Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 6, 2005
LAW/POLITICS: Jockeying For Position
I'll have lots more on the coming Supreme Court battle as we go along. For now, the process is a dream for political junkies and game theorists, as multiple actors try to plan their strategies: Bush, Gonzales, conservative groups, liberal groups, swing-state Senators, presidential candidates (including those outside the Senate, especially on the front-runner-less GOP side, who have to weigh the benefits and risks of staking out a divisive position against letting someone else make their bones with the base).
One thing Bush has made clear lately is that he doesn't much like conservative groups criticizing Alberto Gonzales. Seeing as Bush can be pretty stubborn, that raises the concern that loud public attacks on Gonzales could just reinforce his determination to nominate his friend.
If Bush does tap Gonzales, liberals will be in a fascinating bind. On the one hand, there are several reasons to want a fight: liberal interest groups have been itching for one for a decade; presidential candidates need to preen; there's a partisan interest in doing political damage to Bush, which is greatly heightened by the fact that Bush would be going into battle under heavy fire from his own best troops, and thus would find it nearly impossible to overcome strenuous and united Democratic opposition; Gonzales is young and could be on the Court for decades; and Gonzales is mistrusted on the Left due to his closeness to Bush and some of his positions over the years on issues like the death penalty and war-on-terror legal issues. On the other hand, Gonzales is almost certainly the least conservative candidate who's likely to be nominates; there's a political risk in opposing the first Latino Supreme Court nominee; there's a political risk for swing-state/red-state Democratic Senators in opposing Bush; and there's political risk for the party in general in knee-jerk obstructionism of a guy widely painted as a moderate, especially since defeating him - with a Rehnquist retirement still possible within the year - would exhaust much political capital needed for two more fights.
The GOP presidential candidates will have a variety of conflicting interests. If a conservative is nominated, Bill Frist will need to get him/her through to a vote. Rudy Giuliani will likely need to get involved - and Mitt Romney as well - to show nervous social conservatives that they can fight for conservative judges. John McCain, on the other hand, obviously continues to see his path to the White House in looking moderate and bipartisan, so his main interest will be - regardless of who the nominee is - in appearing to build a bipartisan compromise.
By contrast, if there's a nominee detested by the conservative base, the non-Senators will keep their heads down, Frist will be completely doomed no matter what he does, and George Allen will be under strong pressure to vote against the nominee, especially since Sam Brownback might well do so. Of course, Bush can keep some of the GOP Senators in line with personal appeals and arm-twisting, but if the grassroots of the party goes into open revolt (something we haven't seen since the first Bush broke his tax pledge), everyone with a future in the party will want to do what Newt Gingrich did in 1990 and side with the voters.
(On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, of course, need do nothing; her position is utterly secure, or at least is no longer subject to events).