Democrats Ready to Roll Over on Roberts? Don’t Bet on It.

Posted July 25, 2005 at 5:23pm

After some initial huffing and puffing about President Bush’s Supreme Court choice of Judge John Roberts, it appears that most Democrats on Capitol Hill found time this week to complete a long-overdue anger management course.

The term “pussy cats” isn’t far off the mark in describing the Democratic reaction over the past few days to the Roberts selection.

[IMGCAP(1)]Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged, “The president has chosen someone with suitable legal credentials.” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told CNN’s Lou Dobbs that Roberts is “legally skilled, a very bright man. He has no questions related to his honesty or ethics that I’m aware of. And a good temperament.”

A few days later, the Illinois Democrat even gave Roberts a little going away present after a “getting-to-know-you” meeting in his Hill office — a biography of a civil rights leader. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the liberal lion of the Senate, was unexpectedly meek in his comments, calling Roberts a “blank slate” but saying, “He’s obviously a very appealing individual, and he’s got impressive credentials.”

And Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who may have set a Senatorial record for media events last week, said all he needs to vote for Roberts is to be “convinced in my heart” that the nominee will be “a mainstream justice” as he, over and over again, assured anyone willing to listen, “This isn’t going to be a game of gotcha.” Of course not.

So, what’s up? Is it possible Democrats have taken the president’s call for a fair and dignified nomination process to heart? In a word, no.

The more likely explanation for the Democrats’ atypical behavior this week is far more cynical. For the past six months, Democrats on the Hill have continued their unrelenting attacks on Bush and the Republican Congressional leadership.

They have stalled key legislation and embroiled the Congress in controversies that have led to low Congressional job approval numbers. Apparently, their logic goes something like this: If the image of Congress gets bad enough, voters will throw out those in charge, and Democrats will be back in the driver’s seat.

Unfortunately for them, there is a major flaw in their thinking. This strategy works only if voters are offered real alternatives, something Democrats have failed to do. Now, as they focus on the 2006 election, these same Democrats are becoming concerned, justifiably, that their obstructionist image, which has cost them dearly in the past two elections, could doom their chances for real gains 18 months from now.

So, as the Roberts nomination takes center stage, Democratic leaders on the Hill find themselves conflicted. At their core, nothing about them has really changed. They are as obstructionist as ever.

They want this nominee defeated or at least discredited; but this time, they have to ask themselves at what cost? Deep down, Democrats want to play gotcha the way David Beckham wants to play soccer. It’s practically instinct for them, but is handing Bush a big defeat worth any price, including losing seats in 2006?

These are tough questions that put Democrats in a difficult spot. Should they pull out all the stops to defeat this nominee and keep their most vocal and powerful supporters, special interest groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America and MoveOn.org happy?

Or should they adopt a more circuitous approach? Talk nice for now and hold their tough questions for the hearings, wrap their demands for Roberts’ Reagan and Bush administration internal memoranda in the flag, and hope an endless paper chase will doom Roberts to the same fate as Miguel Estrada and John Bolton.

Clearly, they’ve opted for a “nice guy” strategy at least until the hearings begin or unless they find something on Roberts — whichever comes first. There’s another advantage to this strategy. It gives them a last-minute out. If Roberts can’t be egged into a mistake or nothing surfaces on his record, Democrats could decide, in the 11th hour, not to fight the nomination. Instead, they may well hold their fire until the next Supreme Court resignation when the stakes will be even higher.

Liberal special interest groups are not likely to buy into that scenario. Neither is Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who stood out this week in his harsh statements on the nomination, but most of the potential Democratic presidential contenders, most notably Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), seem to be keeping their powder dry.

There is an old fable about a frog and a scorpion who meet on the edge of a stream. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the water on its back.

The frog is skeptical and asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion replies, “Because if I do, we’ll both drown.”

So, the frog agrees; but halfway across, the scorpion stings him. Stunned, the frog asks, “Why?” The scorpion replies, “It’s my nature.”

Despite all the happy talk now, come September, I’d put my money on a bruiser of a nomination hearing because, for the current crop of Hill Democrats, it just comes naturally. This time, I hope they prove me wrong.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.