Alito Hearings Drowning in Words

BY Flavia Colgan

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In the hearing room, when Democrats weren't posing Judge Alito tough questions, they were giving him judicial advice, bolstering the feeling that this was a done deal.

As Judge Samuel Alito’s confirmation hearings wrap up in the Senate, what sticks in my mind is that if they exemplify the supposedly refocused and reinvigorated Democrats, the party has a long way to go.

Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway has been that troubles in Iraq, Republican ethics scandals, the revelations about electronic surveillance and high energy prices have given Democrats renewed confidence to act as the loyal opposition. Word was that liberal organizations have finally learned how to mobilize their members in the same way the Christian Coalition has done for years.

Yet with the Alito confirmation hearings, it was just more of the same.

For example, on the eve of the hearings, the Family Research Council’s “Justice Sunday III” took place in North Philadelphia.

This was to be ground zero for the Moral Majority to flex its muscle. And that’s just what they did. Hundreds of people packed the Greater Exodus Baptist Church and listened to leaders from all sorts of different backgrounds preach about why confirming Judge Alito was important to the nation, and, they claimed, crucial to changing the moral course we are on. Millions more had access to the event via Christian television and radio broadcasts.

“Extreme liberal judges,” Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said, are “destroying traditional morality, creating a new moral code and prohibiting any dissent. The only way to restore this republic our founders envisioned is to elevate honorable jurists like Samuel Alito.”

Each and every speaker, from the Rev. Herb Lusk to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) were (excuse the pun) singing from the same hymnal.

Meanwhile, outside were a mere 150 protesters, almost none as part of an organized effort.

Other than a couple of e-mails sent out by groups like People for the American Way telling people to show up for a protest, there was no other outlet or organizing effort for those opposed to both the gathering and its message.

You have to applaud those who did show up for taking the time to come out and make sure the event inside the church did not go unchallenged. Yet, because of the lack of organization, each person outside the church had a different message, many of them uncivil and counterproductive. (One woman was carrying a sign that read, “F— You, Falwell.” Another read, “Focus on Your Own Damn Family.”)

Some protesters expressed concerns about expanding presidential powers, while others said they were there because they wanted to show that Jerry Falwell didn’t speak for all Christians. It was clear to me that, while not the fault of the individual protesters, the event outside the church was a disorganized yin to the tightly-crafted narrative yang inside the church.

Disheartened that those opposing Judge Alito and his far-right supporters had an opportunity to present a united front against the Falwell fest, I looked to the senators at the Capitol Hill confirmation hearings to make a much stronger case. Perhaps they’d demonstrate their alleged new gumption, provoking the American people to seriously weigh whether Judge Alito deserved to be elevated to the Supreme Court.

Boy, was I wrong.

Democratic senators rambled on, more interested in hearing their own theories on the Constitution and concerns about Judge Alito than they were in making him answer the tough questions.

Some exceptions arose, as they always do. Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) had bright moments, but Russell Feingold (D.-Wis.) was the clear standout in both style and substance.

In stark and embarassing contrast, Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.) spoke at least eight times as much as Judge Alito during the senator’s “question” period. He had a 400-word soliloquy that went all over the place, from supposed public puzzlement over some of the judge’s decisions, to a quip about the senator’s son going to University of Pennsylvania, followed by the senator’s recollection of speaking at Princeton.

Then, finally, he had an actual question about Judge Alito’s recollections about being a part of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP)–a radical-right group that, among other things, opposed affirmative action in the admission of female and minority students.

Alito gave a quick 34-word answer, saying he didn’t recall specifics. Eagles Coach Andy Reid gives more detailed answers at his weekly news conferences. Biden then followed up with a “question” that was more than 1,300 words long!

This was pretty much the norm for most of the week among the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. They would make statements, Alito would nod and say, “Mmm-hmmm” every 30 seconds or so, and then give a quick and non-substantive answer. Who could really blame him, knowing that the senator doing the questioning wouldn’t focus on the lack of substance, preferring instead to go off on a rambling, semi-coherent rant?

The behavior of the Democrats on the committee was an odd strategy, given that, before the hearings, Democratic senators had stressed the need to hear detailed and specific answers on a number of issues, while strategists stressed that the Democrats’ best chance at sinking the nomination was getting Judge Alito to hang himself with his own words.

Post-hearing reaction from the Democrats was only marginally better. People for the American Way, in particular, sent out detailed critiques of the judge’s answers every day, providing reporters covering the hearings with tons of good information.

But this was outweighed by Democratic Senate staff whispering to the press that the Alito juggernaut was unstoppable. Is there any better way to dampen grassroots opposition than by saying their efforts are all for naught?

I was at the hearings, trying to judge everything for myself. I can say that, by Thursday, Senate Democrats seemed to realize the flaws in their strategy.

They began to ask Judge Alito more probing questions about two of the most controversial issues he faces–his opinions on executive power and his membership in CAP–or more acurately stated, his poor judgment in highlighting that membership on a job application for what I can only surmise were political reasons.

But by then, it was too little, too late. Most of the public that could have been interested in weighing these issues had tuned out because of the air of inevitability that Democrats had fostered–or they were turned off by the Kabuki theater of the previous days. In the hearing room, when Democrats weren’t posing Judge Alito tough questions, they were giving him judicial advice, bolstering the feeling that this was a done deal.

Hearing a fervent debate between the two sides, and hearing Alito have to defend himself and his past actions during the grilling of his life would have helped me make up my mind about the candidate. It would also help Americans make up their minds on a multitude of concerns about him–from his views on abortion to privacy to corporate vs. individual interests.

In a democratic republic, this type of debate is critical, so due public pressure can be placed on senators to vote the way their constituents want them to. A CBS poll before the confirmation hearings showed that 70 percent of Americans felt they needed more information before they would know how to vote on Judge Alito. The bungling of the debate by Democrats has robbed the American people of that vital information.

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Flavia Monteiro Colgan is an MSNBC commentator.

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