On March 1, 2005, Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) stood on the floor of the Senate and delivered an impassioned speech in defense of the filibuster, a parliamentary device that allows a minority of 40 Senators to prevent a vote from being called. The occasion for his defense is an effort proposed by Republicans to eliminate the use of the filibuster when judicial nominees are under consideration. In the last Congress, Democrats used the filibuster to prevent several of the most radical right wing judicial nominees from being confirmed.
During his remarks Senator Byrd briefly notes that Hitler came to power “with, and not against, the power of the State” and “turned the law inside out and made illegality legal.” He argues that the Republican attempt to eliminate the filibuster to force the confirmation of radical right wing judges, thereby ending the long-standing Senate tradition of unlimited debate, is a similar tactic used by Republicans to consolidate power.
Sensing an opportunity to muddy the waters of this debate with a little partisan demagoguery, the Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement condemning Sen. Byrd for going “way over the line.” Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, turned up the rhetoric dial, calling the remarks “poisonous rhetoric” that are “reprehensible and beyond the pale.”
One day later, the Republican gambit paid off. Their condemnation was given a hekhsher by Anti-Defamation League Executive Director Abe Foxman. Mirroring the Republican’s rhetoric, Foxman issues the following statement:
It is hideous, outrageous and offensive for Senator Byrd to suggest that the Republican Party’s tactics could in any way resemble those of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. The Senator shows a profound lack of understanding as to who Hitler was and what he and his regime represented. Senator Byrd must repudiate his remarks immediately and apologize to the American people for showing such disrespect for this country’s democratic process.
Foxman’s comments are disturbing for a number of reasons. On the merits, his condemnation is ridiculous. Byrd is not saying that the Republicans are Nazis; he is simple pointing to an historical example of when procedural changes were used to lay the groundwork for a power grab. He is counseling caution. With Foxman serving as monitor of all references to Hitler and the Nazis, it appears that any and all comparisons – no matter how innocuous – are forbidden. The effect of Foxman’s condemnation is to serve as an unwarranted distraction from Sen. Byrd’s efforts on behalf of minority rights in the Senate, a cause embraced by most American Jews. And it is possible that the severity of his critique was an effort to curry favor with the Republican majority.
Related posts: “Manufactured Outrage: Using Holocaust Hysteria To Win An Election”, “Norquist Defends ‘Dems as Nazis’ Quip”