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September 13, 2005
WaPo Analysis Misses Roberts' Eloquence

Dan Balz at the Washington Post provides an uneven analysis of the first day of the Roberts confirmation hearing. While he correctly notes that the Democrats turned down the heat for the start, he fails to note at all Roberts' eloquence and charm. He also puts too much stock in the moderate tone taken by most Democrats for their opening remarks:

The first day of confirmation hearings for Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to become the 17th chief justice of the United States proved to be a tepid opening to what once was billed as a battle of monumental proportions between left and right.

There may yet be some of the fireworks that were predicted when the first of two Supreme Court vacancies opened up two months ago -- particularly this morning, when members of the Senate Judiciary Committee begin to question Roberts. But with Roberts's confirmation seemingly assured, some of the fight appears to have gone out of the Democrats and they have been forced to shift their strategy.

The confirmation hearings are now only partly about Roberts and what he thinks about the law. Instead, they have become a prelude to the coming battle over President Bush's as-yet-unnamed successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and a forum with broader political implications for a debate about deep philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats over the role of government and the courts in American society.

Balz misses the point of the opening remarks, unsurprisingly since most of them had no point at all. The Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have to present themselves as credible judges of Roberts' credentials. Thanks to their allies at PFAW and especially at NARAL, the kind of firebrand stemwinder speech that Balz appears to have expected would only serve to reinforce the notions that the Democrats have gone completely rabid.

I doubt that they strategized the path of pure boredom prior to the start of the confirmation hearing. However, they clearly needed to ensure that they greeted Roberts with respect for his standing at the bar, his accomplishments, and his skills -- especially since all of that would undoubtedly shine during this kind of a hearing. The real test of whether the Democrats have given up will come today. The Democrats made plain that they would ask him to make commitments to rule in certain ways on issues, a position which would disqualify him from the bench. If he refuses, they could make this an ugly scene.

Instead, Balz relied on recounting the pointless blathering in each speech without even mentioning the content of Roberts' opening statement. Since the ostensible reason for this hearing is Roberts and his judicial philosophy (rather than an opportunity for the Judiciary Committee to get into the news), including this weak review of his own testimony as the thirteenth paragraph indicates a poor focus on what should be the center of the story:

Roberts was largely a bystander as the 18 members of the committee gave opening statements. When his time finally arrived, he spoke briefly and without notes, outlining a view of the judiciary as one that requires humility, an open mind and a deference to precedent.

Balz focused instead on the festival of irrelevancies without analyzing them at all. He produces quotes from Dianne Feinstein and her speech glorifying abortion on demand, never explaining once why Congress didn't address that public policy itself. Lindsey Graham laughably asserted that the hearings were meant to settle whether Reagan conservatism is in the mainstream -- as if Reagan had never won a single election, let alone two and remain one of the most well-respected presidents of the modern era, and as if that should ha anything to do with confirming Roberts. Even a Notre Dame University law professor gets a quote, while nothing Roberts said makes it into the Post's analysis.

That won't last. The bombast of the questioning will undoubtedly catch Balz's ear and eye today, but he won't be able to ignore the answering volleys from Roberts.

UPDATE: Dan Balz, not Dan Eggen. Thanks to CQ reader The Maryhunter for catching the error.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 13, 2005 5:05 AM

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