Sometime in the 19th hour of the Senate grilling of John G. Roberts, one of the senators leaned over to whisper into the ear of a colleague: “If this were a prizefight, the referee would have to stop it.”
None of his Democratic tormentors, in fact, had laid a glove on the president’s nominee to be the chief justice of the United States. There was blood on the floor, but all of it shed by Democratic senators. There was no work for a cut man in the judge’s corner.
The lifeless forms of senators lay scattered across the landscape with jaws agape, arms and legs akimbo in exhausted repose, and when sweet silence settled at last upon the ornate Senate conference room Joe Biden had given himself terminal catarrh by the sheer volume of the goatish gas forced through his windpipe with endless rants, recitations, declamations, orations and soliloquies disguised as questions. Teddy Kennedy, the gasbag emeritus of the world’s most abusive body, had all but put himself to sleep with his own repetitious tedium. Chuck Schumer, who looks as if he had been marinated in toxic brine when he attempts a smile, stumbled like a schoolboy over the learned questions assembled by aides. Judge Roberts could only look pleased with himself.
Well, why not?
Nevertheless, the outline of yesterday’s 13-5 vote by the Judiciary Committee to send the Roberts nomination to the full Senate reveals clearly the Democratic strategy to derail the president’s next nomination to fill the seat to be vacated by Sandra Day O’Connor.
Three Democrats joined the 10 Republicans on the committee to send the nomination to the Senate with a recommendation to vote “aye.” Russell Feingold and Herb Kohl probably would have voted aye, anyway, but they were joined by Pat Leahy, who has no ambition to be reasonable about any Republican nominee. His vote was meant to demonstrate that the party of Kennedy, Schumer and Richard Durbin is reasonable, fair, moderate, kind, judicious, compassionate and all the other things that modern national Democrats usually are not. The leadership could have chosen others to play the Leahy role. Joe Biden, perhaps, but he is eager to run for president, though a Biden presidency is about as likely as an Al Sharpton or Ralph Nader presidency, and he must pander to the party’s loopy base. Dianne Feinstein often hints that she knows better, but she is nevertheless from San Francisco, where playing straight is a recipe for suicide.
The Democratic reluctance to make a serious attempt to derail the Roberts nomination demonstrates most of all that the party leaders understand how careful they must be lest the public, which only pays attention in moments of high drama, figure out that the Democratic game is to smear any Bush nominee beyond recognition. Borking has become the party’s natural pastime.
When the Democrats on the committee explain, with feigned sadness, how they would like to vote for Judge Roberts but cannot because they fear he is an “ideological candidate,” what they mean is that he has the wrong ideology. Abortion has become the sacrament of the party; a clever nominee might one day soon trump Teddy and Joe and Chuck by asserting that not only does the Constitution guarantee the right of abortion, but guarantees the pregnancy to make an abortion possible. (If Teddy were not so long in the tooth he might even volunteer for duty.)
This Democratic fear of the public catching on gives George W. Bush a foolproof strategy of his own. He should send up a conservative nominee with the back-channel message that like him/her or not, this is as “moderate” as you’re going to get. Knock this one down and the next candidate will be someone you’ll like even less. Knock that one down, and you’ll get Janice Rogers Brown, who will give you the tutorial on the Constitution that you should have got in law school.
This is the red-meat politics that frightens Republican presidents. But since the Democrats want to fight like Mike Tyson, George W. should be the first to bite off some ears.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.