Playing Political Games With Surgeon Generals Is Nothing New


Vivek Murthy, President Obama’s nominee as surgeon general, supports regulations on gun use. This has earned him fierce opposition from the NRA and seems likely to sink his nomination entirely. Paul Waldman comments:

In the calculations over whether Murthy could get confirmed, it’s notable that everyone assumes, almost certainly correctly, that every Republican in the Senate will, of course, vote against the nomination. George W. Bush appointed only one surgeon general, Richard Carmona. He was confirmed by a vote of 98 to 0. But those days are gone — what do you expect Republicans to do, examine a nominee’s qualifications and vote to confirm if he’d obviously do a fine job? Please. The default used to be that a president will get the nominees he chooses unless there’s something really egregious in their past or what they’re likely to do if confirmed, but when it comes to this president and this Congress, that has been turned upside down. Now the Republican position is that every nominee should be rejected, unless there’s some kind of a deal that allows them to get something in exchange.

I’ve made similar kinds of comments in the past, so I can’t really object to seeing them repeated here. Still, it’s worth remembering a little history. First: although President Obama’s initial choice for surgeon general, Regina Benjamin, ran into some Republican opposition when her nomination came to the floor, she was confirmed unanimously within a few days, just like Richard Carmona, Bush’s first surgeon general. Second: after Carmona’s term expired, Bush’s next nominee for surgeon general, James Holsinger, ran into a buzzsaw of Democratic opposition based on a paper he had written in 1991 which argued that “homosexuality isn’t natural or healthy.” When the Bush White House suggested it might install Holsinger via a recess appointment, Harry Reid kept the Senate in pro forma sessions to prevent it. Eventually Holsinger’s nomination died.

There was more going on with Holsinger, including his refusal to answer written questions, but basically his nomination was killed because of his anti-gay views. He insisted that his 1991 paper no longer represented his current views, but it didn’t matter.

So do Murthy’s problems demonstrate the strength of the NRA? Sure. But Holsinger’s problems demonstrated the strength of liberal LGBT views among Democrats. There’s nothing very new going on here.

In fact, I half wonder if opposition to Murthy is partly payback for Democrats killing Holsinger’s nomination. I’d be curious to hear about this from reporters who cover the conservative movement. Down in the bowels of email lists and Sarah Palin fan clubs, do tea partiers still hold a grudge over Holsinger’s defeat? Or has that long since been forgotten?

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