Sen. Patrick Leahy has set himself on a course that will link him to the legacy of another famous name from the Senate’s past – Joe McCarthy. Like the infamous McCarthy, Leahy does not shy away from deception and he does not hesitate to slander. Like McCarthy, Leahy is an extreme ideologue with a fervent following urging him on.
And like McCarthy, Leahy is both excitable and, as is increasingly obvious, not really very bright.
Leahy and his allies will reject the comparison, of course, and will tell each other that their record on the Bush judicial nominees, though hardball, is nothing like Tailgunner Joe’s attacks on the State Department. They will tut-tut at the idea that anyone with such noble intentions – keeping the Judiciary safe from suspect nominees – will ever end up in the same breath with the bully from Wisconsin.
But the record of Leahy’s abuse of the confirmation process is setting in stone as the Senate prepares to depart for its summer recess. Leahy made promises last year – and again this spring – about hearings for people like Miguel Estrada. Promises he has broken. And Leahy continues to assert that his record as chairman of the Judiciary Committee is an exemplary one, but the facts keep proving themselves stubborn things. Leahy seems to believe that if he can fool RollCall and the editors of the New York Times, then he will be successful in fooling history, but the numbers are undeniable.
In the first two years of his presidency, Bill Clinton had 89 percent of his circuit-court nominees confirmed. Presidents Bush and Reagan, in their first two years, had in excess of 95 percent of their circuit-court nominees confirmed. The current president has had 34 percent of his nominees to the federal appeals bench confirmed. Nothing Leahy says or writes can change this single key fact: Leahy is leading an unprecedented blockade of the Bush nominees. Those he does allow to have a hearing – Pickering, Smith and now Owen – he savages in a despicable fashion. It is nothing short of shameful, and it is a stain on the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee that they are sitting silently by and some are even joining in.
Leahy tried to compare himself to the Senate that stopped the FDR court-packing plan and incites laughter among his colleagues. Leahy tries to argue that the delays of the Bush circuit-court nominees have their predicate in the abuse of Clinton nominees, but the blue-slip wars of the Clinton years were at least rooted in old senatorial traditions, not in the abuse of the hearing process by the chairman. And he ignores the American Bar Association which has given most of the sequestered nominees the highest ranking available.
Leahy even has the audacity that Joe McCarthy could summon at a moment’s notice. Leahy joined his colleagues in condemning the Pledge of Allegiance decision, even as the Ninth Circuit’s vacancy crisis went unresolved. With Leahy, the only thing that matters is his own sense of power. Consistency and allegiance either to the Senate’s traditions or to the American belief in fair play matter not at all. If Leahy needs to break a promise, the promise is broken. If he needs to distort the numbers, the books are cooked. In ways large and small, obvious and subtle, he is the very spirit of Joe McCarthy returned to the chamber that eventually summoned the courage to censure the Wisconsin demagogue.
When the Senate voted to censure McCarthy in December of 1954, it acted in the aftermath of national disgust that grew out of McCarthy’s attacks on the Army. Television revealed to the country that the senator was out of control and unfair, in large and small ways alike. McCarthy lost touch with public opinion and came to believe that he was above the essential American virtues of fair play. He lost touch with the country.
Leahy has entered this land of bizarre assertion and twisted logic, and the fall is coming. The Owen hearing of last week was just the latest episode in Leahy’s erratic behavior. Conservatives and increasingly moderates and fair-minded liberals recognize that the Leahy tactics are taking the confirmation process to a new low of bitterness and setting the stage for a paralysis that may not be repaired for decades – and doing so in a time of war. Contributions are pouring into GOP senate campaigns (Thune, Coleman and Talent) in response to Leahy’s recklessness – and his Democratic colleagues are noticing.
The key question is which Democrat will have enough of a sense of honor to call Leahy on his abusive behavior, and to do so publicly? The press has begun to notice, but it is a sad commentary on Senate Democrats that not one among them has publicly risen to call Leahy on his conduct. In this regard, they reveal themselves to have much, much less political courage than another former senator, Richard Nixon, who seeing that McCarthy had gone far beyond responsible behavior, took the lead in bringing him down.
The Leahy-McCarthy parallels will sharpen over the next few months until November’s elections either retire him from the chairmanship or embolden him to new recklessness. It is hard to imagine Leahy pulling himself back from the brink of a historical legacy of shame, but even his partisan opponents should hope that he does.