Well, after a week of sound and fury (okay, there was no fury) the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on John Roberts are over. After this week of virtually pointless political theater, what have we learned?
The short answer is: Not much that we didn't know already.
We learned, unsurprisingly, that John Roberts is pretty much always the smartest man in the room, even (especially) when the room is populated with 18 of the most powerful people in this country, and their Ivy League graduate staffers. We learned that he is cool and unflappable under pressure, that he cannot be tricked into making verbal mistakes, and he is apparently entirely without skeletons in his closet. He paid unfailing attention, stated his case carefully without notes or mistakes, and without much effort made sure that nothing he said could be misconstrued. In short, he acted like a man who has made a very good living answering tough questions from men a lot smarter than any of the Senators in question.
We also learned that Roberts poses an interesting problem for the Democrats, if the Democrats themselves are to be believed. They universally expressed appreciation for Roberts as a person and jurist, but almost as universally expressed puzzlement over whether they should confirm him. It truly is a quandary that the Democrats have fallen into - they know they have no basis for rejecting Roberts, but their base increasingly demands it anyway.
And so they scratched their heads and fretted randomly. They soliloquized about the the seriousness of their duty and the importance of the position of Chief Justice. They begged. They cajoled. They wished fervently that they were voting for a political position rather than determining the qualifications of a judge. They tried to wedge serious concern around every compliment that they helplessly offered. The impression was clear: they were impressed. And they were worried.
The questioning session, as I saw it, was fairly banal. The Democrats couldn't lay a glove on Roberts, and they knew it. But they had to at least put forth an effort. From what I saw, they attempted two basic strategies along this line.
First, they attempted to paint Roberts as a man of privilege - someone who doesn't understand the plight of the "little folks." Over and over again, various Senators pointed out some rather obvious facts about Roberts. That he's white. Harvard educated. Spent his whole adult life around people who were influential and powerful. These facts are undisputed. Roberts is, without a doubt, a prototypical member of the American Bar. It's somewhat mystifying to me that this would somehow disqualify him from becoming its foremost member.
Second, they repeated the oft-ballyhood demand for documents. That's been beaten to death ad nauseam elsewhere, I won't get into it here.
I spent most of the hearings watching the body language of the Democrat Senators to see where they might come down.
The witness panels also didn't work too well for the Democrats. I got to watch 4 of the 6 panels, and I didn't see that they had a single person who had ever met John Roberts personally on the panel. Instead, they brought up a bunch of people who had never met him, but who could supposedly divine from his record the fact that he was racist and hated women. It was a cheap and sleazy attempt at character assasination, and following on the heels of 2.5 days of flawless testimony by a guy who was also obviously the nicest guy in the room, it went over pretty much like a lead balloon. The "civil rights" panel, in particular, was a disgusting and thinly masked exhibition in race-baiting and innuendo. I'd berate some of the panelists individually, but I think they were pretty self-discrediting, so I'll save the space here. Again, I could be wrong about this, but I don't recall a single adverse witness who had ever personally met John Roberts.
In contract, the Republicans called forth several very well-respected folks who knew Roberts personally, who were universal in their accord for Roberts as a fair jurist and open-minded person. One thing came across pretty plainly. Anyone who has ever interacted with John Roberts respects him greatly. I think that anyone who bothered to watch him during the hearings last week can tell for themselves how ridiculous the notion that Roberts is some backwoods, woman-hating racist is.
Just to illustrate, I personally know one of the panelists who testified on Roberts' behalf, and who worked under him for several years. This individual has multiple graduate degrees from highly respected colleges, has been eminently successful as a lawyer (as evidenced by the fact that he worked directly under Roberts in the late 90s), and is currently a professor at one of the more well-respected law schools in the country. In other words, not someone who is easily cowed or starstruck. Quite apart from this person's testimony, which was unfailing in its praise for Roberts' open-mindedness, fairness, and compassion as a person, this individual has virtually not stopped talking about how great Roberts is since he was nominated.
