Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

You write that Obama is "a pragmatic liberal," that "his judgments in the past have been largely practical and reasonable," and that he is neither "an ideologue" nor "an excessive partisan." And I, too, really want to believe this. But then I always come back to the John Roberts vote. Roberts was clearly an outstanding candidate, perhaps one of the best ever nominated. He had nearly universal support from the legal academy, including from two of Obama's most liberal colleagues from the UC Law faculty, Cass Sunsetin and Geoffrey Stone. And he received "Yea" votes from both "pragmatic" Democrats like Lieberman, Jeffords, and Dodd, as well as principled liberals like Leahy, Feingold, Levin, and Kohl. Only the rank partisans cast "no" votes, and Obama was in that camp.

I remember being extremely disheartened by this vote at the time. I live in suburban Chicago, and I was a student at UC Law when Obama was on the faculty there. I have voted for one Democrat in my life, and it was for Barack Obama in the 2004 U.S. Senate race. Having Alan Keyes as an opponent didn't help matters, but I was convinced then that Obama was a man of principle who would always vote his conscience, even if politically inexpedient. And in these times, I was more than willing to accept a principled liberal over a partisan Republican. But then the Roberts vote came, and Obama lined up with the hacks and cast the politically safe vote.

Some of your readers have suggested that Obama's time on the UC Law faculty played an instrumental role in forming both his political optimism and his disregard for partisanship and cynicism. And there is no doubt some truth to this. Chicago is a place where ideas matter and are taken seriously, and where a philosophically diverse faculty regularly square off in a climate of friendship and respect. You can't leave that place and "hate conservatives' or "hate liberals." You can disagree passionately with your opponent's ideas, but your opponent is just too damn smart and too damn nice to ever dislike personally. But this makes the Roberts vote all the more disappointing. The UC faculty lined up behind Roberts, a recognition of his obvious intellect and talent. I find it simply impossible to believe that Obama felt otherwise. And yet he voted "no."

Bottom line: Obama delivers a good message about ending divisiveness in Washington and working to find common ground. Perhaps the only opportunity in the last 4 years to test that message was the John Roberts vote, and Obama lined up with the partisans.