Tags: 2020 Elections | Abortion | Joe Biden | Presidential History | Supreme Court | eastland | talmadge

Biden Shouldn't Apologize — Gillibrand Should

sen kirsten gillibrand democrat of new york and joe biden

Henry Gillibrand with his mother, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. as she participates in a mock swearing-in ceremony for the 113th Congress with then-Vice President Joe Biden, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Evan Vucci/AP)

By Friday, 21 June 2019 02:13 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Joe Biden picked an incendiary example to illustrate how he could work with people to get things done even if they have strong disagreements. He mentioned that in his early days in the Senate, his colleagues included Democratic segregationists such as James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia.

Noting, in a characteristically bizarre touch, that Eastland had never called him "boy" — of course he didn’t — Biden said, "At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”

At the other extreme of tolerance from Biden is one rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. She explained that she would not appoint judges who would retreat from Roe v. Wade. "I think there’s some issues that have such moral clarity that we have, as a society, decided that the other side is not acceptable,” she said. “Imagine saying that it’s OK to appoint a judge who’s racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic."

Biden is under fire for what he said, but so far refuses to apologize.

Gillibrand has been criticized by Republicans. Both candidates’ comments raise the same question: How should we treat fellow citizens who hold and promote views that we consider — and may have good reason to consider — deeply wrong and harmful?

The beginning of wisdom in these matters, I think, is to recognize that any live controversy will involve people of good will on all sides, even if one side has the morally superior position.

Part of the evil of state-enforced white supremacy was that many white people of basically good character who grew up within it absorbed its moral teachings, and part of our moral progress is that today only people of vicious character support it.

Gillibrand’s description of the state of play in our society is obviously mistaken, indeed self-refuting. We have not corporately decided to treat opponents of abortion as the equivalent of racists, which is why she feels compelled to draw that comparison. Nor have we made the opposite conclusion, that supporters of legal abortion should be shunned as enemies of human rights.

There are, in our country, intelligent and well-meaning people in each camp. Politicians who can’t see that, or pretend not to see it, are unlikely to help us navigate our divisions to reach a better place. Seeing it does not require that anyone back down from a conscientiously held view. 

Previous Democratic presidents have agreed with Gillibrand that only supporters of Roe should be appointed to the federal bench.They have not, however, taken the gratuitous extra step of likening everyone who disagrees with them to Klansmen. Perhaps the most disheartening thing about Gillibrand’s eruption is that she seems to think that it will help her gain votes.

It is a bet on what my American Enterprise Institute colleague Arthur Brooks calls the "culture of contempt" in his new book, "Love Your Enemies."

There is no reason to be nostalgic about the days the Senate was home to Eastland and Talmadge. Even by the standards of their time and place, they were pretty hideous. Nor should we overestimate how much personal enmity stands in the way of political cooperation: Party polarization is based on some real differences on issues, not just vitriol.

There is nonetheless something healthful about Biden’s instinct to seek common ground. It is a useful reminder, for those of us who think abortion is one of the worst evils of our age, that we should still be willing to join hands with people as wrongheaded as Kirsten Gillibrand. 

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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There is no reason to be nostalgic about the days the Senate was home to Eastland and Talmadge. Even by the standards of their time and place, they were pretty hideous.
eastland, talmadge, democratic
Friday, 21 June 2019 02:13 PM
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