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US politics: A return to reason?

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6 July 2012 09:23

More so perhaps than landmark pieces of legislation, milestone Supreme Court rulings have a tendency of defining eras.

Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 ruling calling for desegregation of southern schools, has come to symbolise the civil rights revolution, even though it took the 1964 Civil Rights Act to demolish Jim Crow. Roe v Wade, when the court legalised abortion in 1973, speaks of female and sexual liberation for some, and of America's post-1950s moral degeneracy for others. Bush v Gore, the court's messy intervention in the Florida recount, represents the ugly hyper-partisanship that started early in the Clinton presidency and continues to this day.

So what should we make of National Federation of Independent Business v Kathleen Sebelius, the long-winded name attached to the ruling that saved Obamacare? Might Chief Justice John Roberts' decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act be an indication that the era of political destructiveness may at last be drawing to an end?

A few weeks ago, on the 40th anniversary of Watergate, I wrote about the marrying of the political and legal processes in America and how the juridical letter of the US constitution has come to crush its more optimistic spirit. Washington has become poisonous and gratuitously prosecutorial.

Chief Justice Roberts appears to have temporarily called a halt. I say apparently because, although we have heard his legal reasoning, we still do not know his motives. However, well-sourced stories suggest that he changed his mind at the eleventh hour, which strengthens the suspicion that he was acting politically rather than solely applying a legal test. Worried by allegations that the conservative-leaning Supreme Court has become overly politicised, his main purpose was to protect its reputation.

The broader question is whether Roberts' decision is part of something bigger: a realisation in Washington and beyond that America's impoverished politics is hastening the country's decline.

For those who yearn for more reasonable politics, there are some hopeful indicators. Mitt Romney, one of the two most moderate candidates in the GOP field, has secured the presidential nomination. The Tea Party movement did not get to exercise a veto. Perhaps it will come to be seen as a victory for 'sensible Republicanism'.

In the Romney 'veepstakes', Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who comes from the pragmatic wing of the party, is getting a lot of attention.

In recent weeks, Donald Trump, the country’s most prominent 'birther', has been completed discredited (see the video above for an example).

The Lexington column in The Economist has also reported on the pragmatism of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic opposite number, Harry Reid. Recently, for example, they compromised on student loans and joined forces to save the Bush Administration's Wall Street bail-out. Occasionally, both are prepared to put country before party.

So far, during this pre-convention lull, the contest between Barack Obama and Romney has not been especially rancorous. Come November, 'the sensible majority', the waverers in the middle, will decide the election's outcome.

For those who take a more pessimistic view, the angry conservative response to Roberts' ruling will heighten fears. So, too, the presence in Congress of so many partisan warriors who refuse to countenance ceasefire.

After the Brown decision, the American south did not change overnight. The Supreme Court ruled that school districts should move 'with all deliberate speed', a pace that Deep South states interpreted to mean glacial. Perhaps that will be the case with the Obamacare ruling. The mood will not change immediately. But in protecting the reputation of his court, John Roberts might also have helped saved Washington from itself.

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