Alito and that red vs. blue pew ghost thing

WCAP23701092336The Washington Post pulled out all the stops — on a weekday, no less — to offer the inside story of how the splintered Democrats failed to keep the dreaded Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. from reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is the story haunted by religion ghosts? Does it offer yet more evidence that the “pew gap” is alive and well and shaping how at least some would-be centrist Democrats present themselves to the public? Can you say Gov. Tim “I worked as a missionary when I was a young man” Kaine? I knew you could.

But back to the Alito mega-drama. Let’s look at four selected clips from this piece by reporters Lois Romano and Juliet Eilperin, in the order that they appear in the script. I will ignore the hints at the abortion issue being the key, since they are everywhere. Hang on and we will get to that later.

First, following Hill protocol, Alito went to see Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who is some people consider mildly anti-abortion.

Reid banned staff members from the meeting with Alito. The men talked about a number of issues, and at one point Reid mentioned that Alito would be the fifth Roman Catholic on the court. Reid’s remarks shocked Alito, who promptly told his handlers about the conversation, which they saw as a veiled suggestion that Alito’s religion would influence rulings on issues such as abortion.

Do you think that issue was hovering in the air? Do you think the White House was ready to pounce? Do you think groups on the right already had the counter-fundraising letters written and ready to mail?

Were groups on the left just as fired up and ready to tee off on anyone who waffled?

The liberal advocacy groups wanted nothing less than the Democratic leadership to take up a fight — and penalize those who were fence-sitting. Roberts had been given a pass, but Alito was a different story. He would be replacing O’Connor, often the centrist vote on a divided court. But energizing Democrats was a challenge. Many simply didn’t have the stomach for a fight they would probably lose.

A couple of weeks after the announcement of Alito’s nomination, Reid summoned leaders from the groups to his office to discuss strategy with several top senators opposed to Alito, including Schumer. “We are not the enemy,” Schumer told the lobbyists. “Stop going after moderate, red-state Democrats and start going after the Republicans.”

Now, we know that the red state vs. blue state thing is a bit of a myth and that the reality — red zip codes vs. blue zip codes — is more complex. But you know that the senators who live with this reality are very aware that these moral questions and, yes, religious questions matter to many of America’s most highly motivated voters on the left and right.

roe wideweb  430x285 1Just ask Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). This brings us to the most testy, tense moment in the whole piece.

As the hearings played out in Washington, Nelson was startled to see quarter-page ads in the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star sponsored by the conservative group Focus on the Family. “Will Sen. Ben Nelson listen to Ted Kennedy or the people of Nebraska?” asked the ads, which showed head shots of Nelson alongside the Massachusetts liberal.

Facing a tough 2006 midterm race in the conservative state, Nelson was furious and complained to the group’s president, James Dobson. He assured Dobson that so far nothing had emerged that would prevent him from voting for Alito — and suggested that Dobson thank him publicly at the right time. On Jan. 21, four days after Nelson announced his support for Alito, the group ran new ads: “Thank you Sen. Ben Nelson … for listening to the voice of Nebraskans.”

Oh to be a bug somewhere in the telephone system during that call. Or was it a personal meeting? I, for one, would like to know. Do you think that there is any chance that either side taped that call? Just kidding. Maybe.

And finally, there is this moment in modern public relations, when a key leader on the left finds what he believes is the “smoking gun” that will nail Alito. The day is Nov. 14.

On the front page of the Washington Times was a story leaked by the White House about a 1985 job application in which Alito had written, among other things, that “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.” By 7:45 a.m., 8,000 reporters received e-mails with a link to the story.

Wow. That is a lot of reporters and, media-bias investigators will quickly note, we can assume that about 90 percent or more of those reporters are personally (althought not automatically professionally) in favor of abortion rights. However, there is one interesting phrase in that paragraph from the Post. Note that, in the post-Harriet Miers world, it is the White House that finds that anti-abortion quote and circulates it, as opposed to, let’s say, Norman Lear.

So the White House was convinced that abortion would, somehow, be a plus with its base. Meanwhile, the left was just as convinced that abortion would be a big, big, smoking-gun-plus with its base and, thus, that:

… Alito’s views on abortion should be a focal point of the opposition, but it was not a strategy their Democratic allies in the Senate embraced. Heading into the 2006 elections, the last thing they wanted was to look like a party supporting abortion on demand.

