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Justice from Lobbies and Chambers : The Inside-Outside Battle About Seating Judge Bork

October 04, 1987|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a writer for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — As prospects for the Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Robert H. Bork collapse around them, the Adminis tration and its conservative allies are already positioning themselves for a fractious "Who lost Bork?" debate if the nominee fails.

White House aides have begun complaining--first privately and now in print--that the conservative lobby groups are not pushing hard enough for Bork. "I think," said one senior White House aide, "some of the opponent groups are more committed to trying to sway public opinion than the proponents."

Meanwhile, conservatives are complaining that White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. waited too long to launch Administration efforts for Bork, allowing liberal opponents to take an early initiative they never relinquished. While President Reagan vacationed in August, Bork's opponents were ready and "they really hit hard," admitted the White House aide. "It took us some time to get ourselves in a position where we were ready to respond."

These complaints whizzing back and forth testify to the White House difficulty in coordinating two distinct elements of its campaign--the inside game of wooing senators, and the outside game of moving public opinion and activating their conservative base. The problem is both simple and intractable: Though the White House wants conservative social and religious groups to rally behind Bork, it fears their embrace will repel moderate senators who hold the key swing votes.

Liberal groups worked fiercely to generate public resistance to the nomination--while trying to avoid becoming a target. They have succeeded on the first count, helping move public opinion against Bork. But their visibility has allowed Senate Republicans to score points in the inside game by attacking "special interests" opposing Bork.

So on the eve of this week's expected Senate Judiciary Committee vote, the White House and Bork's Senate opponents find themselves with a similar problem: both need their supporters' zeal, and both fear it. They are in this conundrum because the Bork battle has no precedent. No one knows the rules for a Supreme Court nomination battle fought as if it were a national plebiscite because no one has ever run such a campaign before. Even the institutional lobbying surrounding President Richard M. Nixon's nominations of Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. and G. Harrold Carswell--the last two Supreme Court nominees defeated--seems quaint next to the feral struggle over Bork. Nor have Reagan's other Supreme Court nominees fired such passions; only elevating William H. Rehnquist to chief justice drew sustained opposition, mostly on the inside.

"I think this is unprecedented, to use the media to help shape public opinion (on a Supreme Court nomination)," said Arthur J. Kropp, executive director of People for the American Way, a liberal lobbying group that last week completed a $725,000 media campaign against Bork.

Almost from the day Bork was nominated, the White House has been unable to find a message that both advances its cause inside the Senate and excites its natural allies. When Bork was named, conservative leaders erupted with millennnial joy; Christian Voice, an evangelical organization, proclaimed that Bork's confirmation "may be our last chance . . . to ensure future decades will bring morality, godliness and justice back into focus."

But the congressional veterans gathered in the White House around Baker, a former Senate majority leader, initially saw that enthusiasm as a problem, not an asset. To their view, the right's portrayal of Bork as the answer to its prayers only buttressed the left's portrayal of him as a conservative ideologue. Almost immediately, Baker's insiders decided that an ideologically polarized battle wouldn't get Bork through a Democratic Senate and they began to position him as a moderate. Surprisingly, conservatives tailored their public statements accordingly.

But that was not an easy message to sell their supporters. Though conservative groups have produced piles of mail supporting Bork--winning the battle of the post card in many states--they were unable to raise the money for media campaigns comparable to those funded by his opponents. Bork supporters expected that role to be filled by a group called We the People, formed by California GOP consultant Bill Roberts. Roberts figured to raise $2.5 million from Reagan loyalists for an advertising campaign in key swing states. But the big money never arrived and, so far, the group has only purchased print advertisements in Oregon and Massachusetts.

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