Almost as thoroughly depressing as the sight of little Elian Gonzalez paraded around Georgetown by Democratic fund-raisers is the sight of Republicans in full flight from the Fourth Amendment, which bars “unreasonable searches and seizures.” They are now carefully picking their way back from the brink of hearings on the federal government’s alarming raid on the Gonzalez family home in Miami. And yes, they may well have traded in their awkward, traditional “oversight” responsibilities for a new and streamlined “overlook” model. But never let it be said that they don’t stand on principle, at least one, which they prize above all: namely, that there is safety in numbers. There is safety, they think, in the numerical edge they currently maintain, and there is safety, they think, in the poll numbers they trust to guide them in preserving that edge.
They may say nay, but it remains the case that April outrage has brought May capitulation. Why? Nothing has changed about the shocking seizure of Elian on Easter Saturday. Still unanswered is the fundamental question about the government’s strong-arm tactics, as framed in the New York Times by Laurence H. Tribe, Harvard’s poster boy for liberal jurisprudence: “Where did the attorney general derive the legal authority to invade that Miami home in order to seize the child?” Mr. Tribe, among others who have weighed in on the subject, went on to unmask the Justice Department’s much-vaunted search warrant for the phony prop that it is. “It is a semantic sleight-of-hand,” he wrote, “to compare [Elian’s] forcible removal to the seizure of evidence, which is what a search warrant is for.”
To be sure, this issue, among others, initially brought Republicans to a quick boil. From House Whip Tom DeLay (“You bet there will be hearings.”) to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (“My first thought was that this could only happen in Castro’s Cuba.”), Republican leadership was united in outrage after the raid for a full five minutes or more.
The trajectory followed by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch is typical. In the week following the raid, Mr. Hatch, still in sky-high dudgeon, gave the Justice Department 24 hours to turn over all documents “related to (1) surveillance of the Miami home, including but not limited to the possibility of weapons in that home; (2) seeking and obtaining the search warrant and the arrest warrant; (3) the decision to enter the home and the means of entry, and (4) the conduct of the operation of entering the home, seizing the boy, and taking him to Maryland, including but not limited to any tactical plan or rules of engagement.” In other words, the senator meant business. But then the Justice Department said, “boo,” (or its legalese equivalent), announcing that it was unable to comply with the Senate request. Mr. Hatch, deflated, dropped it.
And why not? It so happens that the polls recommend this, revealing that the American people persist in seeing the Gonzalez case as a run-of-the-mill custody battle. Far be it for the Republicans to try to enlighten them. “I don’t think there was very much momentum [for hearings] to begin with,” said Mr. Lott last week. Mr. DeLay is pushing a “wait-and-see” strategy, while Mr. Hatch is now asking for something he calls a “preliminary inquiry.” This sounds much like what House Speaker Dennis Hastert has asked Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to consider “an inquiry as the basis for a written report,” according to the Associated Press, more than likely to find its place in posterity in the circular file. This, of course, suits all parties just fine including, it is said, George W. Bush.
At last count, only a small band of Republican dissidents among them, Reps. Bob Barr, John Doolittle, J.D. Hayworth and Todd Tiarht still show the forthright courage to call the Gonzalez case the assault on American liberty that it is. “I think we’ve had a very egregious violation of fundamental constitutional rights, and if we don’t have hearings on this we’re going to give our stamp of approval,” Mr. Doolittle told the Associated Press. So they will.