I could go on and on. It’s hard to miss the politics of the “pew gap” in this one.

Can you imagine the ghosts that will flock to Capitol Hill if there is one more opening on the high court?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Todd


    Can you please provide us a link to the article? Thanks.

  • Dan

    The New York Times did a front page article a week or so ago on how the political dynamic of Supreme Court nominations had changed such that it is no longer taboo to be openly anti-abortion. This is a sign that the pro-life movement has gained some traction, though there is still a long way to go.

  • ceemac

    One of the Ghosts that I never see referenced are Bush’s roots. He comes from New England Conservative WASP Planned Parenthood Republican Stock. A long time ago I remember reading that his grandmother Bush was a founder of Planned Parenthood in Connecticut. Some research could might have turned up material for a “George, what would your grandmother say about Alito?” ad campaign.

    By the way Planned Parenthood used to be a WASPy conservative thing. Is there an article anywhere exploring when the conservatives abandoned Planned Parenthood?

  • Terrence Berres

    “Now, we know that the red state vs. blue state thing is a bit of a myth …”

    Maybe not for senators, elected from statewide votes.

  • Todd


    That is a very interesting question. My understanding is that the founder of PP was an advocate of eugenics, which might have fit in very well with the WASPy conservatives of that time. And, it is not at all clear to me that the WASPy conservatives have abandoned PP. However, they do not seem to be the dominant Republican voice these days. Also, WASPy conservatives may often be libertarian, which fits in quite well with the PP world-view. It will be interesting to see the point at which the libertarian conservative vs. cultural conservative tension provokes some real fighting amongst Republicans. For example, what will happen in the party if Roe v. Wade actually does get overturned?

  • tmatt


    Well, DUH! Talk about forgetting the obvious!

    Thanks. It’s fixed now.

  • Avram

    “WASPy Republicans” sounds to me like what’s often called “Rockefeller Republicans”.

  • ceemac


    When I used the term “WASPy Rpublican” I was intentional in not using the term “Rockefeller Rep.” They is some overlap but they are not synomyms.

    WASPy Republican is easier to write than something like “First Families of New England,” “Brahmins of Boston, New Haven, and Providence,” or “New England Royalty.”

    They were all wealthy/powerful prior to 1700.

    Most of the Rockefeller Republicans are not a part of this class. They came to their money and power much later.

    Folks like Prescott Bush were sort of like adopted children or hired hands of the WASPs.

    And as far as I know none of the WASPs are in George W’s inner circle. In fact I have gotten the impression that he did not like them when he went to school with them at Exeter and Yale.

  • Stephen A.

    “New England Royalty.”

    Like the Kennedys, who apparently become “entitled” to a place in government at the age of 21?

    They came the U.S. a bit later, but this arrogant, self-important bunch has made up for lost time.

    As for the CT WASPs who were pushing PP, I think that effort was led by Kate Hepburn’s mom, along with that eugenics woman. Not to say Mrs. Bush (the grandmother) wasn’t involved. Not sure why that was brought up, though. Hillary was a Goldwater girl. People change, and certainly families change across generations.

  • Daniel

    “In fact I have gotten the impression that he did not like them when he went to school with them at Exeter and Yale.”

    Which is ironic, given his privilged background. Maybe his post-recovery born-again experience clouds his perspective on being a WASP.

    Or maybe we should be talking about “Danforth Conservatives” after the WP gave a lot of inches to John Danforth’s critique of religious conservatives who are involved in politics.

  • ceemac

    Stephen A.

    I brought it up because one of the ghosts in this story is the disappearance of the WASPy Planned Parenthood Conservative from power in the American political scene.

    We have a president whose roots are in this tribe. Yet he has appointed 2 conservative Catholics to the supreme court. There’s a story there.

    And the Kennedys are not WASPs. If I undersrand the story the Boston Brahmins were daddy Joe’s opponents not his allies.

  • Victor Morton

    Right … the “P” in WASP stands for Protestants. Drunken Irish scum named “Kennedy” need not apply. Not that the Kennedys aren’t a privileged elite … of course they are. Just not WASPs.

  • Stephen A.

    Good catch, Victor. That’s very true. After I hit “Submit comment” it dawned on me (again) what WASP stood for.