After the resignation of Van Jones last weekend, pundits declared a victory for Fox News host Glenn Beck, who'd been whipping up his audience into a frenzy about Jones for weeks. Now Beck has a new target: Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, who's been nominated to lead the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein's nomination was announced in January, but after being repeatedly held up by Republican senators, it is now set to be voted on in the next few days.
Initially, conservatives were broadly supportive of Sunstein's nomination, appreciating the libertarian bent of some of his writings. The Wall Street Journal praised his nomination, citing his reservations about financial regulation and his advocacy of competition as necessary viewpoints to be aired within the Obama administration. The Journal called him a "savvy choice." His nomination was applauded by conservative bloggers like Eugene Volokh. But Sunstein quickly faced a problem that has haunted other Obama staffers (most notably Zeke Emanuel): as an academic, he has a large body of polemical academic articles that are easily construed as radical. For Sunstein, the problem first arose out of his musings on animal rights. In the Senate, John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) placed holds on his nomination, citing concerns over his views on hunting. In 2007, Sunstein gave a speech at Harvard in which he explored the idea that humans legally permit much cruelty to animals while at the same time public-opinion polls suggest that most people believe such cruelty is ethically intolerable, and so he suggested a hunting ban. It's an idea he also pondered in an academic paper titled "The Rights of Animals: A Very Short Primer." He wrote:
If we focus on suffering, as I believe that we should, it is not necessarily impermissible to kill animals and use them for food; but it is entirely impermissible to be indifferent to their interests while they are alive. So too for other animals in farms, even or perhaps especially if they are being used for the benefit of human beings. If sheep are going to be used to create clothing, their conditions must be conducive to their welfare. We might ban hunting altogether, at least if its sole purpose is human recreation. (Should animals be hunted and killed simply because people enjoy hunting and killing them? The issue might be different if hunting and killing could be justified as having important functions, such as control of populations or protection of human beings against animal violence.)
Sunstein has since written to Cornyn and Chambliss to affirm his belief that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms for the purposes of hunting and self-defense. He's also stated that he wouldn't use his position to advance an animal-rights agenda.
Things got a whole lot worse for Sunstein when his writings on organ donation surfaced. Along with University of Chicago scholar Richard Thaler, Sunstein examined the mismatch between the number of people in need of organ donors and the number who die with perfectly healthy organs. Worried that the discrepancy emerged not because people are opposed to organ donation but because they forget to tick a box on their driver's licenses, Sunstein and Thaler suggested that organ donation become the default stance. Individuals would have to deliberately specify that they don't want their organs donated. In the hands of fringe bloggers, this notion turned into a false accusation that Sunstein advocated for granting government the permission to forcibly remove organs. Although this claim has been roundly rejected, by conservatives and liberals alike, it has a "death panel"-type potency and refuses to subside.
Enter Glenn Beck. The Fox News host is waging a war against Obama's "czars." He believes creating czars is a way of circumventing Congress and granting power to unelected officials. Never mind that the office Sunstein would head is not a new creation of the Obama administration: it has been in existence since 1980. He hardly qualifies as a "czar." But Beck has him in his sights. Recently he urged fans, via his Twitter feed, to collect and save all the information they could find about Sunstein; yesterday he warned that the Democrats would lose the vote on the nomination, and suggested they are afraid of Beck fans. Beck's objections are gaining traction, evidenced by the emergence of a new Web site called Stop Sunstein. Sponsored by the American Conservative Union, the site features a home page screaming, "President Barack Obama has nominated Cass Sunstein, a radical anti-gun, anti-hunting, animal rights law professor to be his 'regulatory czar,' " alongside images of fake newspapers declaring "Guns Banned," "Hunting Banned," and "FCC Pulls Plug on Limbaugh." The page blazes with out-of-context quotes that make Sunstein look quite loopy.
Beck may have picked the wrong battle here, though. Sunstein retains significant support from conservative intellectuals, and his statements aren't nearly as damaging as those of Van Jones. And the Office of Management and Budget, which will oversee Sunstein's office, isn't really the sort of place to be concerned with animal-rights policy. Regardless, Beck is making life uncomfortable for Sunstein, proving once again that his voice echoes resoundingly in D.C.