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Chuck’s Chance

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The Thursday before the Alito hearings began, Schumer gave a speech laying out what would prove to be the Democratic road map in questioning the judge. As it happened, just two hours earlier, Ted Kennedy had covered similar ground in a briefing with reporters—but the briefing had not gone well. Kennedy, looking tired and haggard, had said in error that the Democrats had abandoned any thought of filibustering Alito. Schumer’s speech, meanwhile, was crisp and sharp and focused. Among some nomination politicos, the coincidence reinforced a sense, already growing, of a generational shift of leadership taking place on the committee.

"Whatever party forms the right viewpoint, both substantively and message-wise, will be the dominant party for the next ten years, at least. Everything’s up for grabs.”

Later, I asked Schumer if he thought he was inheriting Kennedy’s mantle. “No, I’m not,” Schumer quietly said. “I’m not as liberal as he is.” But then he added, “He has basically said to me, ‘You take the lead.’ ”

For Schumer, taking the lead in the committee’s hearings is no easy task. As the second-lowest-ranking Democrat, he must wait until six others have spoken before taking his turn. Yet in taking on Alito, Schumer’s queries were easily the most forceful and effective—especially on the first evening of questioning, when he succeeded in rattling Alito concerning his stance on abortion. When it was over, the conservative blogosphere was abuzz with worry (for the first and only time during the hearings), while Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way, released a statement lauding Schumer’s performance as “masterful.”

Unfortunately for Democrats, Schumer’s competence was the exception to the rule. Pat Leahy, Dick Durbin, Herb Kohl: Not a single well-formulated interrogatory came forth from any of them. (As for Joe Biden, well, let us not speak ill of the unhinged.)

And yet, for all of Alito’s relentless discipline in speaking much but saying little, the judge did nothing to allay the fears of those possessing even a passing familiarity with his record. In virtually every area of controversy, Alito left the distinct impression that whatever views he had expressed in the past (on the regulation of machine guns, the strip-search of minors, an unchecked executive branch in an age of Bushian domestic surveillance) were the views to which he adhered still. Indeed, on Roe, he even refused to go as far as Roberts in according the ruling the status of “settled law.”

The trouble for the Democrats, of course, is that to defeat Alito would almost certainly require a filibuster. “It’s very hard,” Schumer says. “You have to persuade all but four of your colleagues to vote for the first time to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee. On the other hand, there is so much at stake for a generation; just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shy away from it.”

In all likelihood, the Democrats will indeed shy away from it. To many of the party’s leaders, the politics of 2006 are shaping up favorably with Alito off the radar. Iraq. Abramoff. Domestic spying. Why mess with a volatile and unpredictable issue that might blow up in their faces?

Though Schumer would never say as much, he no doubt sees the point. When I ask how optimistic he is about the Democrats’ prospects for regaining control of the Senate, he offers what has lately become his standard assessment. “To take back the Senate is an enormous task,” he says. “If you would’ve asked me a year ago, I would’ve said, ‘It’s out of the question.’ Now I’d say, ‘If the stars align right, it could happen.’ ”

As Schumer knows, the stars are only part of the story. The alignment that actually needs to happen for the Democrats is deeper and more fundamental: a realignment of the party with an assortment of changing realities—economic, cultural, and geopolitical. The same, obviously, could and should be said of the GOP. Both parties are woefully out of whack with voters and the turbulent times in which we live. “The world is changing,” Schumer says. “And Democratic New Deal politics has been gone for a while, but Ronald Reagan Republicanism is gone, too. The public’s up for grabs, and whatever party forms the right viewpoint, both substantively and message-wise, will be the dominant party for the next ten years, at least. Everything’s up for grabs.”

The point isn’t brilliant, novel, or piercing—but it’s essential all the same. Can Schumer do anything about it? We shall see. But that he grasps the nature of the project is at least a start—and a reason for Democrats to hope that his ascension continues rapidly within their ranks.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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