The Democratic leaders tried to sound tough and
principled when they were really acting soft and manipulative. For
instance, they urged Democrats to cast a “strategic vote” on Alito’s
nomination as well as calling on senators to “vote their conscience” –
but neither phrase meant what it purported to mean.
The so-called “strategic vote” on Alito amounted to
Democrats conceding defeat on his nomination but then having most
Democrats vote against him. That supposedly would permit Democrats to
say “I told you so” when the negative consequences of Alito’s
confirmation become apparent to the American people.
But that sort of ineffectual opposition is less
“strategic” than it is “symbolic.” It amounts to surrendering to George
W. Bush and the Republicans, even when important constitutional issues
are at stake, and then briefly showing the flag to appease an angry
Democratic base. It’s “strategic” like Robert E. Lee’s surrender at
The other phrase – “vote their conscience” –
actually was a signal to Democratic senators facing reelection campaigns
in pro-Bush “Red States” to cross over to the Republican side on the
Alito nomination in order to gain some political protection.
So instead of challenging Alito on principle –
because he’s a legal theorist for the Imperial Presidency and believes
that a “unitary executive” should rule the nation almost by fiat – the
“Red State” Democrats would “vote their conscience” by making a crass
calculation and succumbing to political pressure.
In other words, “conscience” was used as a
euphemism for “expediency.”
What’s happened over the past few days, however,
has been a surprise to many Washington-based national Democrats.
Rank-and-file Democrats across the country quickly saw through these
tricky word games and rebelled, expressing outrage through the Internet
and via talk-radio stations.
This Democratic base has demanded that Democratic
leaders, for once, set aside political gamesmanship and recognize that
Alito and his radical theories of an all-powerful executive are a
serious threat to the future of the American democratic Republic.
The rank-and-file outrage appears to have stiffened
the spines of some prominent Democrats.
Sen. John Kerry, the party’s presidential
standard-bearer in 2004, called for a filibuster. Other Democrats said
they would join Kerry, although their earlier hesitancy to mount a
full-scale battle against Alito may have doomed hopes of preventing
Republicans from amassing the 60 votes needed to shut off debate.
Nevertheless, the Republicans may have added a
complication to their expected Alito victory parade by ridiculing Kerry
for making his filibuster announcement while at an economic summit in
As Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s right-wing Washington
Times gleefully reported, Republicans quickly dubbed
Kerry the “Swiss Miss.” [Washington
Times, Jan. 28, 2006]
Presidential spokesman Scott
McClellan joined in mocking the Massachusetts Democrat by joking at the
daily White House press briefing that it was a “pretty historic” day.
“This was the first time ever that
a senator has called for a filibuster from the slopes of Davos,
Switzerland,” McClellan said. “I think even for a senator, it takes some
pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski
resort in the Swiss Alps.”
These insults added a personal
element to the decision facing Democratic senators. With Republicans
hooting down the Democrats’ last presidential nominee, as well as a
longtime Senate colleague, crossing the aisle to support Bush’s Supreme
Court nominee suddenly had the bitter taste of an act of political
Whether the insults were a factor
or not, the minds of some Democrats, who had been ready to accept
Alito’s confirmation as inevitable, changed. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of
California, who had opposed a filibuster, reversed her position, saying
she would vote no on a cloture motion to cut off debate.
One Democratic strategist, whom I
spoke with after Feinstein’s change of heart, said he now could conceive
how a filibuster could get the 41 votes needed to block Alito’s
confirmation. But he added that he still considered those chances a long
[For more of Consortiumnews.com’s
coverage of the Alito nomination, see “Alito
& the Point of No Return,” “Alito
& the Ken Lay Factor,” “Alito
Hearings: Democrats’ Katrina,” “Alito
Filibuster: It Only Takes One,” “The
End of ‘Unalienable Rights’,” “Alito
& the Media Mess,” and “When
Republicans Loved a Filibuster.”]