Nomination of Ginsburg a good political decision ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 15, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Despite his display of petulance at the suggestion of a political motive, President Clinton has extricated himself from an awkward corner with his decision to nominate Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.

The president's clumsy dance with Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and federal Appeals Court Judge Stephen Breyer had reinforced the picture of the White House as both monumentally inept and susceptible to outside pressures. Now there appears to be the likelihood that the choice of the first Jewish woman for the court will wipe away those memories -- in the electorate if not in the political community -- and give Clinton the benefits that flow from a sound decision.

That very same process developed in Clinton's search for an attorney general last winter. Forced to abandon both Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood because of what became known as "the nanny problem," the president fortuitously ended up nominating Janet Reno, who already has established herself as a forceful and popular presence in his government. For Clinton, the lesson had to be that sometimes it is better to be lucky than smart.

The message inside the Beltway about this Supreme Court decision will, however, be quite different. No one in the political community has forgotten the problems with Baird and Wood. Nor will anyone forget that Clinton took the full 90 days offered to him by the early announcement of Justice Byron White's retirement and still didn't manage to bring off the decision smoothly.

In Babbitt's case, the picture among politicians is of a president being pressured by a special constituency, in this case environmentalists, to keep a popular interior secretary on the job even if he might have been an ideal choice for a lifetime appointment to a far more significant place on the Supreme Court. The notion of any interior secretary as irreplaceable is hard to swallow.

Breyer was jerked around even more conspicuously, brought to Washington for a luncheon with the president and a weekend waiting around for a telephone call apparently because Clinton could not decide whether to risk nominating a candidate who had failed to pay Social Security taxes for a part-time domestic worker.

The White House insisted that information about Breyer had been known for weeks and had been discussed with prominent figures, including some Republicans, in the Senate without stirring up any serious backlash. That line was designed to counter the impression that Clinton once again had been caught short by a staff failure and then paralyzed by his own indecision before seizing the escape hatch of Judge Ginsburg.

The president's sensitivity to criticism of his handling of the appointment was obvious first in the extraordinary references he made to Babbitt and Breyer in announcing the choice of Ginsburg -- suggesting in fairly direct terms that either or both might be given subsequent appointments to the Supreme Court when other vacancies occur.

And it was even more obvious when he delivered his angry response to the one question he took from reporters gathered in the Rose Garden for the ceremony -- a question not surprisingly about the politics of the decision.

The president was asked by a reporter if he would like to "disabuse us" of the impression abroad that there has been a "a certain zig-zag quality in the decision-making process here."

Clinton, who had appeared emotionally affected by Judge Ginsburg's statement a moment earlier, reacted with clear anger, his jaw tightening and his expression grim as he replied: "I have long since given up the thought that I disabuse some of you [from] turning any substantive decision into anything but political process. How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me."

But the notion that Supreme Court appointments are made in a political vacuum is, of course, a fanciful one. And in this case in particular, Clinton's handling of Babbitt and Breyer added to the pressure to find a solution that would satisfy his political critics. Judge Ginsburg seems to fit that prescription, however much "political process" was involved in making her the choice.

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