The reason Democrats and liberals did not get more popular traction in their opposition to the appointment of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court is that their worldview of what constitutes a good nominee is sharply at variance with that of the American public at large.
To the likes of Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) et al., the Supreme Court is a kind of super-Congress — nine special Senate seats — and the criterion for confirmation is agreement with the nominee on the key issues likely to come before the court. But to the American voters, the Supreme Court is above politics and ideology and confirmation should be awarded based on personal attributes such as integrity, intelligence, judgment, compassion, wisdom, maturity, fairness and temperament.
Realizing this difference in perspective between the Democratic base and the public at large, President Bush has done very well with both the John Roberts and the Alito appointments. When his people forgot about the dichotomy — and nominated Harriet Miers who was seen as a poorly qualified if conservative candidate — they got their heads handed to them.
Of course, ideology is as important (if not more so) to conservatives as it is to liberals. But with the White House comes the ability to get men or women who share your ideology approved as long as they are objectively well-qualified. Bill Clinton learned that lesson when the Senate easily approved his nominations of moderate liberal Stephen Breyer and ultraliberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Republicans then, as with Democrats now, could not rally public opposition to a judge simply based on his or her ideology.
The Robert Bork nomination failed, ultimately, not so much because he was a conservative but because his opponents managed to cast doubts on his temperament by engaging him in harsh rhetorical exchanges during his hearings. Clarence Thomas was not seriously opposed because of his conservatism but as a result of the allegations of Anita Hill that he sexually harassed her.
The failure of voters to understand the role of ideology in court decisions seems to fly in the face of the knee-jerk conservatism of Antonin Scalia, Thomas and, during his tenure, Rehnquist and the automatic liberalism of John Paul Stevens and Ginsburg. But voters are not deluded; they simply do not see Roe v. Wade in quite the apocalyptic terms that both the left and the right do. To the vast middle of the American political spectrum, it is more important that a Supreme Court nominee be a good person with sterling credentials than be predictably for or against Roe v. Wade.