Washington -- THE DECISION by Sen. Howell Heflin to vote against confirmation of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court is a classic example of how even the most elaborate political strategy can backfire. In this case, the White House was just too cute. The opposition of the conservative Alabama Democrat doesn't mean the Thomas nomination is in any serious jeopardy. Even after the Judiciary Committee split 7-7, Senate vote-counters believed it likely that Thomas would win confirmation by a comfortable margin. But Heflin's decision should be taken as a warning that there are limits beyond which the White House cannot go in tailoring a candidate for political purposes.
What is most striking about the Heflin vote is that he originally was strongly inclined to vote for Thomas. Heflin was favorably impressed when Thomas paid him a courtesy call as a part of the routine that has become preliminary to committee hearings. Heflin was so struck by Thomas' story about how he had been shocked by some white reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that the Alabama senator made a point of eliciting that story from Thomas during his testimony.
Moreover, the political equities all argued for Heflin supporting the nomination. Thomas enjoyed heavy support among black voters, who can cast 20 to 25 percent of the vote in Alabama, as well as the backing of conservative whites who also have supported Heflin in large numbers. No one would imagine that Heflin would gain at home from being identified with the liberal groups that have been leading the opposition to Thomas. But over the course of the hearings Heflin, who served as chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court before coming to the Senate in 1979, displayed increasing uneasiness about Thomas's obvious lack of candor. Explaining his decision, Heflin put it this way: "Judge Thomas's answers and explanations about previous speeches, articles and positions raised thoughts about inconsistencies, ambiguities, contradictions, lack of scholarship, lack of conviction and instability."
With the bark off, Heflin was saying that Thomas's testimony was neither believable nor persuasive. That, in turn, means that in trying to avoid any controversy which might threaten the confirmation, Thomas' White House coaches led him into behaving in a way that diminished rather than enhanced his stature.
That strategy also has backfired with some of the Republican conservatives who can be relied upon to support Thomas when the Senate votes on confirmation. Although willing to go along with President Bush, some of them are grousing privately that they would rather have had a nominee who didn't try to conceal his ideology with obfuscation.
Heflin's vote against Thomas is not likely to have an impact similar to the one he cast against Robert Bork four years ago. In that case, Heflin was credited with being the one who provided political cover to other Southern Democrats who opposed Bork but were concerned about white conservative reaction at home. The Judiciary Committee voted 9-5 against Bork's confirmation Bork but passed the nomination to the Senate floor, where it was defeated 58-42.
In this case, several Southerners -- including J. Bennett Johnston and John Breaux of Louisiana and Sam Nunn of Georgia -- already have announced they will support Thomas. Moreover, it is unlikely there will be more than one or two defections among the 43 Republican senators, in large measure because the highly respected John Danforth of Missouri has acted as Thomas's chief sponsor among his colleagues. Thus, the betting is that there will be no more than 40 votes against Thomas unless there are further developments in the next few days.
In the end, however, the vote will be closer than originally expected and for reasons quite different from what had been foreseen. When Thomas was nominated, the White House feared he would be vulnerable on the two issues, abortion rights and affirmative action, that mobilized liberal opposition to his nomination.
As it has turned out, Thomas made it through the hearings without ever discussing his position on abortion and without painting himself into a corner on affirmative action. In both cases, he succeeded in muddying the waters.
But Clarence Thomas has paid a price in credibility that is obvious in Howell Heflin's decision to vote against him. There are times when political games are just too cute.