A Tale of Two Nominations


It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Back in early 1995, President Clinton had a problem. He needed to nominate a new Surgeon General and the Democrats did not control the Senate. However, the Republicans only had a slim 53 seat majority so the President felt he had a fighting chance to get his nominee through.

If he chose wisely…

On February 3, 1995 President Clinton nominated Dr. Henry W. Foster.

President Clinton’s choice to replace Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the Surgeon General he forced to resign in December, is Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr., 61, acting director of Meharry Medical College in Nashville. He is an obstetrician who has specialized in the prevention of teen-age pregnancy and infant mortality.

Dr. Foster is regarded as a conservative politically, but although his nomination was praised by mainstream medical groups like the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists ultra-conservative groups criticized the choice. The nomination requires Senate confirmation.

The program in Tennessee for which he is best known, called I Have a Future, teaches teen-agers in two Nashville housing projects to delay sex and childbearing as a crucial element in developing successful lives. The program, which Dr. Foster started in 1987 when he was head of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Meharry, mixes many services — tutoring, job training, family life classes, medical services — into one after-school program that serves about 150 children a week.

The problem? Back in his early days, Dr. Foster performed the occasional abortion.

So the nomination fight began. Initially, President Clinton waited a month before pushing forward to give the seas some time to calm, but then the obstructionist Republicans took over the delaying tactics. They waited months before meeting the candidate, and Majority Leader Bob Dole himself refused to meet with Foster for ages. Here we fast forward to May 7, 1995 and the confirmation hearings:

IN two days last week, Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. demonstrated just how malleable political fortunes can sometimes be in Washington — his own and President Clinton’s. As he talked, laughed, wept and bristled his way through a Senate confirmation hearing on whether he will be the next Surgeon General of the United States, he seemed to wipe away the gloom that had settled over the nomination just a few weeks ago. Instead, he gave an uncomfortable jolt to those Republicans trying to derail the nomination on the grounds that during a 38-year medical career as an obstetrician he had performed some three dozen abortions…

By the end of the hearing, Dr. Foster seemed to have put the emphasis back on a goal everybody says they want — fewer out-of-wedlock children born to teen-agers — and to have marginalized the much more ideological debate over whether a doctor should be barred from holding office because he performed some abortions as part of a regular practice.

At the very least, the 61-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist walked away with a boost to a reputation that had been tarnished during one of the fiercest public debates over a Presidential nominee in recent years.

So now the fight was on. Would the Republicans resort to staging a filibuster of this well qualified nominee? Surely all these months without a Surgeon General would cause the Senate Majority to give this well qualified nominee a fair up-or-down vote? They wouldn’t dare…eh, screw it, of course they would.

From June 22, 1995:

The Senate refused today to bring the nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster, Jr. as Surgeon General to a vote, as a combination of Republican Presidential politics and intense opposition to abortion all but killed the nomination…

With 60 votes required to end debate and force a vote, supporters mustered 57 today. All 46 Democrats, along with 11 Republicans, voted to close the debate and force an up-or-down vote on the nomination. All 43 votes in opposition were cast by Republicans.

Constrast this situation to the Michael Mukasey nomination for Attorney General.

With Foster:

1) A slim opposition majority in the Senate filibustered a well-qualified nominee who performed superbly in the confirmation hearings.

2) The Republicans delayed confirmation hearings repeatedly in order to embarrass the Democratic President.

3) The Republicans stood by their principles (as warped as they are) and did not allow a conservative doctor who had once performed abortions to become the Surgeon General.

With Mukasey:

1) A slim opposition majority in the Senate allowed an up-or-down vote on a nominee who performed abysmally in the confirmation hearings.

2) The Democrats quickly held confirmation hearings in order to not embarrass the Republican President.

3) The Democrats abandoned their principles (as well meaning as they are) and allowed a conservative lawyer who refused to declare torture illegal to become the Attorney General.

And the fallout? Certainly one would expect the Republicans to pay for their gamesmanship in the elections the following year. No?

Well, in 1996 the Republicans gained two seats in the Senate and ended up with a stronger majority to battle President Clinton at the start of his second term. Yup. Better not oppose the President, it’ll bite you in the ass every time.

Those people who suggest the Democrats are doing all they can in a difficult situation are not being honest with themselves. Opposition to this President isn’t just about starting impeachment proceedings or refusing to fund the War in Iraq. Our team won’t even begin with the basics of a filibuster when they clearly could and should do so.

Sadly, this also means there really is little-to-no hope of either de-funding or starting impeachment hearings before the 2008 elections.

And the problem really isn’t the Republicans.

It’s our team.


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  1. Really, there is no excuse. None.

    For my friends in blue. I think I’ll do something I haven’t done since I started posting here and I’m gonna cross-post this one. Just to have fun watching it swirl away unnoticed down the orange drain.

  2. Is trying to be too clever.

    Acting …as always….from fear. They are trying to out maneuver the Repubs to defeat the ‘support the troops’ meme instead of just standing up to it.

    It is not always good to be smart….sometimes you just need to be brave instead.

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