Friday, January 23, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing? Liberals Absolutely Ecstatic Over Return to Pre-Bush Status Quo

Yesterday, three news stories captured my attention, not so much because of their content, but because of some liberals' reaction to them. The first story covered Obama's promise to lift the so-called "Global Gag Rule," a Bush-era executive order that prohibits foreign recipients of federal money from performing abortions, counseling women about abortions, or from advocating less restrictive abortion policy in their home countries. The second story involves Obama's issuance of a series of executive orders which mandate the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, prohibit U.S. interrogators from using torture, and create a task force to devise an alternative plan for the detention of war and anti-terrorism captives. The final story reports the Senate's passage of the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which, if enacted, would reverse a Supreme Court ruling that requires usage of a more restrictive statute of limitations analysis in employment discrimination cases.

Blissful Liberal Response
Some liberals have responded blissfully to these reports. On Alternet.Org, for example, an article describes Obama's reversal of the Global Gag Rule as evidence that he has already begun "mopping up Bush's misogynistic mess." With respect to the detention and torture developments, the ACLU has a link on its website that permits readers to: "Thank Obama For His Bold First Steps!" And news that the Ledbetter bill could soon become law has sent my pals at Daily Kos into a state of complete euphoria and has many of them advancing the "good Democrats" versus "evil Republicans" narrative.

Pleased -- Not Ecstatic
Let me clearly state what regular readers of this blog should already know: I completely agree with all of the policy changes that have taken shape in recent days. In my scholarship and teaching, I have criticized anti-choice policies, deprivations of due process, and strict rules that toughen the ability of victims of unlawful discrimination to receive justice. Accordingly, I welcome these shifts in policy.

Using Bush's Policies As Baseline to Measure Change Can Limit Progress
Although I support these policy developments, they do not send me leaping around with excitement because they simply restore the legal status quo that existed prior to the Bush administration, which began just eight years ago. And while I view these policies as a "positive" turn, they can only represent a radical advancement if we accept the Bush administration's policies as the baseline for measuring change.

Using Bush as the Baseline Obscures the Fact That His Policies Departed From Past Practices
I strongly encourage liberals to reconsider treating the reversal of Bush's abhorrent polices as a monumental shift in U.S. political culture and ideology. While describing the significance of recent (and future) policy changes in very dramatic terms can further the political interests of Democrats, the political campaigns have ended. Also, my commitment to justice far exceeds my commitment to any political party -- and if the two diverge, I will certainly choose justice over party politics. And while many younger voters probably view "anything but Bush" as a tremendous advancement, their limited experiences do not change that fact that the types of policies that Obama has recently implemented and proposed were once standard practice.

Using Bush as the Baseline Can Curb Liberal Demand for "Real" Monumental Change
I fear that by treating "new" policies that restore the pre-Bush legal terrain as Earth-shattering developments, we risk lowering our expectations and settling for less progressive change. Merely reversing Bush could become the "ceiling" or ultimate aim for liberals. Many liberals -- especially younger ones who lack a knowledge of history -- could become content so long as U.S. policies mirror those of 1999. Although a return to the pre-Bush past would represent a shift in policy, we should demand deeper changes before we enter a state of euphoria.

The Pre-Bush Status Quo Was not Perfect
The fact that the pre-Bush "liberal" status quo was not perfect should also cause liberals to demand greater reform and to approach this new era with caution and vigilance. For example, while the proposed Ledbetter legislation restores the older, more flexible rule for calculating the statute of limitations period, it does not alter the utterly short time period (six months) for bringing a claim, nor does it alter the legal standards for proving discrimination that have hindered plaintiffs' ability to succeed on their claims. The House version of the Ledbetter statute includes a host of procedural and substantive reforms that could benefit civil rights plaintiffs and represent real progress over the Clinton era. The Senate version, however, omits those changes, and it appears that House Democrats will compromise and agree to eliminate their more progressive provisions.

Furthermore, while liberals celebrate the fact that foreign organizations that receive U.S. financial assistance can once again perform and counsel women regarding abortions (just as they did during the Clinton administration), domestically, the federal government and most states exclude abortion services from government-sponsored health plans. It is unclear whether Obama will try to reverse this policy as he implements health care reform. But it is absolutely clear that he will not try to reverse this widely desired policy if liberals, content with the restoration of old rules, do not even float the possibility of this forward-looking change. Some reproductive rights groups "get it" and have pushed Obama on this issue.

Although reversing Bush's bad policies represents change, simply restoring the pre-Bush past does not excite me. Treating the reinstatement of pre-Bush policies as a monumental shift risks making this the sole aspiration of liberals and other reform-minded individuals. A cautious approach, by contrast, could place the nation's leaders on notice that voters want deeper reform, and it could educate younger voters who experience these limited "changes" as novel and radical.

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Infidel753 said...

This is a valid point, but I think the euphoria needs to be understood in context. Imagine a man who has suddenly recovered from malignant cancer after suffering from it for years. Even though all he has really done is regained the normal level of health he ought to be able to take for granted (and maybe not even quite that), it's understandable that he would feel ecstatic over the dramatic improvement in his situation. This doesn't mean he will lose motivation to work to improve his health even more; on the contrary, such a program would now seem possible to him as it did not before.

Reversing the various abortion restrictions which were imposed within the US over the last eight years will take time and hard work, and will encounter resistance which cannot be set aside just by an executive order. But overturning the "global gag rule" provides some reassurance that Obama may indeed make that effort in the months to come -- especially to those of us PUMAs who doubted whether he was a committed liberal.

I think much of the euphoria is not just for the rollback of Bush's reactionary measures, but for what it says about the prospect of further progress to come.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks, Infidel, for your response. It is very helpful (as usual).

I was already thinking about the argument you express through the "cancer" analogy -- that the euphoria results because the country has been sick and has now dramatically recovered. And I can accept that.

But if that is the sole message that emerges in response from these "changes," then people who demand "more" could start sounding like radicals or extremists. I think the Ledbetter situation is a good example. Read the two bills I linked in the article. The House version is much more progressive than the Senate version. I do not necessarily agree with all of the additional terms in the House version, but they do much more for victims of discrimination than the Senate version.

But liberals are ecstatic over the "passage of the Ledbetter statute" and that excitement prevents them from even inquiring to determine whether the mere restoration of the pre-Bush/Ledbetter rule does enough. Instead, it is sufficient that "we" have done something differently than Bush. We have reversed the way "he" did things, and that alone is enough. But the pre-existing standards were not good enough in my eyes, and liberal voters need to know this. That's what I hope to do -- KEEP PUSHING (to quote Sade).

Infidel753 said...

Well, there is certainly the risk of settling for too little, and the Ledbetter law may be an example (I read your more recent posting about it). Still, hopefully the Clinton/DeLauro measure will be revisited as you say.

Off topic, but I'm curious whether you have an opinion about the implications (if any) that the weekend's volley of subpoenas might have for President Obama.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks. I am actually very excited about Ledbetter. I teach "remedies" law - which deals with things like statute of limitations, injunctions, etc. I was very angry when that case was decided. It basically prevents most victims of pay discrimination from suing. I wrote this essay, not to disparage the legislation, but to remind people that more can be done.

As for the subpoenas, I was doing a lot of class preparation yesterday, and only got to skim the issue. But the only way the subpoenas can hurt Obama is if the testimony of his staff reveals any type of wrongdoing (generally); if the wrongdoing connects him with Blago then this will start an ugly feeding frenzy. I doubt this will happen, but I certainly do not want to predict anything.

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