January 31, 2006
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid, called today's Alito confirmation "a classic rope-a-dope." The Republicans let the Democrats wear themselves out throwing useless punches during the confirmation hearings, and then came back to end the fight with a quick, 58-42 K.O. Alito can take his seat in time for Bush's State of the Union speech tonight. Democrats are left shaking their heads and wondering how the Administration manages to win so easily in what ought to be a tough political atmosphere. After all, Alito was the guy who supported the "unitary executive" theory-- suggesting that the President issue signing statements qualifying his acceptance of laws passed by Congress. At this particular moment, with the public worried about an Administration that holds itself above the law, insisting on its right to torture prisoners and spy on American citizens without a warrant, you'd think the Democrats could make their case that Alito is a dangerous choice for the Supreme Court.
So why can't they land a punch?
An analysis by David Kirkpatrick in today's New York Times dissects the problems with the Democrats' strategy. Alito's opponents, expecting a rabid rightwinger, were unprepared for his deferential style at the hearings. And they focused narrowly on parts of his record where there was no smoking gun: his membership in a conservative alumni group (he really wasn't an active member) and his failure to recuse himself from a case involving his own mutual fund company, Vanguard (he didn't make any money). Instead, the problems with Alito were not hidden conflicts of interest or skeletons in the closet: they were his public positions and his decisions as a judge. The Democrats missed their opportunity to focus on the big picture--how Alito will tilt the Court to support an overly powerful executive, set back privacy rights, individual liberties, and civil rights for the next generation.
The problem is bigger than Alito, though. The Democrats have to ask themselves how they can be an effective opposition to the extremely bold and effective Bush team.
"Truthiness" --the word invented by comedy writers for the Steven Colbert show , was voted the word of the year last year by a panel of linguists. This concept of selective perception of the truth is doubtless part of the Republicans' advantage. The public has grown jaded. Stunts like "Mission Accomplished" no longer strike anyone as particularly outrageous. We're too accustomed to spin. The Bush Administration has shown that bold-faced lying works like a charm. As long as they speak with "truthy" conviction, they persuade people, despite the overwhelming evidence that they are leading us down the garden path.
Or, as the Times's Adam Nagourney put it more delicately on January 23, "Applying the campaign lessons of simplicity and repetition, Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove, his chief political adviser, have systematically presented arguments in accessible if sometimes exaggerated terms." Rove recognized early that it was no good taking a defensive stance on issues like domestic spying and the Iraq war. So, instead, the Administration comes out in public and says it intends to continue warrantless wiretaps, because, as Rove put it, "President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why." Likewise, they continue to talk about fighting "the terrorists" in Iraq--avoiding the fact that there was no Iraq-Al Qaeda connection before we got into the war, and that the occupation serves as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups that foment hatred of the United States.
How can the Democrats strike back?
Take a lesson from their opponents, for one thing, and speak unapologetically and in certain terms about the fundamental debate: between individual freedom and overwhelming government power, for example, or between an unfocused and interminable entanglement in a civil war and a clear plan for ending our involvement in Iraq.
The Alito post-mortem should help clarify where the Democrats can improve their tactics in opposing this Administration, and, hopefully, in time for the 2006 elections, get themselves off the ropes.