If John Roberts is confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, as now seems likely -- barring a shocker in his record or his past -- the reasons he made it won't be solely his resume or the support of President Bush. The groundwork for Roberts's elevation to the high court -- and the likelihood of success for future Bush Supreme Court nominees -- was laid nearly three years ago in Georgia, Minnesota and Missouri, and last November in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and South Dakota, when Republicans captured eight Democratic Senate seats.
Today, with Republicans holding 55 seats and having a good chance of landing the votes of some Democrats, the White House enters the Supreme Court fights in excellent shape. That thought alone has some in Washington seized with myocardial infarctions. But they have only themselves to blame.
Self-designated as a government in exile, Democratic Party activists have spent recent election cycles working their fannies off for that glorious day in January when they, as victors, could show the door to a vanquished Republican administration. For members of Washington's Democratic administration-in-waiting, winning the White House has been the only game in town. The presidency, in their view, is the instrument to make the way straight and easy for all who wage war against the heathen right.
So, lo these many years, they have been spending millions of dollars and consuming time and energy treading the primary roads that they hoped would take them to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Meanwhile, far beyond the presidential trails, Republicans have been picking off Democrats on the Hill one by one, making it possible for George W. Bush to fulfill his upfront pledge to govern America from the right, where tax cuts, changing the face of the federal judiciary and making liberals perfectly miserable every waking moment remain the order of the day.
Just how far Republicans have succeeded in converting Washington into a safe place for Bush can be found in the recent Senate compromise on the use of the filibuster in judicial nominations. (The agreement was hailed by People for the American Way's Ralph Neas as a "major defeat for the radical right." Replied one right-wing wag, "This is like Custer declaring victory at Little Bighorn.")
Oh, well, be that as it may.
Back to my example: Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu was one of 14 senators -- seven Republicans and seven Democrats -- who cut the deal allowing up-or-down votes on three of Bush's U.S. appeals court nominees whom civil rights groups labeled as extremists unfit to serve. I asked the leader of a national civil rights organization how the senator, who counts on a strong African American base of support, could buy into a scheme that virtually guaranteed confirmation and lifetime jobs to judges billed as civil rights disasters. He said Landrieu "no longer has [former Louisiana Democratic] senator John Breaux at her side." With newly elected conservative Republican and Bush loyalist David Vitter now occupying Breaux's seat, Landrieu has to watch her flanks down in Louisiana, he lamely explained.
From the standpoint of protecting civil rights in the United States, this development in the Senate is sad and disturbing. Capitol Hill, not the West Wing, is the true battleground. Federal judges can't reach the bench without the Senate. And Congress, not the executive, has been known to overturn Supreme Court decisions.
The greatest civil rights lobbyist to walk the face of the earth, the late Clarence Mitchell Jr., director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP and a respected figure in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, liked to tell the story about the lesson President Lyndon Johnson taught him when he was pressing for legislation. As reported in the Mitchell biography "Lion in the Lobby," by Denton L. Watson, Johnson used to say, "Clarence, you can get anything you want if you've got the votes. How many votes have you got?"
Mitchell said his hackles would rise whenever Johnson would say that. But the more he reflected on that refrain, Mitchell said, "the more I realized that this was the best advice that anybody could give."
The lesson seems lost on some civil rights standard-bearers, who appear to be more attuned to the slick ways of Washington: reliance on catchy sound bites, swift gut shots and fundraisers that require schmoozing with the fawning.
Mitchell believed that the only way to get what you want was to have enough votes to outvote your opponent; that the votes you got came from hard work where it counts; and that the real work was done away from the cameras and down in the trenches, whether working on the Hill or as a catalyst mobilizing voters back home.
To deal with the Bush White House from a position of strength, that's exactly what it's going to take. Winning judicial nomination fights in Washington over the next three years will require scoring victories far beyond the Beltway. Good places to start? Next year's U.S. Senate races in Arizona, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.
Unlike churning out news releases and holding grip-and-grin sessions around Washington, that takes real work.