The Magazine

The Seemliness Issue

What fired up Republicans? New Jersey, the judges, a tasteless funeral, and the odor of Clintonism.

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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DIFFERENT AS THEY ARE, these three things all have something in common, at least for conservatives. They raise what we can describe as the seemliness issue, the issue of decency. They are all cases where the Democrats tried to play smashmouth, blithely bent the law, took too much advantage of loopholes. They were too clever by half, too greedy by half, too eager to dispense with all courtesies. Most Americans don't like to see their judges vetted and vetoed by NARAL; they don't like to see judges trashed at the bidding of NARAL; and they don't like to see people trolling for votes at a funeral. The word for it all is Clintonian.

Clinton himself took a huge hit on Tuesday, sinking his reputation as a political rock star and mastermind. Everywhere he campaigned he left a trail of defeated candidates. He went to Florida to get revenge on Jeb Bush, who seemed to be in a squeaker. After he left, Bush opened a large lead. Clinton's beaming face at Paul Wellstone's memorial also went a long way toward sinking Walter Mondale, and helped feed the backlash. (This also should put an end to the great debate stemming out of the 2000 election, namely: Could Clinton have won it for Gore if Gore had used him? The answer is in now: It's no.)

The blowback from the rally appeared overnight, but other effects were long term and more subtle. Bush could make few direct hits at the people who shot down his judges, who were from safe states, or near the start of their tenure. But he could use them against vulnerable candidates running in key races in other parts of the country, saying that the Democrats there would be part of the system that gave the Leahys and Schumers their power. Did this work as an issue? Ask Ron Kirk, who was regarded as a bright rising star in the Texas Democratic party. Kirk suffered when he failed to stand up for Owen, who is also a native of Texas. Kirk is now history, having lost his race for the Senate by 12 points.

Kirk, of course, never got to vote against Owen, but he paid the price anyhow. So did some others. When the Judiciary Committee took down Mississippi's Judge Pickering, Georgia Democrat Zell Miller took to the floor of the Senate to warn that this vote would cost his party the statehouse in Mississippi. He didn't know the half of it. Last Tuesday, the issue helped bring down Miller's fellow Georgia Democrats Governor Roy Barnes and Senator Max Cleland. Like Kirk, Cleland didn't vote on the judges, but his place in the Senate's Democratic majority had helped make it possible. Bush could not hurt Leahy in Vermont, Schumer in New York, or Feinstein in California, but by taking down Cleland and fending off Kirk, he could push them all back into minority status, where they now have less power. Cleland took the hit for the work of the Leahys and Feinsteins. Nobody said life is fair.

Midterm elections can turn on turnout, and on turnout Republicans won. By all accounts, they were raring to get to the voting booths. According to a Gallup poll on Monday, November 4, 64 percent of Republicans said they were "very eager" to vote, while only about half of Democrats did. And what had them so worked up? Judges and arrogance; New Jersey and Wellstone; a long, long parade of in-your-face crassness, going back in time to the Clinton era, and threatening to continue in the future. For the moment, at least, this tide has been halted. Call it nemesis, call it comeuppance, call it sweet beyond measure. And call it Judge Owen's revenge.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.