Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Elena & Barack

with 7 comments

by wotty

There’s no shortage of informed – far more than mine – commentary out there on Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The Times this morning, for example, has a surprisingly sceptical lead editorial on Kagan’s candidacy, and David Brooks proffers a surprisingly incisive column (“She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing”). Meanwhile, Greenwald – beloved GG! – has truly been doing yeoman’s work on this nomination business since Stevens’s resignation announcement. If you want to get a good survey of the reactions from progressive blogs – or “progblogs” (a neologism I once briefly had the audacity to imagine I’d coined) – I’d recommend simply cruising over to his site, or his Twit*er feed where you get his take, along with a very useful collection of links. The basic knock on Kagan is she’s a tabula rasa – likely for tactical, careerist reasons, and boy does that bet appear to have paid off in spades – and what little paper trail she has let fall from her grasp is mostly discouraging. One of the most telling points GG has been relentlessly hammering home – with his usual joie-de-bulldog style – is that even Kagan’s defenders (who, more often than not to this point, have also been her close friends) are unable to point to any substantive reasons to support her nomination, anything, that is, that would provide a concrete sense of how she might weigh issues over the next, oh, twenty or thirty years. Look, for example, how The New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin awkwardly parses the merits of his good friend (who he says he will now refer to, at least in his court reporting, as “Kagan,” not “Elena”):

Judgment, values, and politics are what matters on the Court. And here I am somewhat at a loss. Clearly, she’s a Democrat. She was a highly regarded member of the White House staff during the Clinton years, but her own views were and are something of a mystery. She has written relatively little, and nothing of great consequence.

As it happens, this weekend I was finishing “The Bridge,” the new biography of Obama by David Remnick, our boss here at the magazine. Since Kagan’s nomination was imminent, I was struck by certain similarities between the President and his nominee. They are both intelligent, of course, but they also share an ability to navigate among factions without offending anyone. Remnick’s Obama is very… careful. He takes no outlandish stands or unnecessary risks. He is an exquisite curator of his own career. All of this is true of Kagan as well.

But on the Court, Kagan will have to do something she’s not done before. Show her hand. Develop a clear ideology. Make tough votes. I have little doubt she’s up to the job, but am less clear on how she’ll do it. [emphasis added]

Again, this is from one of Kagan’s friends (though one does wonder how he could be at such a loss as to the “judgement, values, and politics” of one of his close friends; are establishment people really that circumspect amongst themselves?). And it’s the implication that Obama has essentially nominated himself – as Ezra Klein also puts forward – that I find most suggestive, and disturbing. Frankly, an Obama – an inveterate trimmer¹ who adjusts his sails to placate the likes of Olympia Snowe or Joe Lieberman – is precisely the opposite of the kind of person you want on an ideologically super-charged Supreme Court bristling with the likes of Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Roberts (whom I don’t imagine anyone would think to call “trimmers”). I dunno. Democrats either lack the courage of their convictions, or simply don’t have many to begin with.

¹OED check: c. transf. and fig. To turn, adjust, adapt. Freq. in phr. to trim one’s sails to the wind, to adapt oneself to circumstances. 1847 EMERSON Poems (1857) 187 As the bird trims her to the gale, I trim myself to the storm of time.


Written by (wotty)

May 11, 2010 at 15:52

7 Responses

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  1. Ah, that Brooks….a true sage !!!!


    May 12, 2010 at 13:23

    • No one was more shocked than your humble scribe to discover an approving nod to him in my own diatribe! But you know, he’s really quite good when I agree with him.


      May 12, 2010 at 15:22

  2. Well, now I know how to go from “facile, lighter-than-air, straw-man arguing, faux-Goldilocks-positioning, self-aggrandizing fatuousness” to “surprising incisiveness” in one quick step !!!!


    May 12, 2010 at 18:28

  3. Brooks aside, I don’t know that successfully side-stepping Crossfire-style partisan invective should necessarily be considered a strike against someone in today’s political climate.

    This is meant more as a general comment than advocacy for Kagan. Like everyone else, I know nothing about her except where she went to school.


    May 13, 2010 at 07:23

    • Hmm. Your Crossfire point strikes me as placing that straw-man perilously close to the flames of fatuousness. Because I don’t think anyone (sensible) wishes Kagan was more like Tucker Carlson – though a jaunty bow-tie might improve her image – but rather that it seems ill-advised to nominate to the SC someone about whose views one knows so little. I mean, if we accept that judges do not simply call balls and strikes – hell, it’s not even that simple for actual umpires – the question becomes: what will Kagan do? Of course this question becomes all the more pressing in the context of the current court.

      On another note: whatever happened to your classic rock blog?


      May 13, 2010 at 10:15

  4. The point wasn’t really to support Kagan per se. I guess I’m more interested in asking a question about who is responsible for ambitious political figures who wish to avoid the stalemate-inducing (and yes, career-harming) partisan air. We complain about vacuous speeches and slippery figures who won’t leave a paper trail but we’re part of a culture hopelessly addicted to scandal and outrage. What kind of political figures do we expect or deserve?

    The classic rock blog was just too hard to keep up with, what with the demands of family, research and dog-fighting.


    May 13, 2010 at 13:40

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