WASHINGTON — The apparent defeat of Judge Robert H. Bork as a Supreme Court nominee is being viewed on Capitol Hill as a clear demonstration of President Reagan's rapidly declining effectiveness in dealing with a highly partisan, Democratic-controlled Congress.
And unlike Reagan's previous legislative setbacks, the Bork affair appears to have set a nasty, confrontational tone in the dialogue between Congress and the President that is likely to be repeated in forthcoming battles later this year over taxes, defense spending, arms control and aid for the Nicaraguan resistance.
"There is a real confrontation going on between the President and Congress," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who compares the current standoff to the post-Watergate period when a Democratic Congress challenged President Gerald R. Ford at every turn.
"Clearly, we are in a period of legislative gridlock because of an unwillingness by either side to compromise on these issues. The Democrats are already waging a campaign for control of the White House."
Parties Look to Election
Of course, it is not surprising that a two-term President--even one as popular as Ronald Reagan--would begin to lose his grip on Congress as both parties begin looking to the next presidential election. And yet Reagan's legislative clout appears to have taken an unusually sharp nose dive, beginning last April when Congress overrode his veto of a highway bill.
"The Bork nomination is indicative of a general decline in his ability to convince Congress to do what he wants," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). "Iran- contra was the first big blow, and it has been downhill since then."
If Reagan's hand was weakened by the Iran-contra affair, critics contend that the President himself also has contributed to his current troubles with Congress by continuing to press a highly controversial legislative agenda--including continued aid for the contras and fending off a tax increase--that had been difficult to attain even in the halcyon days of this Administration.
"What we've seen is the President of the United States all this year trying to hit a home run," said Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced). "He refuses to acknowledge that the Iran-contra affair has hurt him. He's gone for the long ball, and he's struck out. If you lose, your stature is decreased substantially. It is perceived in this town that he is losing ground."
Even many Republicans share Coelho's analysis. A House Republican leadership aide, who declined to be identified, summed up the current attitude at the White House as: "We're not going for wins; we're going for the moral high ground."
As Democrats view it, the Bork nomination failed because Reagan was going for an ideological "home run" in selecting an unorthodox candidate for the Supreme Court. Bork is among the most strident and articulate proponents of the Administration's controversial view that an activist, liberal court had distorted the original intent of the U.S. Constitution.
"It was a sure loser from the start," Cranston said. "You can't alter the record of Robert Bork over the last 25 years."
Nevertheless, Reagan supporters claim the Democrats defeated Bork by making it an unusually partisan issue--setting a precedent that will come back to haunt the next Democratic President when he tries to nominate a liberal to the Supreme Court.
"The big loser is Abner Mikva," said Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), referring to the well-known liberal Democratic appeals court judge who has long been viewed as the leading candidate for the Supreme Court under a Democratic Administration. "If he gets up there with a Democratic President, the same lynching bee will take place with a vengeance. It will be sheer politics from now on."
But Democrats contend that Reagan's nominee would have been confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Senate if he had been a mainstream Republican conservative, and that Reagan can easily succeed if his next Supreme Court nominee is a more traditional jurist.
Whatever the reasons for the outcome, the Bork nomination clearly has left both the President and the Democrats embittered by the experience. And even if Reagan's next Supreme Court nominee sails through the Senate--as some are predicting--it has set the stage for an even more divisive showdown between Democrats and Reagan's conservative supporters later this year on a variety of other issues.
Republicans who have met with Reagan in recent days said he was deeply angered by the loss. GOP conservatives shared his feelings of frustration. It was this anger, in part, that led to White House reluctance to withdraw the nomination, even after more than 51 senators announced their intention to vote against it.
"I have never been this angry before," said Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah).