When Associate Justice Clarence Thomas asked a series of questions from the Supreme Court bench this week and Senate Republicans pledged not to hold hearings for Justice Scalia’s replacement until after the November election, I thought of Randy Mendez and Kendra Carnes. Mendez and Carnes shared a 10-hour kiss at Valley River Center in 2000.
You can be forgiven if you don’t remember that publicized kiss. Mendez barely remembers it himself. That’s my point.
“What year was that? Geez, it had to be before 2001,” Mendez recalled. “It was ten or eleven hours. I remember that, because we were there when the mall opened and still at it when stores was starting to close. The contest was sponsored by some radio station, but I don’t remember which one.”
They won the Longest Kiss Contest. They’re married and living in Portland. “We have a kid now,” Mendez told me, before adding that they’re planning to return to Eugene, to be closer to Carnes’s family.
The sponsoring radio station had something to talk about for ten hours that day, but what if that kiss had gone on for ten months, or ten years? We might have tuned in to hear the beginning of the contest and the end, but sustaining interest through the middle would have been utterly impossible.
Justice Thomas last asked a question during a court proceeding almost exactly ten years ago. It was February 22, 2006. What prompted Thomas’s sudden chattiness? Was it the passing of his ten-year anniversary? Was it Scalia’s absence? We’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. Pouting for ten years merits no congratulations.
The point is that we stopped paying attention to his silence a long time ago.
The political right is facing an existential crisis during this campaign season. Analyses abound. The rift between establishment Republicans and movement conservatives has captivated the media. But another division has been on display between the two seats to the right of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Scalia’s seat for the last six years was to Roberts’s right, but always the center of attention. To Scalia’s right sat Thomas, staring at the ceiling or chatting with his clerks, but never uttering a recorded word.
The bully and the mute here have this in common — anger. Passive aggression is still, after all, aggression. Whether it’s talking too much or too little, the message is the same — “nobody can tell me what to do.” And with a justice’s lifetime appointment, that’s certifiably true.
Congresspeople don’t get lifetime appointments, so they’ve fashioned for themselves the next best thing. Thanks to gerrymandered districts, voter suppression strategies, and porous campaign finance rules, incumbency can last as long as they wish — so long as they don’t allow governing to impede their longevity.
Republican Congressional leaders have adopted Thomas’s tack. They’ve passed fewer bills than any Congress in recent or written memory. The votes they take are mostly symbolic, usually to demonstrate their opponents’ folly.
Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidates are barnstorming the country with laundry lists of bombastic demands they will force through Congress as soon as they hold the office. They’ll deport anyone whose name ends in Z. They’ll convince every woman to want every pregnancy. They’ll get everyone a good job, a lower tax bill, and a puppy that needs no training.
Campaign like Scalia. Govern like Thomas.
Now these two worlds of recalcitrance have intersected. Scalia’s death brought an immediate — aggressive — pronouncement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that President Obama needn’t bother nominating a replacement, because the Senate would refuse to consider — passively aggress — anyone, regardless of qualifications.
If holding your breath was an Olympic sport, you’d have to like Washington DC’s chances.
President Obama has promised to “do his job” and submit a name. Will Congress do their job and hold hearings? They say they won’t. Instead, they have pledged to do nothing. Their strategy could succeed.
Obama can keep news coverage going for a while by floating names and then by announcing his nominee. Can he keep us focused on it for ten months? Not without showmanship and stagecraft, which Obama disdains.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.