By MARSHA MERCER
Senate confirmation hearings often show us more about senators and the state of the country than about the nominee. The Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Elena Kagan was no exception.
While not suspenseful – everybody agreed Kagan’s confirmation to the Supreme Court was inevitable – the election-year hearings gave Democrats and Republicans a chance to remind core supporters why they should care.
Democrats posed questions aimed at letting the first woman Solicitor General and first woman dean of Harvard law school shine. Republicans tried to provoke her into saying something – anything! – revelatory of her political or personal views.
Kagan, though, wasn’t into confession. Through 500 questions during 17 hours on the hot seat, she remained calm, confident and deft with a quip.
But the hearings did reveal a sharp contrast in views about a quintessentially American theme: freedom.
An exchange involving Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Amy Klochubar, D-Minn., exposed a fault line around the question: Are Americans freer today than 30 years ago?
Coburn, a physician from Muskogee who is 62, thinks not. He waxed nostalgic about Americans’ freedom in 1980 and asked Kagan how her freedom three decades ago compares with her freedom today.
Kagan stalled. She hadn’t really thought about that before, she said. “How old was I 30 years ago?”
“You were 20,” Coburn supplied helpfully.
Coburn argues that health-care reform, with its requirement that individuals purchase health insurance, impinges on personal freedom. He likened the health-insurance requirement to a hypothetical congressional mandate that people eat three fruits and three vegetables a day. Would such a law be constitutional? he asked.
That would be a “dumb law,” Kagan said, sidestepping.
Coburn and other conservatives blame overreaching government programs for Americans’ waning confidence in government. Only 22 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress, he said.
“A lot of Americans are losing confidence because they’re losing freedom,” Coburn opined.
Enter Klochubar, who like Kagan was 20 in 1980. She called Coburn out on the freedom question.
“Were we really more free, if you were a woman in 1980?” Klochubar asked.
In 1980, there was only one woman in the Senate and no women on the Supreme Court. A woman senator did not get a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee until after Anita Hill testified in Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.
Freedom, Klochubar said, is in the eye of the beholder.
And Kagan, who hadn’t answered Coburn directly, allowed that women do have more freedom today.
Klochubar asked Kagan about progress toward women’s equality. Women make up 50 percent of law school students around the country, but very few have attained leadership roles, Kagan said. There’s also not enough diversity in law firms, said Kagan, who avoided blaming anyone but cited structural obstacles, such as how to balance work and family.
We hear little today about government’s role in achieving women’s equality or freedom. These days, most of the loud talk about freedom comes from the political right. Polls find that large groups of voters are frustrated and fear their rights are being eroded. Republicans and tea-partiers decry President Obama’s policies as usurping individual rights. Talk show hosts dine regularly on the demise of freedom.
“We’re watching freedom evaporate and erode every day right in front of our eyes,” Rush Limbaugh declared the other day.
Nearly half of Americans – 48 percent -- see the government as a threat to individual rights rather than as a protector of those rights, according to a new Rasmussen Reports survey.
And yet, the survey shows a sharp partisan divide. Among Republicans, 74 percent consider government a threat to individual rights. Among Democrats, however, 64 percent regard government as a protector of rights.
Notably, Democrats see Arizona’s anti-immigrant law as eroding civil rights. The American Civil Liberties Union, whose slogan is “Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself,” urges supporters to donate because, “The need has never been greater for freedom-loving people to support the ACLU.”
Those who decide elections are split too. The Rasmussen survey found 51 percent of independent or unaffiliated voters believe government is a threat to individual rights.
Interestingly, “men strongly believe it is more important for the government to protect individual rights, while women are almost evenly divided on the question,” according to the survey.
Here’s a question for your next backyard barbecue: Are Americans freer today than 30 years ago?
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.