Commentary: Joe Donnelly and the vanishing center

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – As America moved toward its Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s great rival Stephen A. Douglas once said he could have traveled all the way from Washington, D.C., to Chicago guided by the light of his own burning effigies.

John Krull, publisher,

Douglas had angered both Northerners and Southerners by attempting to paper over the differences pushing the country toward the calamity that nearly tore the nation apart.

Douglas may have been the most gifted politician of his generation. He jousted with Lincoln again and again and bested the Great Emancipator in every encounter but the last one, when they vied for the presidency.

Lincoln won then because he apprehended a truth Douglas didn’t – sometimes, differences can’t be reconciled.

Even though he attempted to bring the South around, Lincoln understood that, should push-come-to-shove, he would need to stand – and stand firmly – with one side or the other.

Douglas lost, in part, because he misread the moment. He believed there still was a center to American politics he could occupy.

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, probably can sympathize with Douglas right now.

Though Americans no longer rely on burning effigies to express their displeasure, Donnelly doubtless feels blistered by the scorching he’s received from progressives and Democratic Party activists for his vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Those progressives view Donnelly’s vote as a betrayal. They are furious about a prolonged list of things – Republicans’ unrelenting opposition to all things Obama, the fact that Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, Russia’s alleged intervention in the election, the FBI’s unorthodox role in the campaign….

Mostly, though, activist Democrats remain enraged about the way Republicans refused to grant President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing or a vote. This was in keeping with the GOP’s approach, crafted and implemented by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to block any Obama nomination, regardless of that nominee’s qualifications.

President Trump nominated Gorsuch to fill the seat Democrats feel Garland should occupy.

And Donnelly voted for Gorsuch.

His reasons for doing so would have been plausible, even admirable, at any other moment in history.

Donnelly argued that Gorsuch was qualified, which is true, and should be reason enough to support him. That had been the standard for voting to confirm a Supreme Court justice for most of this country’s history – until the Senate decided to embrace dysfunction as if it were a religion and our senators were zealous converts to the faith.

But, like Stephen Douglas, Donnelly has misread the moment.

He seeks a center that no longer exists. His vote for Gorsuch won’t bring him any support from Republicans when he’s up for re-election next year – they would hit him with everything they have even if he changed his name to Ronald Reagan – and many Democrats now feel he’s not one of them.

In some ways, he now is a man without a party.

That makes him an emblem of this era.

We live now in a country in which two wrongs apparently do make a right.

The treatment Republicans inflicted on Merrick Garland was shameful, a disgrace to the Senate and a disgrace to the nation.

But the notion that bad behavior justifies still more bad behavior is an argument we wouldn’t accept from our children.

And we shouldn’t accept it from the men and women who lead us.

If I were in the U.S. Senate and in Donnelly’s position, I likely would have voted as he did. In doing so, though, I would have realized that I was writing the political equivalent of a suicide note.

That is pretty much what Donnelly has done.

Long ago, Stephen Douglas found his way home lit by burning effigies of himself.

Now, the effigies aflame are of our country – and our dignity as a self-governing nation of free people.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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