It's to Clinton's advantage to float high court balloons



WASHINGTON -- This is a kind of consumer warning: Don't spend too much time and attention on all the speculation in the days ahead about whom President Clinton will choose to replace Harry Blackmun on the Supreme Court.

There will be stories about the stock of one candidate rising while that of another declines. They will be based in part on what White House officials are willing to pass on to reporters about internal discussions, and they may be accurate enough -- as when, for instance, a meeting with a potential nominee and the president doesn't "go well," as they like to say in the White House.

But it shouldn't be forgotten that the decision is one that will be made by only one man, President Clinton, and one on which staff may have relatively little influence.

There also will be a lot of high-blown rhetoric from the White House about the standards that will be applied. The nominee, we already are being told, will be someone of intellect, integrity, judicial temperament, experience and ability -- in short, the best possible choice. Presidents rarely reveal their intention to choose a second-rater even when it happens.

But one home truth is that there is no absolute standard for choosing someone for the Supreme Court. Some extraordinary legal scholars have been passed over for judges with essentially political credentials who performed remarkably once on the court. Blackmun himself is a case in point.

It is also true, of course, that political considerations are always paramount, although no one wants to admit as much in so many words.

In this case, there are several political elements in the equation. The most obvious is that Clinton would like to make a "safe" choice, meaning a nominee who could be easily confirmed and won't be the center of another controversy in the Senate Judiciary Committee or on the Senate floor.

That imperative is a strong argument for Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine; even his political adversaries don't question his character, temperament or intellect.

But it is also true that Clinton would be a strange politician indeed if he didn't think of the possibility that the decision might advance his own prospects in 1996 and those of his party in the midterm elections this year. And to the extent that that element is considered, there is a strong argument for U.S. District Judge Jose Cabranes of Connecticut, who would become the first Hispanic-American to serve on the Supreme Court. With the notable exception of Cuban-Americans in south Florida, Hispanic-American voters have been predictably Democratic for years. In recent elections, they have been splitting about 2-to-1 for Democratic candidates. And they have become an important constituency in such major states as California, where they make up 16 percent of the voting-age population; Texas, 18 percent; Florida, 9, and New York, 8.

But the Democrats have never profited from the full potential in the Hispanic vote. Turnout among Hispanics has been consistently lower than that for any other important segment of the electorate. And opinion polls have shown a slow but definite trend away from the Democrats and toward the Republicans in party identification among Hispanic-Americans -- a trend apparently driven in large measure by fear of crime.

Thus, there is obviously rich opportunity for Clinton if he names the first Hispanic to the court.

And that is the case even if, as some interest groups are pointing out, Cabranes is not as liberal on all the issues as they might prefer and was in fact considered moderate enough to be on President George Bush's short list before Bush chose Clarence Thomas.

There is also the issue of timing. The White House has known for months that Blackmun has been planning to step aside, so it is reasonable to wonder why Clinton is not prepared to make an immediate choice. But allowing the names to float in the speculative hot air for a time serves two political purposes for the White House.

It allows those who have been mentioned to enjoy the recognition that comes from being on such a list. And, more importantly, it allows time for questions about, or objections to, prospective nominees to surface before they are nominated.

But news consumers would be wise to dig in their gardens, enjoy the Orioles and take the speculation about the Supreme Court in small doses.

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