Finally, the battle everyone has been waiting for. Since summer, Washington has been preparing for a Supreme Court brawl, a chest-beating showdown filled with sweeping displays of pettiness, small-minded political bickering, and explosive camera-luring rhetoric. John Roberts turned out to be too qualified for that. Harriet Miers wasn't qualified enough. Now, with the nomination of Samuel Alito, both parties can revert to type.
The White House has picked a candidate the conservatives in the green room love. Right-wingers in the real world will like Alito, too. And only the pickiest of pundits will note that Bush has zigzagged wildly in his selection criteria. Gone are the bows to affirmative action and judicial diversity that were central to the Miers pick. Gone are the testimonies to the nominee's religious faith. The president did not mention that Alito is a Catholic or opine about the role of religion in his life, as he did with Miers. Alito's religious affiliation was not even mentioned in the official biographical materials the White House released this morning.
Bush also dropped his stated preference for someone from outside the judicial monastery. "He's one of the most accomplished and best judges in America," the president said today in the second sentence of his announcement. And never mind anti-elitism. The president noted that this son of immigrants had attended both Princeton and Yale.
Conservatives like political expediency when it's their interests that are being tended to. They may be needy these days, but they already seem to have forgiven Bush for wandering into the Miers cul-de-sac. The blast of e-mails supporting Alito as a strict constructionist was filling my inbox before breakfast. When Miers was nominated, approving testimonials started as a trickle and then stopped altogether. This time the e-mails have lots of chewy talking points, such as Alito's unanimous approval for the U.S. Court of Appeals by a Democrat-controlled judiciary committee and Senate in 1990.
The left is jumping on the case just as quickly. People for the American Way is boasting that it "will mobilize its 750,000 members and activists to wage a massive national effort to defeat Alito's nomination." It will "work closely with its coalition partners to educate Americans about the threats posed by this nomination." Those war rooms everybody readied during the summer look like they'll get some use after all.
Abortion-rights advocates on the left are focusing on Alito's vote to uphold the legal requirement that an adult woman must notify her husband prior to getting an abortion. His writings on church-state separation and gender-discrimination issues will provide secondary fodder for many liberals. Hostile voices are making regular use of Alito's nickname "Scalito," bestowed (not by President Bush) because of his supposed affinity to fellow Italian-American Catholic conservative Antonin Scalia.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid clearly had his Halloween script prepared. His press release challenging the Alito pick was issued before Bush had officially named him. "The nomination of Judge Alito requires an especially long hard look by the Senate because of what happened last week to Harriet Miers," Reid noted. "Conservative activists forced Miers to withdraw from consideration for this same Supreme Court seat because she was not radical enough for them. Now the Senate needs to find out if the man replacing Miers is too radical for the American people." By 10 a.m., Reid had sent reporters the phone number and access code to grab a sound bite of him saying that, "President Bush would leave the Supreme Court looking less like America and more like an old boys club."
With Roberts and Miers, Reid told his colleagues to restrain their partisan impulses. They needed to show that Democrats could evaluate a nominee soberly and thoughtfully. Wait and challenge Bush's nominee in the committee, Reid counseled his colleagues. This time, they're going to try to not let Alito in the door.
Though Reid whined that Bush didn't consult him after Miers withdrew, the Nevada senator has had his chance to make his views known. On Sunday, Reid was telling CNN that he had argued specifically against Alito in previous discussions with the White House. ''That is not one of the names that I've suggested to the president," he said. ''In fact, I've done the opposite. I think it would create a lot of problems."
While the Democrats erect obstacles, the White House is all frantic acceleration. Last night, aides moved up by a day Bush's visit to the Capitol to pay tribute to Rosa Parks. The president went before dinner so he could start his week with a bang, announcing Alito at 8 a.m. Tomorrow Bush will give a major speech on his plans to combat a possible outbreak of the avian flu. The White House is anxious to show the president in command and taking charge of an agenda and administration out of control. After spending the last several weeks on defense, Bush will have at least two days where he gets to decide what goes on the front page.