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).

5 thoughts on “Jockeying For Position”

  1. The Democrats do need to be willing to vote to confirm someone, so if Gonzales is the choice, I’d expect the more pragmatic (and more ambitious) Democratic Senators to vote for him, and leave the Ted Kennedys of the world to cast the protest votes.
    Obviously, the more interesting question on that side of the aisle is at what point they’d be willing to cross over from merely voting No to attempting a fillibuster. Regardless of whether the Senate rules are changed to stop it, the Democrats really cannot afford to go the fillibuster route unless they can convince a big chunk of the American people that the nominee is genuinely dangerous.
    On the other side, I’m curious if any Republicans would vote against a far-right nominee – it seems like it would be suicide for moderates who seek re-election, but to not do so could also cost them if it leads to an overturn of ‘Roe’. Specter, since he’s unlikely to run again, will probably do whatever he wants, but if he’s the only one it won’t matter.

  2. Specter won’t support a filibuster, given some of the commitments he’s made. But he’ll vote against a conservative nominee.
    I couldn’t find the vote, by the way, but while Specter voted against Bork in 1987, I believe McCain voted for him.

  3. Being he’s anti-abortion, I would think it would take a lot to get McCain to oppose a Bush nominee. I’d think the pro-choice Republicans from the blueish states in the Northeast would be more likely to stray. I’m sure no Republicans would support a filibuster, but if some cross the aisle, the filibuster becomes less relevant. I’d also think that it’s likely that the Democrats could hold on to all their own Senators on anyone that some Republicans are willing to vote against.

  4. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds, to be sure. Unfortunately, it has the potential to become extremely ugly as many on both sides are anxious for a big, nasty fight.
    It all depends on who Bush picks. My early money is on Gonzales or Janice Rogers Brown.
    One thing in your post jumped out at me: “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.”
    Just keep that in mind in a week or two when you try to tell us how thoughtful and deliberative Bush has been, and what careful consideration he has given such an important decision.

  5. I’d like to see you address the more intriguing political story of the week: The Plame Investigation. It’s becoming more bizarre by the minute. We now have a New York Times reporter jailed a few cells away from Zacarias Moussaoui, and she didn’t even write about Plame. Last Friday, reports of Karl Rove’s involvement had liberals across the country salivating. Meanwhile Robert Novak, the man who revealed Valerie Plame’s identity to the world and cited as his sources two senior Bush administration officials, is going about his business apparently not affected by the whole saga. How’s this thing going to end?

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