As you know, I had an unsuccessful journey through the Senate confirmation process. My paper trail as a law professor was, shall we say, a target rich environment . . . .
So what’s the lesson here? Is it that law students and young lawyers should be careful — careful about what you write, careful about what you say, careful about taking a position for fear of losing a future opporunity? Well, let me tell you, I have certainly said things, written things, that I later regretted. I have made mistakes I wish I could erase. We all have. But it would be wrong to conclude that the best way to go about life is to just play it safe.
You know, as my friend Dawn Johnsen, who is here tonight, said — in fact at this very convention two years ago — “no one goes to his grave seeking an eptataph that reads ‘he kept his options open.’”
Liu is right, but he is also one of the lucky ones. Thanks to California Gov. Jerry Brown, Justice Liu will not spend his career on the sidelines shouting advice to the players on the field. Yet expecting fairy godgovernors to rescue the progressive movement’s brightest lights is neither a viable option for people like Dawn Johnsen nor a recipe for achieving justice at on a national scale. If progressive governance is to succeed, we have to be able to play our first string.
This is especially true because the American right has worked hard for decades to recruit and train its most talented members to play in the big game. Antonin Scalia, Janice Rogers Brown, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas all want to do bad things to this country, but they are among the brightest and most dedicated conservatives in the country (and to those who question my decision to include the Supreme Court’s silent justice on this list: Don’t. We underestimate Justice Thomas at our gravest peril). Progressives can only hope to defeat them with champions of similar skill and dedication.
It is demeaning to spend a career looking upward at a glass ceiling, and many progressives will simply abandon public service if they believe the top jobs are unobtainable. Worse, denying the top jobs to top progressive thinkers does not simply force us to match second-string players against the right’s offensive line, it often enables the other side to raid our top talent. Liu and Johnsen both returned to the legal academy after they crashed headlong into a filibuster, but it is both frightfully easy and frightfully common for top progressives to cash in at corporate law firms, K Street lobbying shops or other places that strive to sell courts and Congress to the highest bidder.
Achieving progressive goals depends on grassroots enthusiasm. It depends on the hard work of organizing. And it depends on our shared sense that the wealthiest, most powerful nation that has ever existed is up to the task of ensuring that the daughter of a gas station attendant can aspire to the same dreams as the son of a CEO. But it also depends on progressives having exceptionally gifted policy makers who are willing to trade in a lucrative career in the private sector or a comfortable career in the academy for a much more difficult job in government.
The price of recruiting such individuals is often the promise of future advancement. Restoring that promise, through filibuster reform if necessary, needs to be a top priority of the progressive movement if we expect to meet the right’s smartest, hardest working ideologues with equal force.