DAN K. THOMASSON Dems need to face reality of presidency
A leading voice on the right said the other day that a more conservative Supreme Court is one of the things he and his fellow ideologues want from a George W. Bush presidency. Talk about your understatements. What he should have said is that it is the thing they most want and expect from the current administration whose second term they consider a gift from them.
On nearly every other Bush initiative, including how to meet the challenges ahead for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, conservatives are divided, even ambivalent. About social issues and the Supreme Court's impact on them, especially abortion rights and gay marriage, they are united and determined. Even the slightest intimation that Bush might consider a nominee who is not a staunch defender of pro life and an enemy of Roe v. Wade is enough to send them into a frenzy.
So the negative reaction from the right -- and for that matter from the left -- to the president's casual, if not mischievous, mention of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as a contender to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was highly predictable. As a member of the Texas Supreme Court, Gonzales had issued a ruling construed as favorable to abortion rights supporters. Was Bush kidding about Gonzales?
Perhaps he was to some degree. But as my grandmother used to say, there was a lot of square in his joshing. And the conservatives were perceptive enough to realize that. After all, Bush in the last six years or so has named Gonzales to the Texas high court, as White House counsel, and as attorney general of the United States. That seems like ample evidence of how highly he regards the man. The chance to name Gonzales as the first person of Hispanic ancestry to the Supreme Court might be difficult for him to pass up.
On the other hand, should he decide to move toward a nominee who is more acceptable to his party's conservative base, he knows that Gonzales would remain a close friend, one who has been a major help to him. That he was comfortable enough to needle the swarm of appointment speculators at Gonzales' expense shows the ease of their relationship.
Liberal special interests and their Democrats on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, should wake up to two salient facts. They lost the election and all the bellyaching in the world isn't going to change that. For them to expect Bush to fill the O'Connor vacancy with one who is a centrist is not only foolish, it shows a degree of denial that continues to plague their party. So the suggestion by Senate Democrats that Bush should ask the moderate O'Connor to stay for another year to bring "stability" to the court is just downright silly. One man's stability is another's earthquake.
Secondly, the president's party is in control of the Senate and even with the filibuster still intact, the public would not take a deadlocked confirmation process lightly, allowing Bush to once again indict Democrats for trying to reverse the election by denying him his constitutional appointment powers and the nominee's right to an up and down vote.
The liberal activists who so outrageously pilloried Justice Clarence Thomas by airing the patently ridiculous charges of Anita Hill are smarting over their lack of purchase in opposing John Robert's nomination, first to O'Connor's post and now to succeed the late William Rehnquist as chief justice. They would love nothing better than to turn their attention now to a second nominee, hoping they would have a better chance.
The president has indicated that he would hold up naming a replacement for O'Connor until the Senate concludes at least the hearing phase of the Roberts' nomination to allow all the focus on Roberts. The danger in that is it also allows the president's opponents to focus on one candidate at a time and not to have to split their attention between two nominees, a more difficult task.
As luck would have it, Bush has occupied the White House when several of the high court's members are either sick or at an advanced age. It is conceivable that he will have another vacancy or two to fill before his term ends. If he is able to move the court to more conservative stances, it is his prerogative as president to try. But it is no sure thing. No one can predict with utter certainty where on the ideological spectrum a nominee might ultimately land once confirmed.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard.