Out of step, but not yet out of time: Democrats search for the right play on Alito

The biggest non-story of the year so far coming out of Washington has been the nomination of Third Circuit judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Democrats who were spoiling for a fight after the virtually frictionless confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts last fall were disappointed earlier this month when Judge Alito emerged unscathed from five days of Judiciary Committee hearings.

Not so lucky was one member of the committee. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) ended up with egg on his face after he made a dramatic show of calling on the committee to subpoena the records of a controversial group called the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. Kennedy intended to use Judge Alito’s association with the group, which between 1972 and 1986 had opposed co-education and affirmative action, to paint him as a sexist and a racist. But to Kennedy’s chagrin, the records not only failed to sully Judge Alito’s reputation, but failed to mention him at all. The CAP scandal, long rumored by Beltway insiders to be Judge Alito’s undoing, vanished like smoke in a gust of Bostonian hot air.

It came as no surprise when, on Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted right down the party line, 10-8 in favor of sending the Alito nomination to the full Senate.

That’s when things began to get interesting.

On Thursday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — now, see if you can believe this — took time off from hobnobbing in Switzerland to announce that he would call for a filibuster to block what by that time seemed like the shoo-in confirmation vote. The aforementioned Sen. Kennedy, yolk still curdling on his lapels, was quick to come out in support of the idea, even as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) admitted that Democrats didn’t have anything like the 41 votes needed to support such a move.

On Friday, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) made the baffling move of coming out in support of the filibuster. Judge Alito “would roll back decades of progress,” the senator said in a statement, “and roll over when confronted with an administration too willing to play fast and loose with the rules.” For that reason, the Senator said she would support “efforts to block his confirmation.”

That’s three down. Only 38 more to go.

One has to wonder at this point just what these three Democrats are thinking. The American people support Judge Alito by comfortable margins in every poll out there: FOX News/Opinion Dynamics has him up by 15, CBS News/New York Times has him up by the same margin, and CNN/USA Today/Gallup says that 54 percent of the American people favor confirmation. Have Sen. Kerry, Kennedy and Clinton not looked at the numbers? Do they think the President hasn’t looked at the numbers? Seriously, do they really want to launch a filibuster on Monday so the President can stand up behind that lectern Tuesday night and hammer home the message that the Democrats are out of step with the American people? In an election year?

I think it’s pretty safe to conclude that these three senators aren’t trying to win the hearts and minds of the American mainstream with this move. Nor are they making a big, dramatic gesture in order to win more votes for themselves this November. Sen. Kerry isn’t up for re-election until 2008, Sen. Clinton is expected to hold on to her seat by a comfortable margin, and Ted Kennedy could drive a car full of co-eds into a lake and still get 65 percent of the vote.

So it’s not about making friends in the Heartland, and it’s not about increasing their chances of winning re-election.

You know what I think? I think it’s about money.

The party committees started releasing their 2005 fundraising figures last week, and the news wasn’t good for the boys and girls in blue. The Republican National Committee brought home a whopping $102 million last calendar year, compared to a paltry $51 million raised by their counterparts at the Democratic National Committee. And that was the donkey party’s best non-election year ever.

The story is a little different when it comes to the Senate campaign committees, but not different enough. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $44 million last year — a record year for them — but the National Republican Senatorial Committee wasn’t far behind with $35.5 million. Any way you slice it, the Republicans are shellacking the Democrats when it comes to bringing in the green.

So when three senators who are in no danger of losing their seats make a political move that absolutely cannot pay off for them in the short run, one has to wonder just who they’re talking to. I think it’s those few trailing feathers way out there on the tip of the Democratic Party’s left wing. You know the ones, the ones with big, fat ideas and big, fat wallets to back them up.

There’s one other possibility, of course, one that’s so chilling I hardly dare commit it to paper. If this filibuster stunt isn’t a serious attempt to block the Alito confirmation, and if it’s not an attempt to inject a little gas into the DNC’s fundraising machine, then the alternative is almost too horrifying to bear.

What if these three senators are actually following their consciences?

No. No, that can’t be it. Better to believe these three are playing a complex political game than to admit the possibility that they might actually oppose Judge Alito on ideological grounds. That’s just too scary to contemplate.

Jeff Harrell blogs at The Shape of Days.

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Taking the easy way out


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