The 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.
Just 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?