Distant Thunder

Unfortunately, in this editorial the Washington Post is more right than wrong about the Alito hearings:

Democratic senators often seemed more interested in attacking the nominee — sometimes scurrilously — than in probing what sort of a justice he would be. Even when they tried, their questioning was often so ineffectual as to elicit little useful information. Republican senators, meanwhile, acted more as fatuous counsels for the defense than as sober evaluators of a nominee to serve on the Supreme Court. On both sides, pious, meandering speeches outnumbered thoughtful questions. And the nominee himself was careful, as most nominees are, not to give much away. The result is that Americans don’t know all that much more about Judge Alito than they did before.

There were some exceptions among the Dems — Senator Schumer comes to mind — but unless you were curled up in front of the TV for gavel-to-gavel coverage, you didn’t see Senator Schumer. More casual news consumers saw the clip of intra-senatorial snarking between senators Kennedy and Specter (although clear explanations of what the snarking was about were hard to come by). They saw Mrs. Alito bolt from the chamber in apparent distress. They saw Senator Biden wearing a Princeton cap. That’s about it.

Although I don’t agree with the editorial that the Vanguard and Concerned Alumni of Princeton issues were frivolous, I’m afraid they came across to most news consumers as frivolous. The Senate Dems rumbled away like distant thunder while Judge Alito sat, unperturbed, in the shelter of a Republican majority.

E.J. Dionne writes

It turns out that, especially when their party controls the process, Supreme Court nominees can avoid answering any question they don’t want to answer. Senators make the process worse with meandering soliloquies. But when the questioning gets pointed, the opposition is immediately accused of scurrilous smears. The result: an exchange of tens of thousands of words signifying, in so many cases, nothing — as long as the nominee has the discipline to say nothing, over and over and over.

Alito, an ardent baseball fan, established himself as the Babe Ruth of evasion.

What news consumers did not hear is that Alito is a guy who doesn’t understand why the strip-search of a ten-year-old girl is a big deal (disagreeing even with Michael Chertoff, for pity’s sake). They didn’t hear that he thinks police were correct to kill an unarmed 15-year-old boy by shooting him in the back of the head. The boy, after all, had not obeyed an order.

By now, only the brain dead don’t realize that Alito is itching to overturn Roe v. Wade at the first opportunity. But it seems hardly anyone outside the Left Blogosphere gives a damn about Alito’s alarming — and un-American — theories about presidential power.

I realize that these issues were probably brought up by some Dem or another during the hearings, but they’ve been left out of the “story about the hearings” as told by news media. So the public isn’t hearing about them.

Paul Brownfield writes in the Los Angeles Times,

The hearings are monumental enough to be carried live on cable news, home of the video sound bite and the whir of instant dissection, but entirely ill-suited to the constant churn of a 24-hour news network.

Inside the Hart Senate hearing room, we watched two competing shows — the Republicans making like Regis Philbin, plugging Judge Alito’s latest vehicle (“So tell me about this Supreme Court nomination … “), the Democrats conducting an episode of CBS’ missing persons drama “Without a Trace,” poking at Alito’s past decisions and his membership in the conservative Concerned Alumni of Princeton but unable to place him, in the present.

Alito’s membership, and the fact that his wife Martha broke down in tears over the controversy Wednesday, gave the networks something to chew on, which is to say a way out of penetrating the gamesmanship of the hearings — senators preambling their way to question the discursively elusive witness.

Martha’s running mascara was the perfect diversion. Even if it wasn’t staged, something like it will be next time there’s a hearing on something the GOP doesn’t want you to know about.

Brownfield continues,

To watch the hearings at any length has value, but only if you watch them at any length — the straight stuff on C-SPAN, preferably, if you can stomach it. Because then you can see the chasm that exists between the dense thicket of speechifying and stonewalling in the hearing room, and the way it’s squeezed down and sized to fit our many-screened lives, above the crawl that tells you the “gay cowboy movie” “Brokeback Mountain” took home the Critics’ Choice Award or that Lindsay Lohan, distancing herself from her own sort of controversial membership, denied statements attributed to her in Vanity Fair about battles with bulimia.

Fact is, the Republicans do the sound-bite, made-for-TV-camera-moments thing extremely well, and the Dems can barely do it at all. That’s why, John Dickerson writes at Slate, the White House wants hearings on Bush’s NSA warrentless wiretapping. Bush wants hearings not because he wants to explain and defend his policy. Rather, Dickerson writes, “He’s inviting Democrats to another round of self-immolation.”

In 2002, the Republican Party used the debate over the Department of Homeland Security to attack Democrats in the off-year election by arguing the party was soft on terror. The president and his aides hope the NSA hearings will offer the same opportunity in 2006. …

… Bush and his aides are eager to talk about the National Security Agency’s activities because they think the issue benefits them politically. While Democrats are often confusing, with too many leaders and no clear message to push back against the commander in chief, the president is passionate when he talks about fighting terrorists, and a majority of voters still approve of his handling of the issue. And because the spying program was initiated soon after 9/11, it offers Bush an opportunity to discuss his more popular days as a take-charge executive after the 2001 attacks. “We’re very comfortable discussing the issue for as long as they want,” says Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett.

I can see it already. The GOP will be prepared in advance to smear and discredit anyone who testifies the program is illegal. Anyone tuning in to Meet the Press or The Situation Room or Hardball (and don’t even think about Faux Nooz) will see the usual conservative shills expounding long-discredited nonfacts and junk legalosity to argue the accusations of illegality have no merit. And Tim, Wolf, and Tweety will nod, politely, and frame their questions in a way that legitimizes GOP talking points, however frivolous.

“Democrats will be frustrated and antagonized,” writes Dickerson. “The president hopes they will get red-faced and obstinate.” The Dems will rumble away like distant thunder, and White House representatives will sit, unperturbed, in the shelter of a Republican majority.

And if, by accident, someone on the Dem side actually lands a blow, expect Condi to spring a leak and dash for the door.

Update: See also Steve Soto, “Democrats Punt Another One Away On Alito.”