November 4, 2005
How and Why Samuel Alito Happened

By Richard Reeves

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Among the many problems Democrats in the U.S. Senate have in talking tough about blocking the Supreme Court nomination of Jersey guy Sam Alito are these:

(1) Unless he turns out to be a secret partner of Jack Abramoff or a member of a terrorist cell, Alito is clearly qualified for the high court;

(2) They are starting just about 25 years too late.

The shame of and for the leadership of the Democratic Party over the past quarter-century is that they have been unable or unwilling to engage Republicans (and conservatives in general) in battles over ideas. Perhaps the conservatives running the country now are too ideological -- I certainly think that -- but since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Republicans have been the party of ideas. Democrats have been satisfied, foolishly, to focus on personalities rather than policies and programs.

Judge Alito, like the new chief justice, John Roberts, is one more example of the intellectual triumph of the right in American politics. They and other Ivy League conservatives, including Kenneth Starr and Theodore Olsen, who argued for the Republican Party before the Supreme Court that made George W. Bush president in 2000, were attracted to or recruited into the Justice Department in 1981 in a conscious effort to change legal ideas and the makeup of the federal judiciary.

"Band of brothers," they called themselves in those days, a talented cadre who often felt isolated and resentful in the liberal environs of the country's best law schools. Being smart was not enough at Harvard (Roberts) or Yale (Alito) for the young men and women who found themselves and each other in 1981 in the conservative-friendly official Washington of Reaganism.

The same kind of thing happened in journalism, producing a generation of influential conservative columnists including William Kristol (Harvard) of The Weekly Standard and David Brooks (University of Chicago) of The New York Times. All Democrats and liberals seemed able to counter with was comedians, beginning with Al Franken (Harvard), who made his name writing for "Saturday Night Live" and the movies.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, even though Yale Law School graduate Bill Clinton was president for eight years, the Democrats deteriorated into a party of tactics rather than strategy, much less ideas. Now, the loyal if limp opposition is talking about the tactics of defeating an apparently unbeatable Supreme Court nominee, rather than hammering at the incompetence, stupidity and deviousness of a White House waging war and torturing prisoners around the world while American cities sink into the sea.

Even with my own bias toward Republican judges from New Jersey -- my father was one -- Judge Alito would not be my first choice by a long shot. Whatever he really thinks about abortion laws and the rights of employees, I do not like the fact that he is a judge whose tendency has been to restrict individual access to a day in court, at a time when the United States is looking more and more like an emerging police state.

But the idea of making Alito the issue of the day and talk of filibusters and "nuclear options" is political silliness, self-indulgent minority politics. Democrats and liberals should rough up the nominee some, make him define himself, and then make some liberal points about rights of privacy, rights of workers, rights of women.

But, barring revelations unforeseen now, they have to remember that the Constitution gives presidents the right to choose Supreme Court justices. And Democrats should remember, too, that the last two liberal justices, Clinton's choices, easily won the votes of most conservatives in the Senate. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed 96-3. Justice Stephen Breyer was confirmed 87-9.

Excellence counts. Alito seems an example of that; the rest of Bush's governing choices don't. Democrats, trying to figure out how they became the minority, should go back 25 years and more to study how the Republicans became the majority.

Copyright 2005 Universal Press Syndicate

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