I missed the ad the first time I skimmed through the Sunday Journal, but a friend at church was so angered by it she urged me to go back home and try to find it. It was buried on an inside page of the travel section, so a lot of other readers might have zipped past it the way I did until I was deliberately searching.
I hope so. "Senator Jeff Bingaman," it exclaimed breathlessly, "STOP the Nonsense."
As wacko fabrications go, it was unexceptional. Just another bit of mendacity in the hoary tradition of Republican dirty tricks masquerading as grass roots indignation of the sort that peaked with the outlandish lies of the "Swiftboat Veterans" during our recent, tortured presidential campaign.
But it had one characteristic that raised it out of the muck of similar falsehoods and makes it worthy of comment. It was paid for by Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based religious organization organized by James Dobson that has spearheaded many "moral rectitude" campaigns designed to save our collective national souls from the decay and dereliction produced by such dangerous activities as drug use, sexual freedom, paying taxes and attending public schools.
Focus on the Family is now apparently targeting New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman (along with, I assume, all Democrats in the U.S. Senate) in an effort at forcing him to vote for cloture—that is, to vote to end the Senate's ancient tradition of filibustering.
This may seem at first glance like a strange target. I mean filibustering (the practice of talking without interruption to prevent voting on a bill), whatever its dangers, has never before been linked to moral turpitude. Boredom, obstinacy, poor judgment, bad taste—those are all criticisms that have been used to flay filibustering in the past.
But Focus on the Family is definitely pushing the envelope with this attempt at painting the Senate's refusal to cut off debate as linked somehow to such failings as (quoting from the ad): no mercy; no humanity; no decency and no respect. Gosh, and I thought it was all just harmless parliamentary hijinks. Who would have known?
Of course, the night before the ad appeared, Republican Sen. John McCain (and how does he manage, with such apparent common sense, to retain the GOP label anyhow?) was on a cable news talk show explaining why he also opposes using what is being called the "nuclear option" of ending filibusters. And, somehow, when McCain was explaining the issue it didn't sound so, well, morally repugnant as Focus on the Family made it seem.
But if you read the ad's small print, the explanation of what exactly the "nonsense" is that they would like to see Jeff Bingaman stop, you realize what is going on here. It is the separation of powers between the legislative, the executive and the judicial that Focus on the Family wants to terminate. You know, all that silly constitutional nonsense about checks and balances.
"The President has the constitutional right to appoint federal judges," the text of the ad asserts, "and the Senate has the duty to vote them up or down." Not, apparently, to debate them, not to use discretion, not to gather information and actually consider those appointments, just to vote them up or down.
This is a peculiar gloss on the Constitution, one I bet the Democrats wish they had known about when Bill Clinton's appointments to the federal courts were being stymied by the Republicans using precisely the same filibuster strategy now being attempted by the other side.
In fact, the ad, with little concern for historical accuracy, alleges that "Senator Bingaman wants to use the filibuster to block the vote, in a way that hasn't been used on judges in 216 years of Senate tradition." Wow! What a guy, our man Jeff!
What Focus on the Family (or whoever it is that is actually behind the ad) wants is for the Senate to step aside and let President Bush name the federal judges who will intervene in cases like Terri Schiavo's; block partial birth abortions; stop all obscenity in the media; display the Ten Commandments; and undermine the United Nations.
Now there's an impressive list of important issues facing this nation as we confront a world of economic bankruptcy, international mistrust, environmental deterioration and inequality of opportunity. First things first, as James Dobson always says.
But the importance of the ad, what makes it worth visiting, is that it is born of desperation. Focus on the Family has thrown together all the usual rallying cries of the wacko right—and paid for an ad in a newspaper to try to rouse the public. That hasn't been necessary for them in the past. They have their own network of contacts, their own alliances, and their own system of communication that has always worked well previously.
It speaks to the kind of over-reaching that both the Social Security privatization debacle and the Terri Schiavo incident demonstrated: the failure of the extreme right to discern and accurately reflect the mood of the public.
There are many years of struggle ahead, of course, but we may wind up, 10 years or so from now, looking back on this point in time as the one at which we first realized that the Moral Majority had completely lost its way and when it began resorting to paid advertisements in the secular press to try to find the path back. No wonder the punches it aims at Bingaman have all the power behind them of middle school sissy-slapping.