The John Roberts Sideshow

Hillary walks tightrope! Schumer frolics in spotlight!

For once, Chuck Schumer is having all the fun. George Bush has finally made a Supreme Court nomination, and his pick, the supposedly pragmatic conservative John Roberts, is looking more ideological by the day.

Enter Schumer, popular Democrat, ultra-blue New York's "senator for life," his party's key inquisitor and pit bull on Bush's picks for the bench. An infamous media hound, Schumer has found himself king of the news cycle these days, hosting almost daily press conferences, issuing almost daily statements, making almost daily headlines. A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Schumer has sent a list of 82 questions to Roberts, and when the hearings start in September, he can expect to make hay out of the answers.

And then there is Schumer's counterpart, Hillary Clinton, junior senator, Democratic supernova, gearing up for re-election next year, all while lurching to the center and laying the groundwork for a presidential run in 2008. For her, the Roberts nomination makes for some tricky calculations: Should she try to back him, for the chance to look like a centrist, and thus appeal to elusive swing voters across the heartland? Or should she do what her New York constituents want? And what do you say or not say about a jurist expected to help steer the court to the right, but whose enigmatic record makes him tough to peg as extremist? No Democratic senator wants to support a Supreme Court justice who turns out to be the deciding vote against abortion rights, civil rights, gay rights, and a host of progressive issues.

One Supreme Court nomination, two experiences: Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer
photo: Richard B. Levine
One Supreme Court nomination, two experiences: Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer

While the usually up-front Clinton tries to say as little as possible—she's not on the judiciary committee, her friends will remind you—Schumer hasn't got a worry in the world. As one Democratic operative with ties to both senators puts it, "Chuck has no future political interests, so he can do what he wants and not sweat it."

Schumer has already said what it'll take for Roberts to win his vote.

"Fundamentally," Schumer told reporters on July 27, "he must persuasively demonstrate that he is not an ideologue. He must show that he doesn't want to impose his personal views on the rest of America, and that he'll be faithful to the Constitution and the law rather than to some political or ideological agenda."

Clinton, meanwhile, has been almost silent. On July 19, she issued a statement saying she'll wait for the hearings before jumping to conclusions. "I look forward to the committee's findings," she said, "so that I can make an informed decision about whether Judge Roberts is truly a guardian of the rule of law who puts fairness and justice before ideology."

Since then, she has stuck to the script, so much so that she can come across as rehearsed. Take her performance at a July 28 press conference on Capitol Hill, which she attended along with five female Democratic senators. The women held the event to kick off a new website allowing voters to submit questions to Roberts. Most of the senators took the opportunity to discuss their views on the judge as well. They insisted that he explain where he stands on the constitutional right to privacy, the legal underpinning of court decisions over abortion and gay rights. Some, such as Barbara Boxer of California, had no qualms admitting that his position on Roe v. Wade would make or break her vote.

When Clinton took the microphone, she sounded off on the virtues of . . . technology. "This is an extraordinarily innovative way of creating an opportunity for people around the country to be part of this process," she offered. "Thanks to the miracle of modern communication, we have an opportunity to include people and give them a chance to participate."

Asked what Roberts had to do to win her vote, she kept up her guard. "I am waiting to see the process unfold," she said.

In many ways, Clinton is playing the Roberts nomination just right. Unlike her senior colleague, she has never staked out territory as the party's big dog on court nominees. "They have different jobs," says former governor Mario Cuomo. Clinton must let Schumer do his: preparing questions, gathering documents, advancing the process. "The Senate has strict protocols, and they're abiding by them."

Besides, as the political analysts like to point out, Clinton doesn't gain much by speaking out on Roberts now. Tactically, she wants to appear thoughtful, senatorial, the antithesis of a liberal fanatic. "If she comes out swinging against Roberts," as Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf says, "she only gives the right more opportunity to bang her around."

Schumer, wisely, wants to play to the party's base—indeed, as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he's busy raising money to bring Democrats back to power. "He benefits from getting liberals stirred," says Michael Edelman, a Republican analyst. And whenever he carries the liberal torch, Edelman adds, "he makes it easier for Clinton to show she's more moderate."

But that's not necessarily what Clinton's New York backers want to hear. State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, for one, a Manhattan Democrat, believes she needs to play a more prominent role in the nomination. So when he attended a "Stand Up for Women" rally against Roberts on July 20 in Union Square, he urged her to take a stand. And since he hasn't seen her role increase, he's writing a letter that echoes his plea.

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