Partisanship Brutalizes a Great American Doctor

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Dr. Vivek Murthy

Imagine you’re a doctor. Imagine you were your high school’s valedictorian, graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in only three years, received your medical degree and a masters in health care management from Yale, and completed your residency at the highly regarded Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. You became both a physician and an instructor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School. You’ve worked with the government to develop policies to provide better health care for all Americans. You’re an innovator in the area of using new technologies to improve the efficiency of clinical trials and you’re a leader in HIV prevention and AIDS education. Not too bad, considering you’re only 38 years old. You’ve been nominated by President Obama to be our nation’s youngest-ever Surgeon General. You are elated; your parents are proud. You have a chance to further serve your country.

Then the realities of today’s politics sink in. You’re about to be torpedoed by obstructionism, money and fear. The Constitution requires certain presidential appointments to be confirmed with the advice and consent of the Senate, and for a couple hundred years the President was entitled and allowed to place qualified persons into his administration in order to advance his policies. But in today’s atmosphere of extreme and ritualized partisanship, every nominee is challenged. You expect the background checks — what you don’t expect is that every article or speech you’ve ever written, every word you’ve ever spoken, will be parsed with a fine-tooth comb. Perhaps worst of all, you’ve expressed your opinions on the purchase and ownership of guns, views that are in step with those of many Americans but which are verboten by the NRA.

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Conservative Republicans view your remarks as a latest perfect opportunity to obstruct the Obama administration. They’re happy to take advantage of the NRA’s deep pockets. The Surgeon General’s office deals with health policy, not guns. As a nominee, heaven forbid you have opinions on any other subject. Once the NRA says it is “taking no chances that under the nominee the Surgeon General’s office might veer into gun policy,” Republicans and at least 10 Democrats head for the hills, leaving the administration no alternative but to delay a confirmation vote until next year, a sign your nomination is dead in the water.

Our imagined nominee is not to be left to your imagination. In fact, he is a real person, Dr. Vivek Murthy, co-founder of Doctors for America, which focuses on advocating quality, affordable healthcare to all Americans. I wish him the best. He got caught up in a process which was once meant to be a check on abuse of power by the executive branch, but is now a vicious sport that allows political opponents not only to obstruct policy, but to tarnish hard-won reputations and destroy laudable goals. He’s bound to be discouraged, but I hope he’ll pick himself up and go on. I hope he and others like him will stay true to their convictions, shout from the highest peaks. We need them.

Dr. Murthy is not the only nominee who’s run into trouble recently. Senate Democrats recently amended the filibuster rules to prevent repeated Republican blockades of Obama’s cabinet and judicial choices. Nonetheless, at least four nominees have run into trouble this month because lily-livered Democrats have balked when pressured by lobbyists. The most public defeat was that of Debo P. Adegbile as the President’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. When Adegbile’s nomination came up for a vote, seven craven Democrats joined the Republicans in defeating his nomination.

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What had this highly qualified attorney done to incur the wrath of the Senate? Had he committed a heinous crime? Had he mistreated employees at the NAACP where he headed their legal fund? Had he failed to represent a client to the best of his ability? No. In fact, he represented his client to the best of his ability. The client had been convicted of murder, and through the appeals process Adegbile had been successful in reducing his client’s sentence from death to life in prison. Apparently a majority of our Senators believe that representing such a client should disqualify one from being able to serve at the U.S. Department of Justice. Let’s hope they never need a “zealous advocate.”

What signals do these Senators’ actions send to young law students? I’ll tell you exactly what it says — forget what you’ve been taught, forget about your principles. Forget that the U.S. Constitution guarantees that each of us is entitled to honest, sincere, competent legal representation.

The current state of the advice and consent process is the result of decades of one party or the other using confirmation as a weapon against the party in power in the White House. Advocacy groups have pounced on the process as a way to publicize their position and fundraise for their lobbying efforts. The advice and consent clause was never meant to become a political club by either party, and certainly not a fundraising tool for lobbyists. Each time a Senator for either party votes blindly, in lockstep with his party’s leadership, he is derelict in his duty to represent the best interest of his constituents. Each time a Senator considers her election chances a good reason to vote against an otherwise qualified nominee, she violates her oath of office. Each time a Senator votes against a nominee in exchange for promises of campaign cash he or she should lose their next election.

Unless the nominee is a total milquetoast, the confirmation process can be, and is, brutal. But do we want milquetoasts? Do we want nominees with no opinions, no passions, no independent thoughts, no brains, no energy? Do we want nominees who have never taken risks, never advocated for what they believe? Do we want nominees under the control of lobbyists? Here’s an even more disturbing question: Is anyone other than politicians and lobbyists paying attention? Are you? Maybe it’s time for you to imagine.