I started working on Capitol Hill the year Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was born. As I watched the Senate hearings on her nomination to the Supreme Court I was struck by how much the Senate has changed since then. I spoke about it with several friends who also began their Washington careers as Senate staffer, and they felt the same. It’s not nostalgia. It’s reality.
What stood out most was the dramatic change in the quality of the debate and of the debaters. I confess, we’d been spoiled: we worked for true giants of the Senate, men like Hubert Humphrey, Jacob Javits, Frank Church, Ted Kennedy and Clifford Case.
Sadly, we were hard pressed to come up with a single incumbent who would be in their league. There are many good people. But no historic figures. No historic Giants of the Senate.
Hearings on Supreme Court nominations have become particularly acrimonious in recent years. A low point may have been in 2018 when Judge Brett Kavanaugh “blubbered like a child,” the New Yorker reported, responding to a witness’s accusations of drunkenness and sexual assault. “I like beer,” he declared.
This year they reached even greater depths. Republicans were less interested in probing Judge Jackson’s judicial philosophy than in asking gotcha questions and posturing for video clips on Fox News. Respect and decency were replaced by hostility, sexism and barely veiled racism. She became a target in the GOP’s culture wars. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) even asked her to define the word “woman.” The only thing missing was someone telling her “you’re a credit to your race, girl.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (Arkansas) implied she was a Nazi sympathizer. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), when not checking his Twitter account or the weather in Cancun, was asking if babies were born racist. Sen. Josh Hawley (Missouri), who gave the infamous fist salute to the January 6 insurrectionists as he went into the Senate to lead the fight to overthrow the 2020 election, tried to paint her as soft on pedophiles.
These bums aren’t hicks from the sticks. They’re Ivy League law school grads – two Harvard, one Yale– who must have slept through their Constitutional Law courses and brought shame to their alma mater on national TV. They’re not serious senators or legislators, they’re culture warriors. Their line of questioning was more in pursuit of fodder for Fox News and other extremist “news” sources for 2024 campaign videos when they hope to run for president if their disgraced leader in Florida exile doesn’t.
Judge Jackson wouldn’t even have had a hearing much less a vote in Republicans controlled the Senate. When he was majority leader in 2016, Sen Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) refused even to give President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, any consideration, and last week he indicated he’d do it again given the chance. He accused Judge Jackson of having “a special empathy for criminals.”
What happened to the giants? Why have they become virtually extinct? Why are there so many like McConnell, Cruz, Hawley and Cotton, who the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank aptly labeled Lilliputians?
Where are senators like Daniel Inouye, Margaret Chase Smith, Phil Hart, George Mitchell, Scoop Jackson, Sam Nunn, Ed Brooke, Everett Dirksen, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, Paul Sarbanes and John McCain?
(There were even giants on the dark side, like segregationists Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd, Richard Russell, John Stennis and Sam Ervin. )
What makes a giant and why do they appear extinct?
I asked my friend, former colleague and historian Ralph Nurnberger.
It’s a combination of moral authority, leadership, legislative skills, integrity and respect for the institution and for colleagues, he said. Giants are people who put country first and build bipartisan coalitions, take creative approaches to governing and encourage new ideas for the greater good.
It’s also the times.
The country is increasingly polarized, and as each party moves away from the center towards its more ideological fringes, most notably the Republicans which are dominated by its most extreme elements, opportunities and motivation for bipartisanship diminish. This helps explain why so many votes in Congress are now virtually completely partisan. Although a number of Republican senators stated that Judge Jackson was totally qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, all but three ultimately voted to reject her and would not even applaud the historic confirmation of the nation’s first female Black justice.
Joe Biden campaigned on a promise of restoring bipartisanship; the public apparently approved but the politicians had other interests. The same ones who are now blaming him for the absence of bipartisanship.
Most of past ‘giants’ did not have to worry about reelection and had been in Senate long enough to build expertise and friendships across the aisle. As each party moves away from the center, opportunities for bipartisanship diminish. Today’s GOP is dominated by extremists like the Freedom Caucus and crazies like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Madison Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert and Jim Jordan. Add to that the growing number of well-financed, single-issue groups, Nurnberger explained.
The leadership is drafting much of today’s legislation because the rank and file are often too busy building their image, preening for the 24/7 news cycle, checking their mentions on Twitter and paying for the last campaign and the next one.
Senators complain there’s less time for legislating because an inordinate amount of their time is consumed by fundraising. It’s not unusual for Senate candidates to spend tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars for a job that pays $174,000 a year. Some even spend their own money. It’s not a job for poor folk. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has said the Senate is “dominated by millionaires.” He’s not one of them, he added. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics almost two thirds of his Senate colleagues are worth at least $1 million. The richest are Rick Scott (R-Florida) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia), upwards of $200 million each.
It is also easier to block than build. Just as the segregationists of the last century used their seniority and power to block all civil rights legislation, today many senators are known less for their legislative achievements than what they’ve blocked, notably Cruz, Hawley, Cotton, Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin, Ron Johnson, Mike Lee and Rand Paul to name a few.
McConnell is the poster boy for Lilliputians. For him partisan power is the name of the game. He demonstrated that in his vow to make Obama a one-term president, in his treatment of Judge Garland and 180 turn when it came to a Republican nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and in his bitter denunciation of Donald Trump’s role in fomenting the January 6 insurrection that was shortly followed by saying he’d unhesitatingly vote for the twice-impeached, disgraced former president again if he is on the 2024 ticket.
Jonathan Swift described the Lilliputians as arrogant, filled with a sense of their own self-importance, manipulative, jealous, conniving and untrustworthy. Sounds like Lilliput on the Potomac.