Dawn Johnsen and Obama’s failure of nerve, or, Lani Guinier revisited

by on April 11, 2010  •  In Uncategorized
Character assassination is their stock in trade. Guilt by association is their motto.  They have created such a wave of fear and uncertainty that their attacks upon our liberties go almost unchallenged.

Harry Truman, 1951

It was not a surprise that President Obama Images-1withdrew the nomination of Dawn Johnsen, who I've written about before and who was endorsed by the NY Times to be Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. Her nomination had been swinging in the wind for a year, the target of a right-wing attack based both on her years as an abortion rights advocate, including her work for NARAL, and her writings as a constitutional law professor attacking the Bush era OLC for its perversions of justice, including production of the torture memos. These two failures of what is taken to be political smarts – i.e., the willingness to say what one believes and what needs to be said – can be fatal for anyone swimming in the mental pablum that passes for mainstream national politics. 

As it so happens, I've known Dawn for many years, know her to be a superb lawyer, a person of real integrity, and about as perfectly qualified to lead OLC (in part because she worked as a staff lawyer there in the Clinton administration) as one can imagine. (Little known fact: she's also a Sunday school teacher.) Funny thing – there's this other Images woman I've known for years – Lani Guinier, whose nomination as Assistant AG for the Civil Rights Division was withdrawn by President Clinton. And she is – guess what – a superb lawyer, a person of real integrity, and was about as perfectly qualified to lead Civil Rights (in part because she had worked as a staff lawyer there in the Carter administration) as one can imagine. (Don't know if she's a Sunday school teacher.)

I can easily imagine the calculation behind these withdrawals – that the Senate vote (at least on cloture) likely would have come up short to confirm either nominee. And I would bet that in both instances there were Dems from conservative states who were asking the White House not to force them to vote. Clinton folded within a few months on Lani's nomination; Obama should get credit for persisting with Dawn's for more than a year, but for the fact that his nerve failed at precisely the moment that it could have made a difference, when she was not included in his March list of recess appointments.

More important than anything about either President, though, is that these two stories signal the continuing power ceded to the right wing to left-bait, race-bait or, increasingly, gay-bait nominees whose values, experience and intellect make them among the most likely to be genuinely outstanding public servants. Not to mention those whose names are tossed out as too controversial to even nominate or who don't want to go through the heartburn of the process. Every time that happens, it's another little victory for the right wing.


3 Responses to Dawn Johnsen and Obama’s failure of nerve, or, Lani Guinier revisited

  1. Darren Hutchinson April 12, 2010 at 8:15 PM

    Great essay.

  2. Larry Reynolds April 13, 2010 at 1:46 PM

    Is is possible that Johnsen simply decided to give up? Is that why she didn’t get a recess appointment? Why are we assuming it’s Obama’s fault?

  3. Nan Hunter April 13, 2010 at 11:49 PM

    It’s not impossible that the idea to withdraw originated with Dawn. But I really doubt that she would have made that decision if Obama had included her in his recess appointments.

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