Sen. Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearings this week foretell concern for Democrats vowing to launch an effective opposition to the Trump administration.
Senate Democrats have assumed a rather aggressive stance to the full range of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees. They swore to expose each candidate to the “Garland treatment,” expecting to turn the appointments process into a struggle consuming the initial months of Trump’s presidency. If any nomination was to be foiled, even thwarted, Sessions’ was the most vulnerable.
An unsuccessful confirmation had once before left Sessions a weakened figure, creating suspicious if potent accusations of racism that lingered over his nomination like an albatross. His views on sentencing reform and civil asset forfeiture make him an outcast even amongst his Republican colleagues. A cohesive Democratic caucus and a hard-hitting message accompanied by a concerted effort to pick off the trickle of Republican senators with strong libertarian streaks could certainly have beaten him back.
Instead, Sessions will almost surely become attorney general.
Democratic disarray was on full display all through the process. The early hours of his confirmation hearings were devoted to essential policy discussions, even when cynical Democratic speakers had the floor. This may be a responsible lapse, but it isn’t the stuff of a resistance effort. The president of the NAACP was on television by lunchtime having at committee Democrats for providing Sessions the easy treatment.
Sessions’ rivals even sought for an ally in the Obama White House. Vice President Joe Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Senate Democrats should do their best to oblige to Trump’s wishes concerning the cabinet.
“Within bounds, the president should get the person that they want for the job as long as they commit under oath that they’re going to uphold the law. I wouldn’t have appointed Jeff but people learn, people change,” the vice president said.
While the Trump presidency appears, and probably will be, a formidable banner around which Democrats will rally, the Sessions hearing set down in sharp relief the magnitude to which the party and its allies are scattered and aimless. The gap between interest groups, Senate Democrats, and the White House were wide and effortlessly eluded. Their accomplishment gives the semblance of flat-footedness.
The hearings were not deprived of their triumphs. Sessions was made to make particular policy commitments — he will not sanction torture in violation of congressional statutes, nor enforce religious tests on immigrants. To this degree, Senate Democrats have accomplished in restricting the scope of Justice Department policy and the universe of potential choices. This is significant, especially if Sessions decides to deviate from these promises. However, it’s a paltry sum as compared to a botched confirmation.
The same committee Democrats and the same interest groups have a Supreme Court confirmation to challenge in the forthcoming months. They’re not ready.