Monday, September 26, 2005

Republicans could challenge next SCOTUS nominee

John Roberts's passage through the Senate has, thus far, been relatively easy (despite some lingering concerns) -- and nothing is likely to change. But some Senate Republicans are already preparing for a more rigorous examination of President Bush's second nominee (the one to replace the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor), who may be announced as early as this week.

The Times is
reporting that "both socially conservative and more liberal Republican senators say they may vote against confirmation of the next nominee if the pick leans too far to the left or the right on prominent issues like abortion rights." This means that the fragile Republican coalition that has united moderate and conservative Republicans could finally come undone, tearing the party apart, with moderates like Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe of Maine potentially opposing any nominee who isn't a pragmatist in the mold of O'Connor and conservatives like Sam Brownback of Kansas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma potentially opposing any nominee who isn't far to the right on key cultural issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and so on. Then there are those in between, like Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Trent Lott of Mississippi, and, of course, John McCain of Arizona. How will they vote -- not least when at least two of them, Frist and McCain, are looking ahead to a presidential run in 2008?

And then there are the Democrats. They put up
an intentionally weak fight against Roberts, but they won't give up so easily this time around -- there's even been talk of a filibuster!

I suspect that a nominee like
Alberto Gonzales (or a pragmatist in the mold of O'Connor) would go through without much opposition from Democrats, but the Brownbacks and Coburns, not to mention the right-wing base of the Republican Party, would never accept any such "liberal" or "moderate" nominee (i.e., a potential Souter). But where will Democrats draw the line? What is too conservative for them? What nominee would warrant a filibuster? And: Where will, say, Sam Brownback draw the line? What is not conservative enough for him? What nominee would warrant his opposition?

The Roberts nominations was easy. Roberts for Rehnquist. A conservative for a conservative. Like for like, more or less. But now? Conservatives want the Court to tilt further to the right, moderates want to keep it pretty much where it is now, with an "O'Connor" for O'Connor, and liberals... well, some will object to any Bush nominee, no matter what, standing firm out of principled idealism and looking ahead to a more liberal Court, but others, prudently confining themselves to the reality of the moment, want exactly what the moderates want, which is a continuation of the current balance.

What will Bush do? He has any number of options, from a Gonzales across to, say, a Michael McConnell, but, whatever he does, whomever his nominee, he risks fracturing the Republican Party down its own San Andreas Fault. With his severely low approval ratings, with many high-profile Republicans already looking ahead to 2006 and 2008, and with so much else at stake in terms of the direction of the federal judiciary and the course of American life for decades to come, his choice could prove to be The Big One that finally tears it apart after years and years of unity and common purpose. Unless Bush achieves just the right balance -- that is, unless he nominates the perfect candidate -- this could turn out to be the Republican Party's Vietnam.

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  • One issue here, it seems to me, is that, if the right is concerned that the GOP might lose in 2008, it might fight harder for a true conservative. In other words, if they really want to move the court to the right, this might be their last opportunity for a while. I don't know if the right is thinking that way, but it seems reasonable to suppose that they might expect at least one Scalia or Thomas before Bush leaves office.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:01 PM  

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