Clarence Thomas Squeaks Through

October 16, 1991

The Senate's 52-48 confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas yesterday as an associate justice of the Supreme Court was more directly related to politics, partisanship and electioneering than any in history. It culminated an ugly, inappropriate spectacle. We are glad it is over.

Judicial nominations are usually political, and to a significant degree. But no justice in this century has been sent to the Supreme Court on the basis of so close and partisan a division. Republicans voted 41-2 for. Democrats voted 46-11 against. Only the acrimonious and partisan 1987 rejection of Judge Robert Bork was so lopsided. Republicans then voted 40-6 for, Democrats 52-2 against.

Some senators voted their principles yesterday. Of that we have no doubt. But some "rose above principle," as they say, to support their party leadership. Some senators voted their constituencies rather than general public opinion. All the polls taken during and after the weekend hearings on Judge Thomas showed he enjoyed plurality support among men, among women, among blacks, among whites. But there were enough undecideds in every category to suggest that there is neither majority support nor opposition to the nominee.

Blacks are predominantly Democratic. Since more blacks supported than opposed the nominee, the "no" votes of so many Democratic senators are puzzling on the surface. Some Democrats appear to have responded to the designated advocates of blacks -- especially the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights -- than to the black masses. This strengthens the impression that some Democratic office holders are more responsive to inside-the-beltway elites than to the public -- even their own public. The rollcall also strengthens the impression that some Republicans vote neither their principles nor their state constituencies but their president.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said she was voting against Judge Thomas because, "We have an opportunity to send a message [condemning sexual harassment] everywhere." Certainly that is a message that needs to be sent, but there must be better ways to do that than on a confirmation vote, especially when the nominee has denied and rejected sexual harassment. Senator Mikulski was not the only one who used this tactic. Several senators said yesterday that they had planned to vote for Judge Thomas last week and had changed their minds when it was demonstrated that he may have committed sexual harassment.

It will be a long time before all the political ramifications of yesterday's vote and the three months leading up to it are clear. But surely the bitter partisanship that has been on display should be put aside and forgotten quickly.

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