GEORGE MITCHELL says he's not a Supreme Court candidate because he wants to stay in the Senate and get the Clinton health care plan passed.
Oh come now. If the plan isn't passed by October, when the Supreme Court convenes and when he would have to resign from the Senate, it probably isn't going to pass at all, George Mitchell or no George Mitchell.
Besides, when did he get to be the key to passage? Until now every assessment of the plan's prospects in the Senate assumed the most important Democratic senators were Finance Committee Chairman Pat Moynihan, Labor and Human Resources Chairman Ted Kennedy and, perhaps, Medicare and Long-Term Care Subcommittee Chairman Jay Rockefeller.
There are two better explanations for Mitchell's surprise announcement. (1) He knew he wasn't going to get it. (2) He didn't want it.
I can accept either. (1) The Clinton White House has a track record of making the public believe someone is a cinch when he isn't. Remember Mr. Justice Mario Cuomo? Mr. Justice Stephen Breyer? Remember Attorney General Kimba Wood? (2) Why in the world would Mitchell prefer to be the junior Supreme Court justice when he can be commissioner of baseball? The latter job pays six times the former, plus great perks (office in hometown Portland, office and apartment in Manhattan). It's not hard being baseball commissioner, whereas a Supreme Court justice can put in long hours.
With Mitchell out, the searchlights are focusing on blacks, women and Hispanics. Especially Hispanics, since there already are two women and one black on the nine-member court.
Most attention is directed at U.S. District Court Judge Jose Cabranes of Connecticut. He's a native of Puerto Rico, a Jimmy Carter appointee to the federal judiciary. A Yale and Cambridge man.
Perfect resume. Not! The last thing this Supreme Court needs is another ex-judge. Cabranes would make the lineup eight former judges of nine total. The old tradition of appointing pols to the high court needs to be resurrected.
The best known Hispanic pols today are, probably, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros and Secretary of Transportation Fedrico Pena. Cisneros has been getting rave reviews, in D.C., just as he more or less did when he was mayor of San Antonio.
Pena has been getting a lot of criticism in D.C., just as he did when he was mayor of Denver. But Pena has one advantage Cisneros lacks: he's a lawyer. There is no requirement that justices be lawyers, but every justice has been one, and lawyer Clinton is not likely to break the tradition.
But it doesn't have to be Pena. There are several Hispanic lawyers in Congress (including Texas' Rep. Frank Tejeda who not only has Harvard and Yale Law on his resume, but is a Vietnam War hero who formed Veterans for Clinton when Bill really needed such a friend).