Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican, is an evenhanded moralist who, with fine impartiality, apportions his fervor on several sides of some issues. Today he is among those who are pioneering a constitutional wrinkle the Framers neglected to provide -- popular election of Supreme Court justices.
Robert Bork's opponents are of three sorts: those who say he is dangerous because he is an ''inflexible ideologue'' (flexible ideologues are, presumably, preferred), those who say he is too changeable and those who, suffering cognitive dissonance in the service of their country, say both. Packwood, who will filibuster if necessary, says Bork is intolerable regarding ''privacy,'' meaning abortion.
Now, no one expects Packwood or any other politician to be a martyr on the altar of consistency, but this is a bit thick coming from the man who, when opposed in an election by an anti-abortion candidate, was operatic in his denunciation of single-issue politics. Jack Minor, a reader of the Portland Oregonian, writes in a letter to the editor: ''Is this the senator who said that the voters should not oppose him last election solely because of his pro-abortion stance because it should not be a one-issue campaign? Do I smell a hypocrite?''
Not really. Packwood's opposition to single-issue politics certainly does vary too much with the issue. But he also is showing fidelity.
He has sincerely supported and has received generous financial support from feminists. What is, however, dismaying about Packwood's current politics is the disappearance of an important inhibiting distinction. It is the distinction between fighting for friendly and worthy interests in purely political controversy, as Packwood did for Oregon's timber industry regarding tax reform, and putting one's political power at the service of constituents and others eager to guarantee certain results from judicial processes.
Reasonable people can disagree about the propriety of Bork's beliefs and the proper role of the Senate in confirmations. But surely some things -- for starters, the ability to debate reasonable distinctions -- are lost when the ethic of routine political competition and transactions is extended to the solemn task of constituting a court.
Today, fund-raising campaigns are financing media blitzes to shape opinion-poll results that will, the interest groups hope, reduce enough senators to the status of passive electors in an Electoral College sitting in the Senate chamber. Bork's supporters are now driven, against their correct sense of decorum, to arm themselves with television ads and other paraphernalia of a campaign, or else concede defeat. Such is the dialectic of the degradation of judicial institutions.
The scale and intensity of the anti-Bork campaign refute the premise that is supposed to legitimize the campaign. The premise is that there is nothing new going on, that the Senate has always ''considered a nominee's judicial philosophy,'' as though that is what is going on.
This process has had its moments of unintended hilarity, as when the painter Robert Rauschenberg testified (by Lord knows what authority) on the fears and tremblings of America's artists -- every paint-smeared one of them. In a statement that used words the way Rauschenberg uses paint (it was the rhetoric of random splatter), Rauschenberg announced that America's artists, who once cultivated an aura of Bohemian nonconformity, are remarkably ''unanimous'' in opposition to Bork. (Talk about a herd of independent minds.)
The anti-Bork army, which sometimes has attributes of a mob, has been swollen with organizations such as the Epilepsy Foundation of America, the United Cerebral Palsy Associations, the Retarded Citizens Association, among others. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that their charitable support has been conscripted for the liberal onslaught on Bork.
The ease with which such groups have been swept together for the first time in such a campaign reflects, in part, the common political culture of the people who run the headquarters of the compassion industry.
Today's attempt to break the Supreme Court to the saddle of manufactured or (as in the Rauschenberg case) fictitious opinion is a more fundamentally radical attack on the court than FDR's attempt to pack the court by enlarging it. Packing was to be a one-time tactic that could not have been repeated regularly unless the court's bench was going to be replaced by bleachers.
The transformation of the confirmation process into a contest between massed battalions is a perverse achievement of people who, like Packwood, claim to be acting to protect the court from Bork's jurisprudence, which they say would leave all our liberties to be blown about by gusts of opinion.