THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT 22 Democratic senators voted to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. as the 17th chief justice of the United States. That’s more than anyone would have imagined just a few months ago, when the talk in Washington was all about filibusters and nuclear options. The bad news is that 22 Democratic senators voted against Roberts. That’s far more than the handful of Republicans who voted against Bill Clinton’s two Supreme Court appointees, Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Washington’s recent polarization suggests things could have been worse. But it is still alarming that 22 Democrats voted against a nominee of Roberts’ caliber. Last November, the American people granted President Bush the power to appoint Supreme Court justices, and in his first opportunity to exercise this power he has acted responsibly, choosing a mainstream conservative with unimpeachable credentials. Half the Democrats in the Senate -- including such independent-minded liberals as Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, both members of the Judiciary Committee -- did the right thing by supporting the president’s choice.
But too many Democrats beholden to liberal interest groups embarrassed themselves and the party by opposing Roberts. These groups wield disproportionate power in mobilizing activists and raising campaign funds, but they do not speak for the majority of Americans or even most Democrats.
Worse, in terms of the broader national interest, by appearing so obstructionist, these senators have undermined their credibility to oppose future judicial picks who may actually be outside the mainstream.
It was almost comical watching the likes of Harry Reid, the ostensibly centrist Senate minority leader from Nevada, and Charles E. Schumer of New York struggle to justify their opposition to Roberts, all the while conceding he may turn out to be a terrific justice. Closer to home, it was disappointing to see Dianne Feinstein, California’s centrist senator, on the wrong side of the issue, opposing Roberts’ confirmation.
Except for Feingold, most Democratic senators harboring presidential aspirations also voted against Roberts. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joseph R. Biden, John Kerry and Evan Bayh all felt compelled to please organizations that have a vested interest in turning each one of these confirmation battles into Armageddon. At what cost to their future credibility with centrist voters remains to be seen.