Sorry, Dems but Roberts nom shows you were wrong

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Here's a way to understand the dilemma Democrats face over whether to support John Roberts as chief justice: Put it in personal terms.

Imagine an argument with your spouse over something silly, like who lost the car keys. "You did it," you start, finger jabbing the air. "No, you did it," she says with that righteous sneer. Voices are raised, nasty things said, until she slams the door and leaves the room. You get your coat and head out for a walk.

Then you find them - the car keys. They're in your coat.

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Boy, is your face red. Your mind fills with remorse: you screwed up, you're an idiot, you do it all the time, blaming her, getting angry. Now what? How do you admit it and apologize without feeling like a bigger jerk?

That's how the 44 Democrats in the U.S. Senate must feel.

As the Judiciary Committee prepares to vote on Roberts, Dems are stuck in an embarrassing situation. President Bush was right - Roberts is supremely qualified to be head honcho of the Supreme Court. And they were wrong to jump the gun with their criticisms, as three days of hearings proved.

Indeed, some legal observers suggest Roberts has the potential to be America's greatest chief justice ever. He is clearly decent and modest, virtues tested by the sheer windbaggery he was subjected to by both parties. (He also looks like Tom Hanks, though he is hardly Forrest Gump.)

But for Democrats, admitting Bush was right by voting yes is shaping up as a fate worse than well, saying sorry. That's a no-no in Washington, even when it's obviously the right thing to do.

There's a double hurdle about giving Bush a victory. It's hard to fathom the hate many liberals feel for Bush. It's not just disagreement or dislike. It's visceral, as though he's simply not good enough or smart enough to warrant normal human relations.

The animus is even stronger now that he's wounded. With his approval ratings stuck in the low 40s, meaning independents and even some Republicans are unhappy, Bush is flirting with irrelevancy. At this rate, New Orleans will rise again before he does.

The Roberts' dilemma is especially acute for New York's senators. While both Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton have safe seats, they also have national constituencies to satisfy. Clinton must calculate everything through the prism of the 2008 presidential election. Schumer is head of the party's Senate campaign committee, meaning he has to raise money and help guide candidates for next year's midterm election. It won't do for either to be too cozy with Bush.

Schumer's performance at the Senate hearings reflected his problem. He called Roberts brilliant, said he had a "powerful intellect" and praised his judicial philosophy of "stability and modesty." But he also complained that memos a younger Roberts wrote showed "misguided views," that the White House had withheld recent memos and that Roberts had refused to answer specific questions about civil rights and privacy, i.e., abortion.

So what's the bottom line? What will Schumer and Clinton do? I asked press secretaries for both. Neither senator responded. Perhaps they can't decide whether to admit they were wrong about John Roberts.

Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News, 450 West 33rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10001; e-mail: