WASHINGTON -- This week's vicious attack on Judge John Roberts by the abortion lobby was not really a desperate effort to defeat him against overwhelming odds. Rather, it is part of an intricate game that not only determines the occupant of one seat on the Supreme Court but can set its ideological course for the next generation.
The current hard count for Roberts is 60 senators. That would be more than enough to confirm him and barely enough to end a filibuster. But it is not enough to further the grand strategy for a conservative court. At least 70 votes for confirmation may be needed to make it comfortable for President Bush to name somebody at least as conservative as Roberts to the next vacancy, which soon may be in the offing.
The 30-second television ad aired nationally by NARAL Pro-Choice America this week claimed that Roberts as a young Justice Department lawyer supported bombing of abortion clinics. In fact, he worked on a brief intended to protect peaceful picketing. NARAL's approach was not meant to sway the Senate but to pick off nervous Democrats and perhaps a Republican or two, keeping Roberts as close to 60 votes as possible. The president and his closest advisers then would have to ask themselves: If a nominee as squeaky clean as John Roberts cannot do better than this, can we risk nominating another conservative for the next vacancy?
The stakes are enormous for U.S. government policy. George W. Bush seeks the goal that eluded Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush: a conservative Supreme Court extending into the future. That prospect is why conservative action groups, disappointed with George W. Bush, supported his re-election in 2004 and stick with him today. Similarly, the unprecedented filibuster strategy launched by Democrats to block Bush's appellate nominees was in fact intended to inhibit Bush in filling the Supreme Court.
Instead, Bush's opponents have been off balance for more than a month. They expected the first vacancy this year to be created by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, so that, at worst, one conservative would be replaced by another. The next surprise was the selection of Roberts, a conservative who is not easy to assault. With his confirmation unlikely to be blocked, both sides are concentrating on the next vacancy.