The John Roberts Sideshow

Hillary walks tightrope! Schumer frolics in spotlight!

"People have these feelings about her as a moral leader who'll take courageous positions on important issues," he says, counting himself in this category. Hillary Clinton has what he describes as "an extraordinary gift"—she walks into a room, people listen. The senator, he says, "could make an enormous contribution to people's understanding of what Judge Roberts stands for"—by illuminating the way the judge threatens not just abortion rights but other progressive causes as well.

"It's important that our other senator take an advocacy role," he adds.

Dara Silverman sounds a similar note. The director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, based in New York, Silverman joined six other Jewish social-justice groups in delivering a three-page statement on Roberts to Clinton's office last Thursday. Though not opposed to the judge per se, the groups call for a "thorough examination" of the nominee and set out nine specific concerns. Delivered to both New York senators, the statement is meant to show how important the nomination is to social-justice advocates. But it's meant to do something else as well.

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

"Clearly," Silverman says, "people are looking to Hillary as someone who is a leader, and we want her to lead on this issue."

In fairness, it's hard for advocates to push Clinton to take a stand on Roberts when many liberal groups have spent the past few weeks mutely on the sideline. Most pro-choice and women's rights groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Organization for Women, have opposed Roberts as a direct threat to legal abortion and the health of women. And they're busy organizing letter-writing campaigns and national "call-in" days to the Senate. NARAL is circulating petitions demanding both Clinton and Schumer defeat Roberts.

Yet other groups, such as People for the American Way and Planned Parenthood, have taken a wait-and-see approach. Instead of railing against the nominee, they've crafted a nuanced set of talking points, pushing for information, fine-tuning questions. As Joan Malin of Planned Parenthood of New York City explains, "We want to make sure the right questions are asked and that Roberts answers them."

Who knows whether the left is even girding for a fight? If it does, though, many within this wing will expect Clinton to lead the way. And Steve Gilliard, who writes the liberal News Blog in Manhattan, says the senator couldn't afford to lay low then. Things are already shaky between her and liberals, he says, what with her remarks about finding "common ground" on abortion last January. She pissed off folks even more when she delivered a July 25 speech to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, using it to broker a truce between the two warring factions of the party.

For liberals, Gilliard observes, "Roberts is just not an issue Senator Clinton can afford to disappoint people on." If she does, he adds, "the anger over these other issues would be dwarfed."

For Clinton, the dicey point comes with what liberals like Gilliard call "a very basic litmus test." Back in 2000, the then candidate went on the record during a debate with her Republican opponent, Rick Lazio, and pledged these words: "I could not support someone who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade." Pro-choice advocates trumpeted the promise on the campaign trail, holding it up in endorsement literature, using it in TV ads, hammering away at Lazio for refusing to say the same.

These days, Clinton has said very little about that 2000 pledge. At the July 28 press event, reporters put the question to Clinton. But rather than reiterate her comments, she waffled, saying on the one hand that she "shares the concerns of my colleagues," yet on the other, "I'm not going to be speculating."

Her advisers point out that Roberts's positions on many issues, including Roe v. Wade, have yet to be determined, and they say she's merely waiting to see what comes out of the judiciary committee. "Senator Clinton has in no way expressed her intentions as to how she will vote on the nomination," says Philippe Reines, her spokesperson.

Meanwhile, pro-choice advocates aren't doubting where Clinton's loyalty lies. Both Clinton and Schumer, they argue, have long championed women's reproductive rights—and they're not about to change now. Says Kelli Conlin, of NARAL New York, facetiously, "If Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer are problems, we're kind of sunk." Clinton, in particular, has voted with the pro-choice advocates on Bush's appellate-court nominees, including Priscilla Owens and Janice Rogers Brown. And she has led the charge on making emergency contraception available over the counter, holding up Bush's nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration to force a decision from the agency (see "Hillary's Plan B," July 13-19, 2005).

"She's a passionate supporter of the right to choose," Conlin adds, "and I don't see that equation changing."

Granted, no Democratic senator has come out in opposition to Roberts. Even Schumer has said he's not opposed to the judge—yet. At the same time, no one is left wondering whether Schumer will cast the honest vote for a progressive senator. After all, he has already opposed the judge once, casting one of three dissenting votes against Roberts for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals two years ago. Since Roberts was confirmed by the full Senate on a voice vote—essentially a unanimous pass—Clinton has for all intents supported the judge already.

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