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Shortly after the confirmation of Samuel Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court, a large bouquet arrived at the offices of People For the American Way, the liberal interest group. A note with the flowers was addressed to several of the group’s bigwigs, including President Ralph Neas and Senior Vice President Elliot Mincberg. “It was great working with warriors like you all on the Alito fight,” it said. “You have a great staff who are some of the most talented pros in the business and it paid off.” Paid off? Given how easily Alito was confirmed, you might think the note was signed by Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Instead it came from Democratic consultant Jenny Backus, who worked with Neas’ group on the Alito fight. Given that back in January, Neas said an Alito confirmation would be a “constitutional catastrophe,” the flowers and congratulatory note had a “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” feeling. In the end, Neas and his liberal coalition served as little more than a speed bump in Alito’s path. But to hear Neas tell it, the coalition was cohesive, dynamic, and energized, pressing senators on an hourly basis. Yet both Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Alito were confirmed by comfortable margins. And the coalition’s expected all-out multimillion-dollar ad blitz? It never materialized, says Sean Rushton of the Committee for Justice, a group supportive of the White House’s judicial nominees. Liberal interest groups like Neas’ won’t disclose how much money they pulled in from fanning the flames over Alito and Roberts. But one Democratic strategist familiar with the Alito fight suggests that not much was generated. “The [liberal] groups emphasized their power over the members, but Democratic groups have less electoral clout than the Republicans,” says the strategist. “Ralph runs one of the best organizations in town, but he doesn’t impact elections. No one has to listen to him. That’s a hard way to lobby.” Since joining People For the American Way, in 2000, Neas, a veteran of the successful battle to defeat Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the high court in 1987, has used concern over conservatives on the bench to raise money and build clout. Shortly after Neas took over, the organization released a report titled Courting Disaster, a six-month study of the high court’s two most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. In remarks in May 2000 at the National Press Club, Neas said the Court “is just one or two new justices away from curtailing or abolishing constitutional and civil rights that millions of Americans take for granted. . . . This is not speculation or scare tactics or political rhetoric, it is reality.” And yet the reality is that Neas and his coalition have been unable to do much of anything about most of the Bush administration’s most controversial nominees, even at the appellate level. And some of the tactics used by the group have raised eyebrows even among some Democrats. “I think the rabidness of some of the stuff that goes on is turning people off. We are not dealing here with a group [Roberts and Alito] of criminals,” says a lobbyist familiar with the inner workings of the nomination process. But Backus, who sent the congratulatory bouquet to Neas, gives the opposition effort high marks. “I do think they did a great job,” she says. “They put together a united front, were strategic about who to lobby and target, and in the end they ended up with one of the highest vote counts on a filibuster.” Still, with Alito settling into his tenure last week and the high court set to take up the constitutionality of “partial-birth” abortion, Neas’ nightmare is beginning to take shape. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s often reliable swing vote on abortion is gone, and the nerves of liberal advocates are being put to a serious test. PREMATURE BURIALS? But many political strategists say it’s premature to write obituaries for Neas and his lobbying bookend, Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice. Despite the setbacks and what many felt was a lack of a coherent message from Democrats during the Alito confirmation, the groups can thrive, they say, if they repackage their message. That retooling is especially important for many in the Democratic base worried about the potential for a third vacancy on the Court during this administration. One point of contention for many activists was what they say was a lack of coordination between key senators and interest groups. Neas thinks that Democrats should have come out earlier against both Roberts and Alito, not necessarily by attacking the nominees directly but by focusing concerns on their “extremism and decisions.” And in an attempt to put further distance between the “successful” work done by the coalition and Democrats who went their own way, Aron says, “Obviously, most of the senators did not agree with us.” When asked why, Aron suggests that the question be directed to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But in the minds of many, the lack of consistent pressure by advocacy groups on Senate Democrats to hit Alito early proved costly. “We should have been on the privacy issue with Alito,” says one Democratic consultant familiar with the nomination battles. “There was the most evidence on that issue.” Another early misstep, according to some, was that Democrats publicly urged the president to select a nominee in the mold of O’Connor. “I told a senator, �When you start with O’Connor as your standard, you’re already accepting a weakening of our rights,’ ” says Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “O’Connor is not your model. You have perfectly extraordinary models of justices, like [William] Brennan and [Thurgood] Marshall, who have written opinions with great humanity and wisdom. This particular senator, whom I won’t name, said, �You know, Kate, I hadn’t thought of it that way.’” To be fair, Democrats and activists faced a stark political reality: They are not in the majority. And there are divisions within the Democratic caucus, as well. Additionally, the polished Roberts and the easygoing Alito made it difficult to mount an effective campaign. And the tearful confirmation-room exit of Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann, didn’t make matters any easier for Aron and company. “Neas and his folks are like scouts,” says Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “They have to look over the horizon. If they get clobbered, they look ineffective and, secondly, their own loyalists question their effectiveness, money dries up, and they lose chips in this battle that could have been used in another battle.” OUTMANNED, OUTGUNNED Jamin Raskin, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law who has done some work with the Alliance for Justice, is more sympathetic to the groups, noting that Republicans have built a “fireproof” confirmation strategy. “If you ask questions about what the nominee did or said as a private citizen, it’s off-limits because he was speaking in a private capacity,” says Raskin. “If he said or did something as a lawyer, he was acting as an advocate. If he was a judge, he’s just following the rule of law.” Raskin thinks the basic confirmation template is adaptable. “They’ve done it in a very skillful way. John Roberts was the candidate from central casting, but it worked almost as well with Judge Alito.” Raskin thinks it would have been wiser for Democratic senators not to have asked Alito questions but rather to have worked vis-�-vis liberal justice groups to engage the country in a public education campaign about the U.S. Constitution. One Senate Republican aide suggests the liberal coalition is likely to remobilize by focusing on judicial ethics in an effort to meet the “extraordinary circumstances” now required for a filibuster, the threshold carved out by the “Gang of 14″ senators last May. “They will try to create the appearance of impropriety, the appearance of cronyism, the appearance of extraordinary circumstance,” says the Republican aide, who works on the Judiciary Committee. Having failed to derail President George W. Bush’s nominees in the Senate, liberal groups are likely to focus on altering the Senate itself by narrowing the Republican majority. That has already caused some controversy in Pennsylvania, where anti-abortion Democratic candidate Bob Casey is challenging incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum (R). Shortly before the Senate vote, Casey came out in support of Alito, much to the consternation of Michelman, who was told by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that Casey “would be with us” on judicial votes. Neas is philosophical about Casey’s support for Alito. “I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Casey would be a sure vote for a Bush nominee,” Neas says. “My gut feeling is that he would not be, that Alito might have been in a special category for a number of reasons. There’s a good chance that a Senator Casey would be with the significant majority of the Democratic caucus.” That kind of talk won’t warm many liberal hearts, but Neas may be keeping his operation intact for a future fight. Steam is gathering, for example, to try to block another handful of Bush nominees for the appellate bench. Just last week, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry fired off an e-blast from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee urging donors interested in preventing the next Alito from being confirmed to help elect Democrats to the Senate in November. And Robert Bork, who is quite familiar with Neas’ lobbying tactics, doesn’t believe the group’s influence has waned. “Democrats no longer control the Senate,” he says, referring to the time when he was nominated. “If he [Bush] gets a third nomination, and if one of the pro- Roe v. Wade justices retire, then all hell will break loose.” And Neas and Aron will be right in the thick of it. “I’m not discouraged by this defeat,” Aron says. “In fact, I’m more inclined to press ahead aggressively.”
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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