Volume 78 - Number 49 / May 13 - 19 , 2009
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Talking Point

Obama’s trifecta: Supreme Court, Specter and AIPAC

By Ed Gold

Headaches keep popping up for President Obama, including issues that irritate, or seem like a crapshoot, or worse, appear intractable.

First, the retirement of Justice David Souter has kicked up a storm from the right wing, which is taking issue with Obama’s support of “the quality of empathy” in choosing a Souter replacement.

At the same time, the president is trying to toss a seven by wooing Senator Arlen Specter, who, as a practical matter of political self-preservation, has turned Democrat. The switch could give the party a 60th vote against filibuster if the Minnesota race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman is ever settled.

Then comes the Washington gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful lobby that leans to the right on Middle East policy. The group’s program conspicuously leaves out any mention of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and also ignores any reference to Israeli settlements on the West Bank, adding to pessimism about the ability to bring peace and security to both Israel and the Palestinians.

On the Supreme Court issue, Obama can hardly lose but it must gall him to hear conservatives condemn an appointment not yet made.

He is charged in advance with undoing the Constitution by suggesting he will seek a person who cares about “how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives, whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their nation.”

The Republicans continue to attack “activist” judges, when in fact the most activist court action in memory took place when the Republicans on the court in 2000 handed George Bush the presidency, overruling a decision by the Florida Supreme Court favoring a recount.

As the rightist Free Republic blog concludes: “Obama’s Supreme Court selection will be a disgrace to the Constitution.”

In addition, the Republicans have named Senator Jeff Sessions of the hard right to replace Specter as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a guarantee that the nominee will have rough sledding.Of course, the president also has to consider race and ethnicity, and is expected to choose a woman to join Justice Ruth Ginsburg, who has expressed loneliness on the bench.

On this issue, Obama will maintain the 5-4 conservative majority, since Souter has generally sided with the so-called liberal wing of the court. Actually, today’s court liberals are of the moderate stripe when compared to Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan.

In the Senate, the addition of Specter to the Democratic majority could prove illusory despite Obama’s confidence that the new Democrat will now feel “liberated.”

Except for the likelihood that Specter will vote Democratic in organizing the Senate, there is little so far to indicate that he can be counted on for crucial votes. He has already voted against the Obama budget, he has said he would not support a health plan that included a government insurance option, and he has come out against labor’s “free choice” legislation that would permit union recognition if the majority of workers at a company signed pro-union cards.

Obama, Vice President Biden and Governor Ed Rendell are committed to supporting Specter in next year’s Pennsylvania primary, while Specter continues to insist he cannot be considered a “loyal” Democrat.

He also must have temporarily lost his memory when chided by the fact that he might be the last Republican senator of Jewish faith unless Norm Coleman won in Minnesota. Specter promptly said he supported Coleman but recanted the next day when reminded he was now a Democrat.

One other hurdle may face the Obama-Specter engagement. A popular liberal representative, Joe Sestak is still considering running against Specter in the Democratic primary. He is close to labor, an important factor in Democratic politics, and labor is, frankly, unhappy with Specter’s stand on impending labor legislation.

On the international front, the muscle shown by AIPAC may dwarf the Specter and Supreme Court issues.

A string of leading Republicans and Democrats told the AIPAC gathering what it wanted to hear. AIPAC’s program can be summed up as follows:

• Support tougher sanctions against Iran.

• Support peace principles, suggesting the U.S. help get additional Arab recognition, similar to relationships with Egypt and Jordan.

• Continue security aid to Israel.

• Support divestment from Iran.

The Israelis are understandably concerned about Iran’s nuclear threat, particularly in light of the continuing diatribe from that country suggesting Israel’s demise.

Joe Biden explained the two-state solution and a freeze on settlements — positions supported by the so-called Quartet of the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Apart from Biden, however, no American of note suggested there might be something wrong with a Likud policy that currently opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and actually supports settlement expansion.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the rightest Israeli prime minster, will visit Obama shortly. The president will have to put aside his Supreme Court and Specter folders, and concentrate on getting the Israeli to understand American policy in the Middle East.

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