Tilting at Alito
IN MASSACHUSETTS, old liberals never die. They just keep tilting at windmills.
At the last minute, Senator John Kerry called for a filibuster to stop the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. Senator Edward M. Kennedy joined the fight.
The initial reaction from fellow Democrats was tepid. Tepid it should remain.
Alito is conservative. But radical? The Democrats failed to make the case during hearings which proved only one thing beyond a reasonable doubt: their own boorishness.
Calling for a filibuster is a late, blatant bow to the left. It seemed more theatrical than realistic. Still, any such bowing from Massachusetts helps the Bush administration. ''Bring it on," chortled the Wall Street Journal after Kerry announced his effort to rally fellow Democrats from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There, the Journal snidely observed, he was ''communing with his political base."
Calling for a filibuster makes political sense for Kennedy, who is adored by every left-wing constituency in America. He isn't running for national office; he can afford to stick to strict liberal principle. He wants to go down fighting. For Kennedy, a filibuster call mollifies the left at no political cost. It is also an attempt to make up for the obvious: He used the wrong tone and tactics during the hearings. Going after Alito as a bigot backfired. Forget about Mrs. Alito's tears. The moment Kennedy was exposed for belonging to a discriminatory college fraternal organization, it was over. He lost the moral high ground.
Kerry's enthusiasm for a filibuster is harder to fathom, except as more of the same from a perpetually tone-deaf politician.
Why volunteer to look like a creature of the left if you are plotting a second presidential campaign? The perception helped undercut Kerry's first presidential campaign.
Why champion a cause your fellow senators show little interest in following? The quick dismissal of Kerry's call for a filibuster by fellow senators reinforces the underlying theme of an unflattering piece in GQ that was part of the week's political buzz.
The two Supreme Court vacancies that occurred after George W. Bush's reelection demonstrate the importance of winning elections. Democrats should be focusing on 2006 and 2008. For once, they are being helped in their quest for electoral success by the GOP. The reign of Republican power is unraveling on several fronts, from Jack Abramoff to Iraq.
National security is the only drum left for Republicans to beat. But Karl Rove's scare tactics won't work forever. The country, collectively, is smarter than Bush's brain. It just needs time to think things through and an election day.
Bush's sometimes hesitant and awkward answers at press conferences can be scarier than another videotape from Osama bin Laden. But Democrats have yet to figure out the alternative voice the country wants to hear. What Democrats still know best is what the left wants to hear. Speaking to the liberal base in 2003, Kerry said: ''I am prepared to filibuster, if necessary, any Supreme Court nominee who would turn back the clock on a woman's right to choose or the constitutional right to privacy, on civil rights and individual liberties, and on the laws protecting workers and the environment."
It was a bad pledge to make in the abstract, and it is the wrong pledge to live up to now. It defines fitness for nomination strictly in ideological terms. A Kerry Supreme Court nominee could be opposed by Republicans on the very same grounds. Sticking to it now, after Democrats failed so spectacularly during the Alito hearings, is pointless. Voting no on Alito is fine. But a filibuster serves no one but the Bush adminstration. It fuels the conservative base, helping to heal internal party splits.
The longer Democrats and Republicans in Congress maintain the high level of hostile partisanship, the less attractive any would-be presidential candidate who hails from Congress looks. These senators who would be president help the cause of governors -- Democrats and Republicans -- who hold the same ambition.
Diehard liberals will not change. The ones in Massachusetts are an especially stubborn crew, convinced of the righteousness of their cause and certain they will one day hold important positions in a Democratic White House. But if these would-be Cabinet secretaries and ambassadors in Cambridge and Boston are to assume their rightful posts, they need a winning cause, one that engages more than the left.
Filibustering the Alito nomination won't do it.