IT WILL BE A DAMNING INDICTMENT of petty partisanship in Washington if an overwhelming majority of the Senate does not vote to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. to be the next chief justice of the United States. As last week's confirmation hearings made clear, Roberts is an exceptionally qualified nominee, well within the mainstream of American legal thought, who deserves broad bipartisan support. If a majority of Democrats in the Senate vote against Roberts, they will reveal themselves as nothing more than self-defeating obstructionists.
Most Democrats have not indicated how they will vote later this week in the Judiciary Committee, or subsequently on the Senate floor. The angst expressed by some senators who feel caught between the pressure of liberal interest groups and their own impression of Roberts is comically overwrought. "I for one have woken up in the middle of the night thinking about it, being unsure how to vote," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
One reason Democratic senators are struggling to reach a verdict on the Roberts nomination is that President Bush has yet to announce his nominee for the second vacancy on the court. They are trying to figure out how their vote on Roberts will influence Bush's next choice. This is silly; Roberts ought to be considered on his own merits. But even if one treats this vote merely as a tactical game, voting against an impressive, relatively moderate nominee hardly strengthens the Democrats' leverage. If Roberts fails to win their support, Bush may justifiably conclude that he needn't even bother trying to find a justice palatable to the center. And if Bush next nominates someone who is genuinely unacceptable to most Americans, it will be harder for Democrats to point that out if they cry wolf over Roberts.