In announcing itself editorially opposed to Robert Bork, The Washington Post expressed embarrassment about the company it was keeping. The Post should be embarrassed, but about more than the ''intellectual vulgarity and personal savagery'' (The Post's description) of the big battalions opposing Bork. The Post should blush about its role in reducing liberalism to the politics of flaunted feelings.
The editorial denounces the demagoguery (''. . . profoundly distorting the record and nature of the man . . . lazy and dangerous cliche's'') that has succeeded against Bork (and has not prevented The Post from piling on). The Post's behavior calls to mind those Republicans who said Joe McCarthy was appalling but that ''the cause'' was somehow independent of, and superior to, its methods.
However, what worthy cause comes enveloped in smarminess? Are not the tactics used against Bork, like those used by McCarthyites, entailed by the nature of the people and arguments that depend on the tactics?
The Post says Bork would not ''read the Constitution generously'' to exploit its ''elasticity'' for desirable results:
''Many of the nation's clearest and ugliest inequities -- racial discrimination and chronic malapportionment, among them -- have been mitigated only because judges used the Constitution's elasticity to deal with issues that, for various reasons, the other branches would not. Judge Bork . . . is much more likely to note injustice but refuse to use the full powers of the Supreme Court to remedy it.''
The liberal political agenda is packed into the antiseptic phrase ''deal with.'' And the phrase ''full powers'' is not synonymous with ''properly used powers.'' Most important, The Post's anxiety is conspicuously abstract. The Post does not mention a single social problem, or a single ''discrete and insular minority,'' that only judicial institutions can ''deal with.''
Since the civil-rights revolution and reapportionment, what group falls helplessly between the cracks of representative government? Certainly not blacks or women, given the responsiveness (the politest possible term) of the political process to anti-Bork pressure applied in their names.
Perhaps The Post is worried about students. A judge in Kansas City, annoyed about the electorate's rejection of bond issues and tax increases that would bring city spending on schools closer to suburban levels, has ordered several tax increases. In severing the links between taxation and representation, he said: ''A majority has no right to deny others the constitutional guarantees to which they are entitled.'' How is that, Post editors, for a generous reading of the Constitution? Is that not the use of a court's ''full powers'' to ''deal with'' problems?
The judge said he had to do what other branches of government would not do because ''students are helpless without the aid of this court.'' His moral megalomania is (to use The Post's vocabulary) the ''real-world'' result of The Post's ideology. Self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence are easy to disguise as merely ''generous'' readings of the Constitution.
The Post rightly says justice and law ''are not the same.'' But The Post seems to license judges to supply justice, according to their lights, when law is (by The Post's lights) inadequate. The Post intimates that the patience required by democracy is evidence of callousness. Thus is conservatism diagnosed as a character flaw.
Having lauded Bork's intelligence, integrity and professional attainments, The Post locates his disqualifying defect -- lack of compassion: ''Judge Bork has retained from his academic days an almost frightening detachment from, not to say indifference toward, the real-world consequences of his views; he plays with ideas, seeks tidiness, and in the process does not seem to care who is crushed.''
''Tidiness" is disparaged when logic is inconvenient, and ''play'' is a loaded verb to disparage Bork's moral seriousness. The words ''frightening'' and ''crushed'' are absurdly hyperbolic and suggest The Post is trying to talk itself into a pitch of passion that The Post knows is disproportionate. The Post gives no hint of who might be crushed because Bork is frighteningly indifferent. Again there is a notable abstractness to The Post's indictment of Bork's (The Post believes) excessively abstract approach to judging.
The Post says it is particularly distressed by what Bork ''has not said.'' He has not said whatever The Post requires for ''assurance'' that his ''moral sensitivities would be engaged.'' Here is the heart of the matter.
The moral obligations of judicial restraint that Bork derives from democratic values do not count to The Post as moral sensitivities. What counts is ''caring'' or, more precisely, ''seeming'' to care. When ''seeming'' is the only valid sign of sensitivity, ethics acquire an anti-institutional aroma and a high content of histrionics. Judges can only pass The Post's test of ''moral sensitivity'' by maximum ''generosity'' in reading ''elasticity'' into the Constitution as they ''deal with'' this and that (by implementing The Post's agenda, which has not been faring well in elections).
The Bork battle has efficiently sorted people out, and The Post has come home to liberalism. But liberalism is now little but sensitivity snobbery. The categorical imperative is to allow no institutional obligations to interfere with the moral exhibitionism of ''seeming to care.''