unused Stimulus funds) rather than from more debt. This policy difference was reduced by Whitehouse to a moral battle in which his opponents were not merely wrong, they were evil (by the way, Democrats refused to go along and thereby allowed unemployment benefits to lapse).
Whitehouse also attacked those who questioned Whitehouse’s questionable nomination of John L. “Jack” McConnell, Jr. to the federal court in Rhode Island.
McConnell donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats, including substantial sums to Whitehouse. McConnell’s law firm was hired by Whitehouse (when he was state Attorney General) to prosecute a lead paint case using a novel legal theory which eventually was thrown out by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. When legitimate questions were raised about McConnell’s qualifications (he received very mixed reviews by the American Bar Association), the appearance of buying a judgeship, and some questionable payments in the lead paint case, Whitehouse dismissed these inquiries as an attempt to “smear” McConnell.
Now Whitehouse used the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan not to opine on the qualifications of Kagan, but to launch another “you are bad, we are good” attack.
This time the attack was on the members of the Supreme Court who voted in the majority on the Citizens United case allowing corporations to spend money on political advertising (but not to make donations to candidates). In his opening statement, Whitehouse immediately veered off course:
“Unfortunately, the conservative wing of the current Supreme Court has departed from those great institutional traditions. Precedents, whether of old or recent vintage, have been discarded at a startling rate. Statutes passed by Congress have been tossed aside with little hesitation, and constitutional questions of enormous import have been taken up hastily and needlessly.”
As usual, Whitehouse (along with Al Franken) framed his criticisms in highly personal and derogatory terms:
Ms. Kagan was reduced in part to a sounding board as Democrats accused the Roberts court’s conservative justices of ignoring the precedents they profess to revere in order to advance their political agenda….
Leading Democrats’ attacks on the Roberts court, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), said the Supreme Court has historically decided its controversial cases unanimously or by wide majorities, but the Roberts Court routinely overturns longstanding precedent with a 5-4 majority composed solely of Republican appointees.
“There may be judges on the court who have a particular mission right now and are selectively knocking out precedent that does not coincide with their ideological views,” Mr. Whitehouse said.
Republican senators dismissed the criticism as a distraction. “It’s a silly argument, but they had to come up with something, I guess,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) said outside the hearing room. “I think we should continue to focus on the nominee.”
Mr. Kyl noted that only a minority of the court’s rulings—18% in the most recent term, according to the independent website Scotusblog.com—are split 5-4.
Whitehouse rode the coattails of the Democrats’ 2006 electoral surge (Whitehouse opposed the real surge) to defeat milktoastee Lincoln Chaffee (who barely survived a primary battle with the conservative Steve Laffey).
Whitehouse is up for reelection in 2012. It does not look like he will have any coattails to ride, but it is unclear which Republican will step forward to run against him. There are good potential candidates out there (Laffey and current Gov. Don Carcieri come to mind).
The Whitehouse v. _______ race will be one to watch in 2012. In the meantime, we (the bad ones) will have to listen to he (the good one) call us names from on high.
(video above from January 2010)