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Liberal interest groups could not have imagined that they’d be on the outside looking in during what was supposed to be a battle over President George W. Bush’s first Supreme Court nominee. But that’s what has essentially happened, as Senate Democrats chart a more moderate course without them. “Why do we have to fight? Just to fight?” asks one Democratic staffer. “Perhaps we should just declare victory and move on,” he says, noting that Judge John Roberts Jr. is almost certainly better than other people whom Bush might have been expected to nominate, such as U.S. Court of Appeals Judges J. Michael Luttig and Janice Rogers Brown. “Do we have to follow Nan Aron off a cliff?” he adds, referring to the veteran judicial campaigner who heads up the Alliance for Justice. For Senate Democrats, the apparent disavowal of longtime shoulder-to-shoulder allies such as the Alliance for Justice and People For the American Way can be viewed as a political move, a bid to appeal to the mainstream. That has left those interest groups with a similar choice: whether to join their Democratic brethren and perhaps burnish their own credibility with moderates, or to ratchet up the rhetoric over a nominee who seems a sure bet to be confirmed in order to fire up their liberal base — and risk alienating everyone else. As University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis notes, “With all this energy, they run the risk of looking whiny, ungenerous, and not serious — a whole variety of things.” Some suggest the groups would be better off waiting for another target, perhaps a more abrasive and controversial candidate when the next Court vacancy materializes. Demonizing someone like Roberts, they say, may simply serve to diminish their influence. “To fly into hysteria over a nominee who is not Judge Bork, if you react at the same decibel level to every putative nominee, it becomes difficult to be heard when necessary,” says a staffer at a liberal, Democratic-leaning public policy organization. So far, however, it seems as if the liberal lobby is determined to hold its ground. “We’re swinging hard right out of the gate,” says Ben Brandzel, advocacy director for MoveOn.org, the Web-based advocacy group that claims a membership of 3.5 million. “Our credibility is not about getting the Senate to do our bidding. Our credibility comes from fighting for things our people believe in,” adds Brandzel, who says Roberts has spent a lifetime “putting corporate power and abuse and partisan politics over the rights of individuals.” Abortion-rights groups, including NARAL, NOW, and the Feminist Majority, have likewise come out quickly and forcefully against the Roberts nomination, pointing critically to at least two cases Roberts worked on as deputy solicitor general: one which parenthetically stated that the administration opposed Roe v. Wade, the other which took the side of an anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, in Bray v. Alexandria. “This is incredibly important. It’s life or death,” says the Feminist Majority’s Eleanor Smeal. “I wish it was hyperbole, but, literally, women’s lives are in the balance.” But whether Smeal and others’ opposition brings down Roberts’ bid makes little difference to them, says University of Connecticut professor David Yalof. Instead, he says, it’s about a broader strategy. “What the liberal interest groups are thinking about is the 2006 and 2008 elections. The traction that these groups hope to gain against Republicans is not possible unless they frame the nomination to their benefit, as an attack on their values. That’s what’s going on now,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “Beating Roberts would be nice, but it’s not necessary for these groups to stay relevant to the process.” COMMON CAUSES It isn’t the first time groups like the Alliance for Justice have seen their power ebb and flow. Aron’s group and others were dismayed by many of President Bill Clinton’s centrist judicial picks, when his administration seemed to have little stomach for judicial nomination battles. Liberal-leaning interest groups’ track record and reputation hit a high point last year, when they played a key role in Senate Democrats’ successful filibuster of 10 Bush White House court of appeals nominees, including Miguel Estrada, who eventually withdrew his name from consideration for a coveted D.C. Circuit seat. But that collaboration with Senate Democrats appears to be on the shelf for Roberts, forcing groups like the Alliance for Justice to follow their own path. “They are allies when they need each other, more than anything else,” says Northeastern University political scientist Chris Bosso. “Interest groups are not political parties; they are two different worlds,” he adds. “The Alliance [for Justice] may decide Roberts is the antichrist. But [Massachusetts Democratic Sen.] Ted Kennedy lives in a different world than the Alliance. There are 99 other senators Ted Kennedy has to live for, and he may decide that John Roberts is not worth going to the mat for.” For non-membership groups that don’t lobby, such as the Center for American Progress — a public policy think tank founded by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta — circumspection may come easier. “Our focus is on making sure the Senate finds out who this person is,” says Mark Agrast, a senior fellow at the center. “The most important thing is to be sure that the Senate is not foreclosed from examining Roberts’ judicial philosophy, to counter the argument by Boyden Gray that suddenly these kinds of questions are off-limits,” adds Agrast, referring to former White House counsel and conservative activist C. Boyden Gray. For now, the Alliance for Justice and the influential People For the American Way, which boasts 750,000 members and deals with a host of civil liberties issues, are not formally committed to opposing Roberts’ nomination. But that’s likely to change. “My gut is that before this is all over, we will take a position against him, but I have no idea what the timing will be,” says People For the American Way President Ralph Neas. THE GOOD FIGHT That will come as no surprise to many. The groups were arming for war long before a vacancy on the Court occurred, much less before a nominee was announced. When speculation was rampant about the expected resignation of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, PFAW made no secret about its efforts to develop a massive, quick-response team devoted to the next nomination, a plan that included a 2,500-square-foot war room with 40 computers and 75 phone banks. “They’ve been whipping their membership into a frenzy,” notes Jessica Boulanger, a spokeswoman for Progress for America, the conservative counterpart to the Alliance and PFAW. Progress for America, of course, was also working its membership well before the Roberts nomination, and began running television ads supporting Roberts the day after he was named. Little wonder, then, that the day after the Roberts announcement, the widely read Hotline political wire was referring — inaccurately, as it turned out — to PFAW as “already urging a rejection.” (Although Neas did issue a statement that his group was “extremely disappointed” with the choice of Roberts.) The mistake, notes Bowdoin College government professor Richard Skinner, is understandable. “The history of any ideological group is that they tend to do best when they are threatened,” Skinner says. “The NRA did very well after Columbine, when gun control was back in the news. NARAL did very well during the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the [Robert] Bork and [Clarence] Thomas [Supreme Court confirmation] hearings.” PFAW is a good example. Since 2000, when Bush was elected president (and Neas took over), the group’s membership has risen by 450,000 members, its staff has doubled, and its budget has tripled. In the end, interest groups maintain they are relevant as long as their members believe them to be. And in that regard, to them, a loss isn’t always a loss. “In the interest group world, a spectacular loss can actually help you,” Skinner says. “On the one hand, it means you’re visible. On the other, if you keep losing, there’s a threat, there’s a reason to be concerned. People generally give money when they think there’s a danger.” Or, as the Alliance for Justice’s Aron puts it: “Why are people paying dues? Because they know we’re out there fighting the good fight along with them.”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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