Political Roundup: The Alito Hearings

Robert Siegel and Nina Totenberg are joined by columnists David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post to discuss the Alito hearings and other politics of the week.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, Nina, stick with us, because we're now joined by our regular guest political observers, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times.

Hi. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Hello.

SIEGEL: Nina's gonna stick with us as we hear more about--hear what you guys have to say about Alito.

David, has the conservative movement--is it on the verge of the dream that it's had for all these decades, to have a truly conservative Supreme Court once Samuel Alito, if he is to be confirmed, is confirmed?

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Well, I don't know if this is the completion of the dream, but you know, it's a victory. And it's a victory for a Republican establishment. I mean, Sam Alito is not a hard-edged, combative person who comes with sort of a chip on his shoulder. He struck me as a very establishmentarian sort like Roberts, which is sort of modern conservatism, not alienated from the mainstream. He's someone who struck me as quite attractive. He was in sort of a culture of narcissism; very modest, very hardworking, struck me as very conscientious and someone who handled what has become a terrible process pretty well. Because this is all subtext about abortion...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BROOKS: ...the Democrats were out to destroy him. It wasn't personal to him; it was business. They need to destroy people who they think might overturn Roe v. Wade. And given that context...

SIEGEL: Do you think he'd like to? Do you think he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade?

Mr. BROOKS: I really don't know. And I don't think he gave an indication whether he would or not, which is the right thing to do. But he parried what was, you know, an inherently hostile set of questions in a way that struck me quite reasonably substantive and quite serious.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think Nina's right. If there are three words that summarized this set of hearings, it's `Refused to answer.' On issue after issue after issue, wherever it might be controversial, he refused to answer the questions, especially on questions about presidential power, as Nina mentioned, on stripping the court's rights to deal with First Amendment cases. Joe Biden, much mocked during these hearings, actually had a very good line. He said, `Nominees tend to answer controversial questions in direct proportion to how much they think the public is likely to agree with them.'

I think the real problem is conservatives--a lot of conservatives--Senators Coburn and Brownback were straight up about it--want to overturn Roe v. Wade, but a nominee can't say that. Why can't they just say what they think? Because the Republicans know they'll lose too many votes among pro-choice and moderate Republican senators. And so what you have is a kind of charade here. It's not an authentic process; it's a broken process. And I think the Democrats should, if not filibuster, then let's use a euphemism Alito might like, engage in extended debate, to expose the fact that really wherever he was going to be like Thomas or Scalia--he's probably going to be more like Scalia--he ducked the questions.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I would just say--you know, this is why--I'm pro-choice, but this is why we need to get rid of Roe vs. Wade. This country needs to have a debate about abortion. And if we have a debate about abortion, we will settle, in most states, pretty much in the center. But until we...

SIEGEL: Well, you say just go back to state-by-state political decisions...

Mr. BROOKS: Right, exactly. Until we have that debate about abortion, every judicial hearing becomes about abortion, an attempt to destroy people to get the right outcome on abortion.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

You know, I...

Mr. DIONNE: I agree...

SIEGEL: I want to hear from Nina about this, who's been listening to confirmation hearings for years and years and years. Abortion--Is it all about abortion?

TOTENBERG: Well, I thought this one was as much about executive power as it was about abortion. I think you saw the Democrats--and even some Republicans privately--genuinely concerned about the degree to which presidential power could grow. And it's not sexy, the term `unitary executive,' but there was as much time spent on that, and maybe even more, than on abortion.

Mr. DIONNE: Somebody said today that Republican consultants are going to come up with a better term for unitary executive. I couldn't agree more with Nina that this presidential power issue--if there is anything like a filibuster, I think that's going to be at the center of the debate. It was very interesting that Senator Feingold tried to press Alito on whether he was briefed by the administration on these presidential power issues, suggesting that he would be way too close to the president when these issues come to the court.

Just on David's point, I think it's true that the problem with Roe is that it forces the whole abortion debate into congressional hearings. And it's better to have a broader abortion debate than just have it in the context of judges.

SIEGEL: David, does the issue of presidential--of executive power have any traction with Republicans in the Senate, let's say, or the House, for that matter, who have a stake in the power of the legislative branch, or is this really a strictly partisan issue?

Mr. BROOKS: Quite the contrary. I think--I can't analyze it from a legal standpoint.

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. BROOKS: I don't know enough. But on political grounds, this is a big winner for the Republicans. If you looked at that hearing and you're an average voter, you saw people like Lindsey Graham, a Republican, saying, `Let's--I'm worried about terrorists.'

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BROOKS: You saw Democrats saying, `I'm worried about the NSA.' That is a clear winner for the Republicans. And I think that's one of the reasons why this has been the first really bad week the Democratic Party has had in over a year, frankly, because the Democrats on the panel first, to me, came out on the politically unfortunate side on national security, on crime and police, and then seemed hectoring and brutal and thuggish in some ways. So I think this is the first actually good week Republicans have had in quite a long time, and they got a pretty good nominee out of it.

SIEGEL: Nina, before you leave us, final thoughts about the Alito hearings and the politics of it?

TOTENBERG: Well, there was this moment today. Senator Arlen Specter--who often has been a critical vote in these things, and is not going to be a critical vote here and has run a pretty straight-up hearing--he was questioning all these folks who oppose the Alito nomination and he kept saying to them, `If you succeeded in defeating Alito, do you think you'd get somebody any better?' And that tells me where Arlen Specter's head is, anyway.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Nina Totenberg.

And, E.J. and David, I want to ask you guys about things happening in the other chamber. The Republicans are voting on a successor to Tom DeLay for majority leader. What does it look like--what does the race look like, and what does it say about the Republican Party? David Brooks.

Mr. BROOKS: To me, it says they're not as worried as they should be about their political future. I think they're in real danger, and the two leading candidates, Boehner and Blunt--who are pretty establishment figures. There's one guy, John Shadegg, who's a much more reformer-oriented figure...

SIEGEL: From Arizona.

Mr. BROOKS: But I would say it's unlikely that he'll get it. It'll probably be one of the big two, Boehner and Blunt. And that's a problem, because they really do have...

SIEGEL: You think they need a shakeup, really.

Mr. BROOKS: I think they should go straight to the younger generation of very talented people who they're not tapping to project--who--to say to the public, `We're really changing.'

As for picking the race, it's very hard to pick a race like this. It's like a high school election; it's all based on who was nice to who at the lunch line a year or two ago.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think about the House Republicans?

Mr. DIONNE: I like the high school analogy, only they're in more trouble than high school students are usually in, and that's saying something.

You know, my sense is that if there is a slight edge now, it is to Boehner because he may be a bigger shift from DeLay; Blunt is very close to DeLay. I think a lot of Republicans in the House share David's unease, that they know they're in more trouble than just a small change would indicate. You know, I think even Speaker Hastert might be put on the table. I spoke to a Republican today who said, `The problem with that is that we're in so much turmoil that the last thing we want to do right now is to change the speaker.'

SIEGEL: In the few seconds that remain, I'd just like to let the record show that in his book and on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and in various interviews, Paul Bremer--Jerry Bremer, as he's called, the man who represented the US in Baghdad for the first year after the overthrow, admitted to getting several things wrong. It just doesn't happen that often in Washington, and I think we should take note of that.

Mr. DIONNE: He'll have to...

Mr. BROOKS: Well, now that the president's doing it, everybody's doing it. It's become the fad.

Mr. DIONNE: Now he'll have to give his Medal of Freedom back, 'cause this White House doesn't give a Medal of Freedom to anybody in the administration who dares admit error.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks a lot for talking with us once again.

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