January 12, 2006
Senate’s Liberal Lion Defanged

By Tom Bevan

Ted Kennedy threw a tantrum yesterday. In the middle of the second day of the Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Judge Samuel Alito, Kennedy demanded the committee go into an executive session to vote on subpoenaing the private papers of William Rusher, a founding member of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP), and then threatened to disrupt the committee proceedings by repeating the request over and over until it was recognized.

Chairman Arlen Specter, clearly surprised and annoyed by Kennedy’s antics, put the Senior Senator from Massachusetts in his place:

“Well, Senator Kennedy, I’m not concerned about your threats to have votes again, again and again. And I’m the chairman of this committee and I have heard your request and I will consider it. And I’m not going to have you run this committee and decide when we’re going to go into executive session.

We are in the middle of a round of hearings. This is the first time you have personally called it to my attention, and this is the first time that I have focused on it. And I will consider it in due course.”

The exchange was instructive not only because it showed just how dire things have become for Senate Democrats trying to stop Samuel Alito’s ascension to the nation’s highest court, but also for showing how far the stature of the Senate’s liberal lion has fallen.

Reviews of Kennedy’s performance in recent days have been less than kind. On Monday, Michael McGough of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that Kennedy was “meandering and listless” at a pre-hearing press conference designed to lay out the case against Alito. Today Robert Novak describes Kennedy as “bogged down” and “without focus” during the first round of questioning on Tuesday.

Yesterday’s outburst was a far cry from eighteen years ago when Kennedy rushed to the Senate floor just hours after the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to deliver the speech that now, even more so than the one he delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, serves as a fitting definition of his legacy:

“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would have to sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police would break down citizen’s doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”

In his 2002 biography Square Peg, Senator Orrin Hatch recalled Kennedy’s tirade against Bork as “a polemical screed, appalling in tone, in the number of gross misstatements, and in its reliance on indefensible distortions.” And yet it worked.

Since 1969, when his presidential hopes drowned alongside Mary Jo Kopechne, it has always been a pathetic peculiarity of modern American politics to watch Senator Kennedy indignantly lecture others about ethics and morality – especially on the occasions when he has simultaneously engaged in distorting records and smearing reputations.

But things have changed considerably since the days of Bork. Democrats have lost 10 seats in the Senate since 1987, going from a 55-seat majority to a 45-seat minority. Conservatives now enjoy much more media parity today as well, making the campaign to defeat a nominee based on distortions much more difficult. And, generally speaking, a slightly more conservative public seems less inclined to buy into the same sort of dire, apocalyptic rhetoric Democrats have used successfully in the past to demonize Republican judicial nominees.

Nobody has felt, or suffered, the weight of changes in the electoral landscape and the resulting shift in the power structure in Washington, D.C. over the last twenty-five years more than Kennedy. He came to Washington in November 1962 as the brother of a sitting President and an Attorney General and as the member of a party that controlled 66 seats in the Senate and had an 83-seat majority in the House of Representatives. It was the height of both his family’s and his party’s power, and it has been more or less a downhill ride ever since.

Today Kennedy is currently the second longest serving member of the Senate. He turns 74 next month and will stand for reelection this November, but Kennedy must be disheartened about the prospect of finishing his career as a member of the minority. The once powerful liberal lion of the Senate now sits defanged and declawed in a Judiciary Committee hearing room, frustrated by the inability to stop what looks to be the steady march of Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics.

Tom Bevan

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