A Name to Remember

Posted: Oct 29, 2014 2:22 PM
It is painful, with a heavily contested race for the U.S. Senate here in Arkansas entering its last days, to review some of the lowlights of the long-time incumbent's years on the public payroll. It is hard to decide which has been the lowest in Mark Pryor's all too long tenure as he fights to retain his seat in the Senate, this time against a promising young comer.

The case for his opponent this year, Tom Cotton, is clear enough. Whether on the battlefield or in Congress, Captain Cotton has stuck by his guns. That he is a man of principle, even his critics may admit when pressed. Even if they don't like his sticking with principle when it threatens their favorite government subsidy.

Case in point: Tom Cotton's lonely vote against that classic exercise in political cynicism, the usual Farm Bill and Food Stamps jumbo combo. This year's tried to disguise a huge hunk of congressional pork (some $956 billion of it) by wrapping it in idealistic rhetoric about helping the poor. Like all those planters and agribusinesses whom this grab subsidizes. Congressman Tom Cotton chose to stick with principle instead.

But the senior senator from Arkansas is quite different. Mark Pryor has a career-long habit of putting expediency above principle. It goes back at least to the days when he was the state's attorney general, and doing the payday lenders' bidding. But my favorite example of his sheer opportunism in public office, his putting party above principle, can be summed up in two telling words: Miguel Estrada.

Remember him? Miguel Estrada was a hard-driving prosecutor in New York and a brilliant attorney with the U.S. solicitor general's office. An upward-bound immigrant devoted to his adopted country ever since he got here as a young man from his native Honduras, he was about the most promising nominee for the appellate bench since Richard S. Arnold. In short, a shining light. But he had a crippling political disability. Two of them, really. As if being a Republican weren't bad enough, he had to be Hispanic, too.

Maybe the Democrats in the Senate might have supported Miguel Estrada's nomination to an influential circuit court of appeals -- the one in Washington, D.C. -- if he'd been only one or the other: a thoughtful conservative or a genuine compadre. But in tandem, those two handicaps sank his nomination. The very thought of such a twofer shattered too many stereotypes. How demonize Republicans as stupid, xenophobic haters if they're nominating a bright young Hispanic immigrant for the appellate bench? Can't have that.

If only Miguel Estrada had been just another mediocre tortician with a bigger mouth than brain, he might have been acceptable. If only he hadn't done so well at Harvard (magna cum laude) and Columbia (Phi Beta Kappa) or in the solicitor general's office. If only he hadn't believed so strongly in those principles he believed in. If only his name had been Mike Edwards instead of Miguel Estrada ... then he might have been quietly confirmed and allowed to blend in with all the other inoffensive time-servers in the federal bureaucracy.

Then he wouldn't have represented a threat to anybody's entrenched prejudices about what a Republican should look like and think like. Then he wouldn't have challenged what was then the Democratic Party's slipping grip on Hispanic voters during the presidency of Bush 43. Then there wouldn't have been any need for the nearly two-year filibuster that was waged against him by the partisan likes of Mark Pryor.

But in the end both this nominee and this country were denied an opportunity for greatness by a willful minority in the Senate, by the Hillary Clintons and Ted Kennedys and the whole partisan claque that Mark Pryor decided to echo. It was a case of Democrats versus Quality, and Quality lost again.

Seven times the Republicans in the Senate brought up Miguel Estrada's nomination, and seven times the Republicans fell short of the 60 votes required to close debate and proceed to a vote on the merits of the nominee. The best the GOP could do was muster 55 votes -- a clear majority but not enough to end a filibuster back then.

Once again a minority of senators got to gloat, and dare an administration to nominate anybody to the judiciary who had a mind and heart. Senators like Mark Pryor made it clear they preferred what they called "a consensus candidate," by which they meant an inoffensive nobody.

The U.S. Senate, it turns out, is not an equal opportunity employer. The old masters of the filibuster who used it to thwart civil rights bills -- the James O. Eastlands and J. William Fulbrights -- would have been proud of the role Mark Pryor played in this debacle. He had done his part to further their dark tradition. The president at the time called the result "disgraceful," and the then Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, Tennessee's Bill Frist, said it was "a shameful moment" in the history of the Senate. Both were understatements.

But the Democrats had their reasons. Once confirmed, Miguel Estrada might have been a constant reminder that the Republican Party is open to all, just like the American Dream. And if he had fulfilled his bright promise on that circuit court, he would have been a favored nominee for the Supreme Court someday, and might even have added a new measure of quality to that motley crew. Yes, this nomination had to be blocked. It was entirely too good.