Perhaps the greatest strategic blunder the Democrats committed was inviting Planned Parenthood and their ideological sisters to sit on the last panel. At this point, most of the Donks had already left the committee room, but it was about exactly the time a lot of folks in the Central time zone were getting home, and the Eastern zone folks were settling down in front of their TVs. If they were interested in tuning in for a little bit of hearings after a long day of work, they tuned in just in time to watch Karen Pearl talk about how the right to an abortion is absolute, including the right to PBA, and then some "seminarian" from the U of C promptly escalate the rhetoric. About this time Orrin Hatch grabbed his mike. A lot of folks around here like to disparage Orrin, but he's taken part in the confirmation hearings of every single justice currently sitting on the court, and he doesn't forget a thing about any of them.
Hatch then lit in to a defenseless Pearl over her organization's knee-jerk reaction to every single nominee put forth by a Republican president. He read through a short litany of the hysterical things they had said in the past about judges who turned out to actually be pro-choice. Most damning, he pointed out their ridiculous opposition to David Souter (may he be afflicted with a severe case of psoriasis), who's turned out to be one of the best friends they'd ever had. I hope to soon have a copy of the transcript of this "exchange," because by the end, any rational person could see that Planned Parenthood would have opposed the nomination of Kate Michelman, if a Republican had nominated her. Pearl was literally without response to any of these charges.
Then, Senator Trainwreck took the mike and really polished them off. He pointed out that he was a "known quantity," and took pride in being the most pro-life member of the Senate. He said that he sat down with Roberts for two hours and had no idea afterward how he would vote on Roe and that it was ridiculous for them to claim to be able to read the sheep entrails and know what Roberts would do, despite never having met him - and further especially eviscerated the U of C panelist for throwing mud on Roberts' character that flatly contradicted the testimony of anyone who'd ever known him. Said that the people like them were trying to play political games and divide the country and make us hate each other. Given that they had spent about 15 minutes doing exactly that, they had not much in response. And thus the hearings ended. I sincerely hope that the Hatch-Coburn one-two is the image that sticks in people's minds over the next week, because it was absolutely brilliant in its execution, even if the Democrats did lob it up there like a softball for them to whack out of the park.
In the end, I think that these hearings have made it very difficult for the Democrats to oppose John Roberts. CW right now seems to be that they will hold the party line and vote 10-8, but my gut feeling says that it will probably be 12-6 or 13-5. As I've said before, I hope they're not that reasonable. I hope they're perfectly willing to fight to the death in a hopeless battle that they can't win, and that has no payoff for them even if they do. However, there are still some capable political strategists on the other side of the aisle, and I think that in the end, cooler heads will prevail.
Also, I would caution some of the folks on our side of the aisle who are attempting to read the entrails, too. There are many posters on this board who are ultimately convinced that we've been Soutered (may he wake up in the night with foot cramps over and over and over) again. I think it's safe to say that there really is no risk of that. For one thing, it takes a special kind of stupid to make a Souter. For another thing, Souters do not begin their professional career in the Reagan administration. I think, in a worst-case scenario, we are looking at another Kennedy - but I think that a more realistic one is that we've traded Rehnquist for a virtual carbon-copy, although perhaps a shade to the left.
You all know where I stand and what my issue is, and my gut feeling is that Roberts is with us on this. And further, I think the President has made a smart move with Roberts, in that he hasn't spent political capital that he doesn't currently have on a nominee, in the hopes that sometime soon down the road, his numbers will return to the point that he can threaten some real damage again. He's also handed the Democrats a ticking time-bomb here. Their base is demanding that they stand up in unison against Roberts - because in their gut, they know I'm right. On the other hand, the American public won't stand for it, and if they DO yell and scream and fuss, it perfectly legitimizes a more hard-line conservative like Luttig, Garza or Jones for the next choice.