The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said many wise and memorable things, including this: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
His observation is especially relevant in this fraught American moment. With the country deeply polarized and political violence growing, the two bombshell decisions the Supreme Court delivered last week are rocking the battleground between culture and politics.
For generations, Republicans have been reduced to playing defense in the culture wars as one social revolution after another swept aside the traditional guardrails. But that losing streak came to a sudden end when six conservative justices extended gun rights and ended the constitutional right to abortion.
By voiding New York’s overly burdensome restrictions on concealed-carry permits and overturning Roe v. Wade, the justices showed the nation what strict interpretation of the Constitution looks like.
(My personal view is that, while I favor abortion rights with restrictions, I agree with those who argue that Roe created a constitutional right and a trimester scheme that had no legal or historic basis.)
Outrage on the left
Most Democrats, of course, are furious with both cases, but much of their reaction inadvertently proved the soundness of the court’s rulings. The widespread promise to pass legislation to codify abortion rights, for example, underscores the central point the justices were making — that because the Constitution is silent on abortion, the matter is rightly left to voters and lawmakers in each state.
The heated reaction also reflects how the left has viewed the Supremes as a super-legislature, counting on it to deliver one-size-fits-all victories it could not win in Congress. Thanks to the Clarence Thomas-led conservative majority, those days are over, at least for now.
That said, the abortion ruling might be a political life raft for Dems in the fall midterms. In fact, it could be the best thing to happen to them since Donald Trump.
For months, it’s been an article of faith that Joe Biden’s failed presidency would lead to a red wave and the GOP would take the House and maybe the Senate.
The polling that identified inflation and economic pessimism as voters’ top concerns banished Biden to the doghouse. His approval is stuck in the high 30s, a dismal place that has members of his party saying he should not seek re-election in ’24.
Even in deep-blue New York, a survey put his approval at 35%, making him toxic to many Dem candidates seeking re-election. Other issues, such as the national crime wave, the open southern border and a sense that America is shrinking on the international stage, all contributed to the consensus the administration had gone too far left and the midterms would mark a GOP resurgence.
The one card Dems had to play was Trump, whose name unites his opponents. The hitch is that he is not in office or on the ballot.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been trying to fix that. The House probe into the Jan. 6 Capitol riot has been going along quietly for many months, but by taking it to prime time, she aims to generate enthusiasm among disillusioned voters.
The evidence she produced did make Trump look even worse, but that probably wouldn’t be enough by itself to counter most voters’ concerns over inflation, crime and the prospect of a declining quality of life.
Pivoting to politics
The court defeat on abortion, however, might do the trick, especially in some suburban swing districts that could keep the Dems in power. Pelosi reflected the possibility when she called the Roe ruling “outrageous and heart-wrenching,” but instantly pivoted to politics by adding: “But make no mistake: The rights of women and all Americans are on the ballot this November.”
Even a confused Sen. Elizabeth Warren stumbled to the same conclusion. After declaring herself “spitting mad” and calling the justices who voted to overturn Roe “six extremists,” she said: “In a democracy, on this issue, the Supreme Court does not get the last word, the people do. And we’re going to fight back.”
Money is key, and as if on cue, my inbox filled with fundraising pitches from the left based on the Roe verdict. In 24 hours, Bill Clinton sidekick James Carville alone sent six solicitations on behalf of Catherine Cortez Masto, a Dem senator from Nevada whose seat is regarded as vulnerable.
Whether Carville actually writes them or not, the emails capture his wacky, if dated, schtick. Four bearing his name began with the identical words that “I’m so damn angry I can hardly type this message to you,” while another began with “I’m so damn FURIOUS.”
Two days earlier, before the Roe decision, he was already “madder than a box of frogs.”
The fear that Dems’ anger would turn into violence is valid, and Friday night protests that turned ugly in cities across the nation could be a preview. Recall that the 2020 violence after the police homicide of George Floyd started the record-setting crime wave that continues in many cities.
Biden, who sat mute through most of the riots and arson of 2020 and who has done almost nothing about rising murder rates, finally got it right Friday when, after denouncing the Roe ruling, he demanded that protests be “peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.”
That was a welcome break from his outrageous silence after Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the target of a would-be assassin who turned himself in after taking a gun to Kavanaugh’s house.
DOJ’s double standard
A related worry is that the Department of Justice under Attorney General Merrick Garland plays by a double standard. Its obsession with “white supremacists” led it to view parents complaining at school-board meetings as potential domestic terrorists.
Its early morning raid of Jeffrey Clark’s home last week also smells of dirty politics. The raid came just as Clark, a former assistant attorney general under Trump, became a household name as the Jan. 6 panel examined his willingness to help Trump try to overturn the election.
That happened 18 months ago, but the raid neatly coincided with Pelosi’s bid to gin up voter anger. Chances the timing of the raid was a coincidence are zero.
Then Friday, Garland displayed his partisanship again in an extraordinary statement denouncing the Roe decision.
His use of the Justice Department to play politics recalls Benjamin Franklin’s ominous warning 235 years ago. Emerging from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in September of 1787 at the close of the Constitutional Convention, history has it that Franklin was asked by a woman if the nation would be a republic or a monarchy.
He is said to have replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s warning is being tested anew. Can the grand republic be saved again, or are the forces pulling us apart this time too strong for the center to hold?