Friendly Fire

How killing the filibuster has actually made it harder for red-state Democrats to vote for their own.

Vivek Murthy
Surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy dared to support Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act.

Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters

Take a seat, please, and grapple with this shocking truth. Vivek Murthy, the 36-year-old nominee to become the next surgeon general, may have supported Barack Obama for president and agreed with his political views.

You’re still sitting, right? That’s good. Murthy’s done a downright terrible job of concealing his liberalism. Not long after his residency, the Yale-educated doctor and MBA co-chaired Doctors for Obama—look, right there in the name!—and campaigned to elect a Democratic president. After Obama took the White House, Doctors for Obama became Doctors for America, and Murthy promoted the Affordable Care Act. On his Twitter feed, Murthy chatted with organizers and boosted the Obama re-election campaign and even criticized the NRA.

This tweet still haunts Murthy. As of last week, his nomination hangs in jeopardy because Senate Democrats—who can afford to lose every Republican vote and four of their own—aren’t confident they can confirm him. Months after reforming the filibuster, after lowering the vote threshold from 60 to 51, Democrats are facing their second defeat of a nominee in less than a month. The most-stated reason is that in his tweets and in his work at DFA, Murthy couldn’t help himself from criticizing guns as a “health care issue.” In a post–Sandy Hook letter, DFA even supported an assault weapons ban. He earned the ire of the National Rifle Association, and the NRA scared off the necessary rump of Democrats.

Every other Democrat, in Congress and in the White House, is baffled. They went into the confirmation vote for Justice Department nominee Debo Adegbile expecting to lose a few of their own—Adegbile had joined a defense team for Mumia Abu-Jamal and criticized the role of race in the justice system—but not to lose. Joe Biden didn’t show up for the vote to lose. He expected to cast a tie-breaking aye. They didn’t expect the NRA to oppose a nominee for surgeon general because, as one White house source put it, when has that ever happened?

Here’s the irony: By ending the filibuster, and by allowing the 55-seat Democratic caucus to confirm nominees with no Republican buy-in, the majority has complicated life for its red-state members. They can no longer expect a Republican filibuster to kill a “controversial” nomination. They have to kill the nominations themselves. That’s a challenge, because the Murthy nomination went from yawn-inducing to Fox News A-block material faster than any of them noticed. Day by day:

Feb. 4: Murthy appears before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. His opening statement makes no mention of the gun tweets (and why would it), and he rather cheekily describes Doctors for America as an organization designed to “strengthen dialogue between physicians, patients, and policymakers about pressing health matters.” Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander calls him out on this.

“Much of your credential, it seems to me, is a political credential,” says Alexander. Murthy had advocated for the Affordable Care Act, when there was “at least a large majority of Americans and a large number of the Congress who disagree with that law.” He’d tweeted critically of the NRA, when “Americans have a First Amendment right to advocate for the Second Amendment or any amendment.”

Murthy backs down immediately, saying his priority in office would be fighting obesity, not gun ownership. “My concerns with regard to issues like gun violence have to do with my experience as a physician,” he says, “seeing patients in emergency rooms.” The issue seems to peter out. Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi says he’s “glad” Murthy walked back the gun talk, and adds that “in the West, violence is mostly caused by people taking away guns.”

Feb. 10: The conservative press catches on. Emily Miller, a former Republican flack–turned–author/editor with a focus on gun rights, devotes her Washington Times column to the “rabidly anti-gun” Murthy. The doctor, she warns, is a “political lackey” who’s opposed by at least one former surgeon general and whose “Twitter timeline is chock full of his anti-firearm screed.”

Feb. 26: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul sends Majority Leader Harry Reid a letter announcing his intention to put a hold on the Murthy nomination. “In his efforts to curtail Second Amendment rights, Dr. Murthy has continually referred to guns as a public health issue on par with heart disease and has diminished the role of mental health in gun violence,” writes Paul. “As a physician, I am deeply concerned that he has advocated that doctors use their position of trust to ask patients, including minors, details about gun ownership in the home.”

Reid’s office hardly tries to suppress the chortle. “As the sun rises in the East,” says Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson, “Sen. Paul has placed yet another hold on yet another qualified nominee.”

On the same day, the NRA sends a letter to Reid and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell officially opposing the nomination.

Feb. 27: The HELP committee moves Murthy’s nomination to the full Senate on a 12-9, party-line vote.

March 5-6: Eight Democrats join every Senate Republican in voting down the nomination of Debo Adegbile. The next day, in an atypically dramatic speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey tells the story of how conservatives built on the effort of the Fraternal Order of Police and took down Adegbile. Democrats who didn’t join the GOP, like New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, take press release mortar fire from Republicans and local press.

March 11-12: At the start of the Senate’s last week before a short recess, Fox News starts covering the Murthy nomination. “Do you want a partisan physician?” asks Elisabeth Hasselbeck, rhetorically. Megyn Kelly’s prime-time show books Chris Cox, the NRA executive who wrote the no-Murthy letter, where he claims the nominee “is hell-bent on treating a constitutional freedom like a disease.”

March 14: Toomey, the co-author of the 2013 gun control amendment that the NRA opposed, comes out against the Murthy nomination. “Dr. Murthy, as the president of a partisan political organization, has been an active promoter of Obamacare,” he explains. “Dr. Murthy also has advocated for policies that would erode our important Second Amendment rights.” Later that day, the New York Times runs ahead of the curve and reports that the Senate is “balking” at a vote on Murthy, with “as many as 10 Democrats” refusing to vote aye.

That piece ran before senators scrambled for their home states. That’s made it easier for Democrats to dodge questions (pesky reporters can’t collar them in the Capitol) and wait for the White House to use the media and other channels to resuscitate the nomination. While they wait, they convince Republicans that they are white-knuckle panicked about losing the Senate this year—and, as Democrats tend to do, they confuse the trappings of panic for the sort of moderation that voters like.