No two ways

October 14, 1991

The tawdry denouement to the Clarence Thomas hearings can only be viewed as the inevitable result of the perverse tendency of the American people to elect divided government. First we elect a president who promises to choose judicial nominees to do certain things -- to overrule Roe vs. Wade, to "lock 'em up and throw away the key," or to do all sorts of extreme things. Then we elect senators and demand that they not to confirm that president's nominees.

Robert Bork is the best example. He was nominated in accordance with promises Ronald Reagan made in 1980 and 1984. Once he was nominated, however, a majority of the Senate responded to an outcry to keep this "extremist" off the Supreme Court. Despite the insistence of such unregenerate Bork defenders as the Wall Street Journal that the senators who opposed Bork's confirmation were going against the wishes of the people, virtually every senator who voted against Bork still sits in the Senate; some have been re-elected since then.

Given Thomas' public comments over the years, it was reasonable to conclude that he would be a black Bork on the Supreme Court -- that he would overturn decisions on affirmative action, abortion rights or the rights of the accused. His subsequent "confirmation conversion" could hardly erase these suspicions.

So once Anita Hill made her charge of sexual harassment, millions of women concluded -- fairly or unfairly -- that Clarence Thomas would not be sensitive to the struggles they face -- from control over their own reproduction to an office climate that does not give women fair access to jobs and promotions. Whether the perception is accurate is beside the point: This is a reasonable conclusion that women (and a lot of men) could easily draw when men like Thomas are nominated.

As long as the White House continues to nominate people whose prior statements reflect extremist views, these confirmation proceedings are certain to grow more rancorous. The suspicions and perceptions that have made the past several days such painful ones on Capitol Hill will continue until the country either elects presidents and congresses of the same party or attains some degree of consensus on its social and political priorities.

To this end the Senate might exercise its constitutional "advice" role by giving the president a list -- perhaps a long list -- of acceptable candidates for the court.

At heart, these bitter, take-no-prisoners confrontations arise from the fact that the voters want it both ways -- and there's no way they can have both George Bush's way and Joe Biden's way.

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