Hochul bipartisans herself into a mess
Bipartisanship should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
By Noah Berlatsky
In the 2022 elections, New York was one of only a couple of states in which Democrats woefully underperformed. A big part of the reason for that was a brutal redistricting map, imposed by a conservative coalition of Republicans and right-leaning Democrats on the Court of Appeals (the highest court in New York state).
The collapse of New York’s Democratic delegation not only gave us Rep. George Santos, but played a big role in costing Democrats control of the US House. Given that, you’d think newly reelected New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, as a good partisan Democrat, would be eager to reshape the courts to shore up Democratic fortunes going forward. Hochul, though, has not behaved that way.
Instead, she picked a fight with her own party by choosing a conservative judge to be the chief judge of the state’s court of appeals. This has created a massive, pointless, intra-Democratic battle that threatens abortion rights, criminal justice reform, and union power in the state.
Bipartisanship, but for what?
In New York, it’s bipartisanship, not partisanship, that is divisive, counterproductive, and a barrier to progress. Nor is that unusual. The fact is that partisanship for the right cause can be a powerful force for good. Partisanship in favor of, for example, abortion rights, is vital to protecting the bodily autonomy and welfare of pregnant people and to creating a society in which women have equal rights. But legislation that undermines those things, enacted in the name of bipartisanship, isn’t virtuous or rational; it’s a moral wrong.
This flies in the face of most political commentary. We’re regularly told that “rabid partisanship could destroy American democracy,” or that partisanship is “killing this country.” Partisans are portrayed as driven by irrational animus and motivated reasoning. In contrast, independents are praised for “being radical about being reasonable.” A 2022 poll found that 87 percent of American believe attempts at bipartisanship are a good thing, including 92 percent of Democrats, 90 percent of independents, and 77 percent of Republicans.
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But Hochul’s bipartisan approach to the Court of Appeals nomination has hardly been a model of rational deliberation and compromise. On the contrary, it’s been an ego-driven exercise in escalating stubbornness and political malfeasance.
The leader of the 4-3 conservative coalition on the Court of Appeals, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, announced in June that she was planning to step down. DiFiore was a crucial vote in the conservative coalition, supervised the Court of Appeals itself, and oversees the administration of the state court system. Hochul therefore had the chance to end an era of conservative dominance, in which the four-judge block voted to prevent workers from suing employers for workplace injuries, made it harder for victims of police misconduct to sue, and put up barriers to expert testimony on behalf of defendants in criminal cases.
Instead of guiding the court in a more progressive direction, though, Hochul chose to nominate mid-level appeals judge Hector LaSalle.
Why she did is somewhat opaque. Her initial statement was bland (bipartisanish) boilerplate; she said LaSalle had a “sterling reputation as a consensus-builder” and would “unite the court in service of justice.” Reporters have suggested she hoped to get credit for nominating the first Latino judge to the Court of Appeals. She may also have hoped to associate herself with his conservative criminal justice record; she’s been ambivalent about Democratic legislators’ push for prison and police reform.
LaSalle isn’t a hardcore reactionary. But his criminal justice record is conservative, and he’s ruled that employers can personally target union leaders with lawsuits. He also joined in a 2017 decision which limited the investigation of conservative pregnancy crisis centers, which often deceptively steer clients away from abortions.
Ian Millhiser at Vox says it’s difficult to tell based on the reasoning in the abortion case whether it was correctly decided. But the ambiguity is, understandably, too much for many New York Democrats, who are dead set against further erosion of abortion rights after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision gutted federal constitutional protections. Union opposition is also fierce. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has come out against the pick. State Senate Democrats, who have a supermajority, have promised to kill the nomination in committee.
Hochul has responded by doubling down, doubling down, and doubling down again. She insists LaSalle’s positions have been “falsely represented.” She got the new minority leader in the House, New Yorker Hakeem Jeffries, to endorse LaSalle, making a local Democratic rift into a national one. She is determined to give LaSalle a vote on the State Senate floor, where he may be confirmed with Republican votes over Democratic objections. She even stumped for LaSalle on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Trinity Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. There she had security toss out parishioner Genesis Aquino when she rose to protest. A video of Aquino being escorted out quickly went viral on Twitter.
Forcing Black people out of their places of worship on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not rational or wise or especially unifying. That’s typical of bipartisan policies and approaches, which are often little more than an excuse for division and for terrible, immoral, and frankly nonsensical policy.
Centrist Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) often fulminate on the importance of bipartisanship. They oppose repealing the filibuster in the Senate because it preserved bipartisan legislating and respect for “the input of the Senate minority,” per Manchin’s website. Simena, as she reminded us Tuesday in Davos, has forged her entire political identity around performative bipartisanship.
In the name of reaching across the aisle, Manchin and Sinema have blocked voting rights legislation, ensuring that Republicans can continue to use gerrymanders and voter suppression to rob Black voters of their electoral rights. They’ve also refused to support abortion rights legislation.
Manchin insisted at the end of the last Congress that any debt ceiling increase had to be bipartisan. That meant Democrats couldn’t raise the ceiling unilaterally through reconciliation. Now, the Republican majority in the House plans to use the debt ceiling as blackmail, threatening to make the US default on its debt if Democrats don’t agree to cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Congress seems poised to choose between “financial Armageddon” and gutting a program with more than 90 percent public support.
In the name of bipartisanship, Manchin has given the GOP the opportunity to damage a safety net that helps and is beloved by virtually all Americans. How is that unifying?
Standing for what’s right is the most important thing
On issues where Democrats and Republicans are truly united in bipartisan consensus, that consensus is sometimes ill-considered or immoral or both. There is an almost endless appetite on both sides of the aisle for raising defense spending, for example — last year Congress even insisted on boosting spending above the president’s request. And Republicans and Democrats have consistently united to pass anti-sex worker legislation, which has made working conditions for sex workers more dangerous and enabled exploitation and trafficking.
Not all bipartisan legislation is bad. The recent bipartisan marriage rights bill wasn’t perfect, but it established some important protections for LGBT people. But the law was good because the substantive policy was admirable, not because there’s some moral value to legislation which gets votes from both parties. On the contrary, if the bill could have been passed with just Democratic votes, it would undoubtedly have been a stronger and better law.
Blind support of party can lead to bad places. Democrats (like, say, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo) shouldn’t get a pass when they put themselves above the public interest, or when they tout bad policy. And the GOP’s rabid, unending support for Donald Trump, even through a coup attempt, is obviously ugly and evil, because Donald Trump’s politics are ugly and evil.
But blind support of bipartisanship also has real downsides. The most important threat to our country right now is an out-of-control, radicalizing, irresponsible, fascist Republican party, which has embraced insurrection and hate. Partisan opposition to that program is vital if the US is to expand its commitment to democracy, equality, and justice.
When Democrats like Manchin or Hochul defy their coalition to ally with Republicans, they aren’t embracing comity and bridging divisions. They’re helping a rogue antidemocratic party advance an agenda designed to target the marginalized and shred America’s better values. If opposing that is partisanship, then more partisanship is what we need.
The George Santos scandal gets worse
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