Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Edward M. Kennedy, the 73-year-old liberal lion of the Senate, did not so much roar as huff and puff Tuesday, as he faced Judge Samuel Alito. He and other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who had spent weeks preparing for Alito's Supreme Court confirmation hearing seemed to be shooting blanks at President Bush's nominee.

Sen. Kennedy appeared to have lost his fastball in the 19 years since he eviscerated nominee Robert Bork. But Alito is a deceptively more difficult target. While Bork appeared a flamboyant scholar eager to expound his worldview, Alito came over as a cautious lawyer dealing in fine print and footnotes. Republican senators had feared the nominee's uninspiring style would undo him, but they now feel it actually carried the day.

Failure to make a direct hit on Alito suggests a transcendent defeat for the Democratic judicial confirmation strategy crafted by Kennedy. It did not block all conservatives for appellate courts and failed to dissuade Bush from naming conservatives to the Supreme Court. To stop Alito required an auto wreck at this week's hearings, which always was unlikely considering his style.

It was not that Teddy Kennedy did not try his best on Tuesday. His legal aide, James Flug (an expert on judicial assassination), had stocked the senator with multiple scripts. But Kennedy seemed bogged down with his material, flitting from one subject to another, without focus. That seemed a generic problem for most Democratic senators. Sen. Joseph Biden spent 11 minutes in the preamble before he got around to his opening question.

Republicans were amused at Democrats stressing Alito's membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) because of the organization's alleged fight against admission to the university of women and African-Americans. Alito testified he could barely remember his connection with CAP, but said he joined to protest Princeton's expulsion of the ROTC from campus.

What had worried Alito's strategists in advance was a concerted attack on his civil rights decisions that might erode support among moderate Republicans. But Alito's bland, lawyerly style prevailed when Biden raised the 1995 decision on a lawsuit by Barbara Sheridan against the DuPont Co. charging sex discrimination. Alito was outvoted 11 to one when the court ruled in Sheridan's favor. "After listening to Alito," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, "you think the other 11 judges missed the boat."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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