President Obama’s Litmus Test

There’s a scene in the movie “Three Amigos” in which a leader of Mexican bandits chastises one of his minions for using the word “plethora” while not knowing what the word means (watch it here). I thought about that scene again yesterday when I read about President Obama’s promise not to apply a “litmus test” to judicial appointments. It sounds like the President doesn’t know what a “litmus test” is. Here’s how the New York Times reports it:

In response to a reporter’s question, Mr. Obama reiterated his support for abortion rights, but said he would follow the time-honored answer of presidents from both parties in saying that no single issue would determine his selection.

“I don’t have litmus tests around any of these issues,” he said, “but I will say that I want somebody who is going to be interpreting our Constitution in a way that takes into account individual rights and that includes women’s rights and that is going to be something that is very important to me.” He added that the Constitution, in his view, guarantees privacy rights, including “bodily integrity,” the underpinning to the court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

The President says that he won’t have a litmus test, yet he insists that he wants somebody who supports abortion rights. Unless I’ve missed something, this is a litmus test. A litmus test by definition is “a crucial and revealing test in which there is one decisive factor.” Abortion rights are a decisive factor in Obama’s thinking about judicial appointments, ergo, he has a litmus test. No doubt, therefore, the talk about “litmus tests” is just rhetoric.

The truth of the matter is that every President has a litmus test on this issue, whether they admit it or not. The question is whether such decisive single-issues are worth the weight that are given to them. No President would want a Supreme Court Justice who wished to reinterpret the fourteenth amendment so as to legalize chattel slavery in America. That one single issue would be decisive—indeed it would be a litmus test—because the vast majority of Americans feel so strongly that it’s unconscionable to enslave human beings. Most Americans would insist that their President apply a litmus test in such cases.

The problem with Supreme Court appointments is not litmus tests per se, but with the inability of Americans to agree which litmus test is the correct one. Pro-choice Americans believe that the litmus test should be to find justices that will uphold Roe v. Wade. Pro-life Americans believe that the litmus test should be to find justices that would overturn it. There is no middle ground on this question, and Presidents know it. Make no mistake. President Obama will have a litmus test, and it won’t be the right one.


  • Andrew Cowan

    Bush said the same thing about abortion not being a “litmus test” when he appointed a Supreme Court justice (see http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000103&sid=aMFPHVrjBQ64&refer=us. In both cases, it is simply rhetoric, but I think that what the point they are trying to make is that one’s position on abortion does not qualify one to serve on the SCOTUS. Thus, it is a litmus test only in the negative sense of the term that failure disqualifies. I think they are trying to deny that it is a litmus test in the sense that passing qualifies.

  • Andrew Cowan

    Dr. Burk,

    I agree completely with your point. I just think that it is helpful to note that it runs both ways, even though one uses the half-truth to cloak action with potentially tragic consequences and the other surreptitiously attempts to save lives. I wish for leaders who do not do evil that good may come (or especially evil that evil may come), and it makes me grateful for the one Leader who embodies this principle consistently over against the American politicians in whom so many place great hope.

  • Matthew Staton

    El Guapo, I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect and education, but could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?

  • David Vinzant

    I made a comment that appeared, but now seems to have disappeared. Is there some glitch with the system or did I unknowingly violate one of the commenting policies?

  • Matt Svoboda


    The analogy isn’t disrespectful, at all. It is fine… Which you already knew or you wouldn’t have made it!

    Your point in the post is spot on. I’d respect the President more if you would just be honest and say, “I wont nominate a pro-life person.”

    Heck, I have a litmus test in voting- I wont vote for a pro-choice candidate, period.

  • Ben

    Matt (#11):

    What will you when/if the day comes that there are only pro-choice candidates on the ballot?

    Will you abstain from voting, or do you have another strategy planned?

  • Matt Svoboda


    I will abstain from voting. I’m not so tied to this country that I feel I HAVE to partake in elections and everything else. Voting is a choice and I will simply choose not to vote if there isnt a good candidate.

  • Douglas J. Bender

    President Obama is a brilliant orator and scholar. Of course he knows what a “litmus test” is, and of course he used the term correctly. It’s just that he meant he wasn’t going to test to see if a candidate was impregnated with his ideas.

  • Stephen


    As a scholar who deals with interpretation, I am incredulous at your link to the dictionary when dealing with understanding of language. Words (or phrases) are not pieces of luggage that have the same thing inside them every time you open them. I think that as a Harvard guy, Obama has a decent grasp on language. Maybe he was pushing back against the use of “litmus test” that the reporter was appropriating.

    Linking the dictionary is a sophomoric way of critiquing someone.


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