For Thom Tillis, This Was Not A Profile In Courage

Mar 18, 2019

I remember a time when Thom Tillis did something courageous.

Media outlets across the state had started doing stories about a shameful part of North Carolina history. From 1929 through 1974, the state had forcibly sterilized some 7,600 men and women who had been classified as mentally ill, promiscuous, epileptic or just “feebleminded.”

Many of the victims were still alive. One or two Democrats in the state legislature had been trying to get compensation for them. Those attempts went nowhere for years. Until Tillis stepped in.

At the time he was the Republican speaker of the North Carolina House, and his support gave the project not just momentum from leadership but bipartisan heft. The state eventually created a $10 million fund and has paid tens of thousands of dollars each to hundreds of victims.

Spending that much money on a social issue from that long ago didn’t exactly have a lot of support among Tillis’ fellow Republicans. But he took the stand because he believed it was right.

After that, Tillis got elected to the U.S. Senate. And three weeks ago, he briefly looked courageous again.

Tillis wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post opposing President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to free up money for a wall at the Mexican border.

Here’s the way Tillis put it: “As a U.S. senator, I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress. As a conservative, I cannot endorse a precedent that I know future left-wing presidents will exploit to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms.”

That sounds bold and tough and independent – exactly what most of us long for in our politicians.

Well, forget all that. Because last week, Tillis caved like a sand castle at high tide.

He got up on the Senate floor to announce that he had changed his mind and now supports the emergency money for Trump’s wall. He said he had gotten assurances that would, again quoting here, “prevent a future left-wing president from misusing their authority.” So apparently it’s OK for a right-wing president to misuse his authority, just as long as a left-wing president doesn’t get to do it.

As a practical matter, Tillis’ flip-flop changed nothing. Congress went ahead and passed a resolution disapproving of the emergency money, and Trump vetoed the resolution, and we’ll see what happens from there.

The real reason Tillis flipped is because in Trump’s world, loyalty is the only thing that matters. And by opposing Trump on the money for the wall, Tillis opened himself up to Republican opposition when he runs for re-election in 2020 – and it’s likely that Trump would have campaigned for his opponent.

So Tillis folded up his principles, stuck them in his back pocket, and bowed down to the boss.

To be honest, that’s what I expect from most politicians. But I know Thom Tillis is better than that. And the worst part is, he knows it, too. Some people get so lost in weakness that they forget who they used to be. But Tillis remembers. It wasn’t that long ago.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.