Roger Federer gave us a brief respite from the Trump news, but the thrill of his victory will only last so long. Other memories will remain etched much longer because people do remember where and how people stood at certain moments. In spite of the fact that we live in a world of tweets, where history has been reduced to the last 15 seconds on a Reuters screen, there is a collective memory, at least for some. In special moments, what elected officials do can leave a lasting impression, even if it does not change the course of history.
For those of us of a certain generation, we vividly remember that Senators Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Ernest Gruening (D-AK) were the only two senators to vote against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing President Johnson to take any measures he believed were necessary in the light of a report by President Johnson that the North Vietnamese had fired upon two U.S. destroyers in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, which is off the coast of Vietnam. In the same vein, Barbara Lee (D-CA) was the only member of Congress to oppose the post-9/11 vote authorizing military force against those responsible for the terrorist attack. All three, Morse, Gruening and Lee, went against the tide; all three were proven correct in retrospect. Senate Democrats are voting on President Trump's nominees for cabinet positions. Some of the nominees are marginally acceptable; some are totally unqualified, even by their own admission. The case of Ben Carson is a perfect example. By a voice vote, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs unanimously approved the nomination of Dr. Ben Carson to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Eleven Democrats on the Committee agreed to the confirmation, including so called progressives Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
The neurosurgeon and failed candidate for the Republican presidential nomination hesitated before accepting the nomination for a department responsible for a $49 billion yearly budget that is dedicated to affordable housing nationwide. Last November, a close friend of Dr. Carson was quoted as saying: “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience; he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
And yet Carson finally accepted Trump’s nomination. In spite of tough questioning by the committee, he was unanimously passed on to the full Senate for confirmation.
What were the so-called progressives thinking? In explaining her vote on Facebook, Senator Warren said that she voted for the nominee even though she disagrees “with many of the outrageous things” he said because he made commitments in written responses to questions to manage HUD fairly for all Americans. “Can we count on Dr. Carson to keep those promises?” Warren wrote. “I don’t know. People are right to be skeptical; I am. But a man who makes written promises gives us a toehold on accountability. If President Trump goes on to his second choice, I don’t think we will get another HUD nominee who will even make these promises – much less follow through on them.”
So far, Senate Democrats have accepted all the Trump nominations. Perhaps they are saving their opposition to the Trump appointments to more important positions than HUD, such as a future Supreme Court nominee. Whatever the motive, it is clear that Senator Warren and most Democrats are not making principled stands, including opposition in the committees as well as the full Senate.
The January 21 marches as well as the spontaneous outcry over the immigration orders reflect a growing discontent at the very early stages of the Trump presidency. There has been no honeymoon for the new president. But the opposition has not found a coherent leadership or shown courageous stands based on democratic values.
A striking example of resistance to President Trump’s executive orders just came from the acting attorney general, Sally Q. Yates. She refused to defend his order to close the country’s borders to refugees and people from predominantly Muslim countries. She was promptly fired. For those who remember, this recalls President Nixon’s firing his attorney general and deputy attorney general in 1973 for refusing to dismiss the special prosecutor in the Watergate case.
In the preface to Profiles in Courage, John Kennedy discussed the “problems of political courage in the face of constituent pressures, and the light shed on those problems by the lives of past statesmen.” The book focuses on the careers of eight U.S. Senators whom Kennedy believed had shown courage despite enormous counter-pressures from their political parties and constituents. The current Democratic senators have shown none of the qualities of their past colleagues. Far from it. Those who do remember will be watching how elected officials and others will perform in these most unusual times. Sally Yates’ example may be the beginning of a new chapter in profiles in courage.