Shortly after Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement yesterday, President Bush called for a "dignified process of confirmation." White House spokesman Scott McClellan added, "It's important to work together and elevate the discourse." Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said in a statement, "President Bush should use this opportunity to bring the country together."
In other words, let the Noise of Summer begin:
The TV ads, the histrionic talking points, the labored speculation, predictions of Armageddon, the assertions of obstructionism, extremism and character assassination, the charge that Judge So-and-So would roll back the Constitution, or legislate from the bench, or that Senator So-and-So's opposition to Judge So-and-So proves that he is soft on terror and maybe even in therapy . . .
Okay, so maybe we're a little skeptical that the fight both sides have been spoiling for this year will miraculously result in a season of elevated discourse. That maybe, just maybe, the millions of dollars that groups will spend in support of, or in opposition to, Bush's nominee will bring us a sophisticated and respectful exchange that will end with Senate Democrats and Republicans, joined by Karl Rove and Michael Moore, toasting each other all night on the Mall. Or that constitutional scholars such as Bill O'Reilly or Janeane Garofalo will greatly expand our national scholarship on matters such as judicial restraint, strict constructionism and Marbury v. Madison.
Indeed, this spring's donnybrook over judicial filibusters was overheated enough, and once something has been declared "the nuclear option," where do you go from there?
"Judicial nominations have become the most toxic issue in Washington," says Manuel Miranda, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist who now leads a coalition of conservative groups that work in support of Bush's judicial nominees. Miranda, who resigned from Frist's office last year amid allegations that he accessed Democratic e-mail on judicial nominees, does not foresee the "dignified process" that Bush called for yesterday.
Like many people who will be involved in the fate of Bush's nominee, Miranda's summer plans were thrown into some disarray by O'Connor's surprise announcement. He catalogues the vacation plans that are in serious jeopardy -- a four-day visit to Miami beginning July 11 and prospective trips to Ocean City, the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Spain.
"It's going to be an endless battle of sound bites, a race to pin labels, and big marketing campaigns," says William Lutz, a professor of English at Rutgers University who has written several books on political and cultural doublespeak. He is not relishing any of this, for the record.
"I'm hoping to get the hell out of this country."
For a hint of optimism, we turned to John Breaux, the former Democratic senator from Louisiana who was known as one of the best at crafting compromises. Breaux was heartened by the deal last month in which 14 senators -- seven from each party -- agreed to a last-minute accord on some of Bush's lower-court nominees, averting the so-called nuclear option.
"I know everyone is expecting World War III to break out," Breaux says. "But I don't think it has to be inevitable."
He was speaking on a cell phone, by the way, en route to the beach.