Imagine what the mood at President Bush’s State of the Union address would have been if the big news before the speech was the Senate’s confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Harriet Miers.
It’s hard to believe that as recently as late October that was the White House’s goal. Instead, Mr. Bush addressed the nation hours after his biggest and most surprising domestic political victory yet. The withdrawal of the Miers nomination and the subsequent dynamics of the fight over Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito demonstrate that the debate in Washington is now set by blogs — and that this phenomenon has dramatically different effects on each of the two parties.
When Miss Miers was nominated, the right half of the blogosphere wasn’t quite united in opposition — radio show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt fought a relentless battle to boost Miss Miers until the day of her withdrawal. But by and large, Miss Miers’ critics operated on the Web. Each time the White House came up with an argument to support her nomination, her doubters assessed it and picked it apart, usually within hours. The blogs of the Miers skeptics — David Frum, Ramesh Ponnuru, and many other contributors to National Review Online’s “Bench Memos,” ConfirmThem.com, RedState.com and others set the pace, generating compelling counterarguments a lot faster than the White House could generate arguments. Other prominent conservatives, like former nominee Robert Bork and columnists Charles Krauthammer and George Will, gave her the thumbs-down, and their skeptical comments rocketed around the Web to a mobilized, energized, disappointed GOP grass-roots.
Conservative Republican senators on Capitol Hill read these blogs. They picked up on the grumbling, and echoed it to the White House. Soon it became clear that Harriet Miers was a disappointing choice to a significant chunk of Mr. Bush’s base, and that no Democrat was willing to lift a finger to help her chances.
So, Mr. Bush went back to the selection process — with the help of a supremely classy Harriet Miers — and picked Samuel Alito. Despite the early nickname of “Scalito,” the judge came across much more like the Italian John Roberts: pleasant, professional, knowledgeable, and maybe a little bit boring. There was little intellectual combativeness like Robert Bork demonstrated in his hearings, and Samuel Alito’s personality seemed too milquetoast to echo any of Justice Antonin Scalia’s sharp-edged style.
This was the left side of the blogosphere’s turn to mobilize. One of the fascinating developments since the 2004 election is how the nation’s most prominent Democrats have embraced passionate and vehement liberal bloggers. Sens. John Kerry, Barack Obama, Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer have posted on Daily Kos, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid will be addressing a Kos reader convention in Las Vegas. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave her response to the State of the Union on the Huffington Post.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, these bloggers are pushing them relentlessly to take a more combative stance, even when the odds are not in their favor, and failure has serious consequences. The Kossacks believe it’s better to lose fighting for principle than compromising to avoid defeat.
And that’s just what happened in the vote on cloture — preventing a Democratic filibuster of the Alito nomination. As recently as two weeks ago, an attempted filibuster seemed unlikely. Mr. Reid admitted he didn’t have the 41 votes necessary to sustain a filibuster. But Mr. Kerry and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy pushed ahead anyway, and liberal bloggers and their readers launched a furious campaign to pressure senators to back the filibuster.
The end result was a united front — all 55 Republican senators voting against the filibuster — and a nearly evenly split Democratic Caucus, 25 for the filibuster, 19 against. The Kossacks exploded in fury at the results. Some pledged to leave the party; others promised enormous, relentless efforts to remove the 19 apostates from elected office. The comment boards on these blogs sounded like one long, livid primal scream.
From the lefty bloggers, one would never know that polls showed Samuel Alito was supported by about 53 percent to 55 percent of Americans, and opposed by only 27 percent to 30 percent. Democrats in Bush-supporting red states couldn’t dare support a filibuster of a popular nominee, and every Republican senator except Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island knew the political wind was at their backs — and even Chafee couldn’t bring himself to support a filibuster of a qualified, well-liked nominee.
In the Miers case, it could be argued that bloggers on the right saved the president from making a critical mistake, and nudged him onto the path that ultimately led to a enormously significant part of his presidential legacy. But bloggers on the left are pushing their party into a difficult wilderness. The angry “net-roots” denounce any Democrat for deviating from their agenda, without a moment’s thought of trying to run for re-election with a liberal record in West Virginia, North Dakota or Nebraska.
Republicans can find strength and success by listening to their like-minded bloggers; Democrats can find strength and success by ignoring theirs.
Jim Geraghty writes the TKS blog (formerly “The Kerry Spot”) on National Review Online.