WHO'S WINNING IN WASHINGTON RIGHT now? Republicans, President Bush included. But they are winning ugly, and just barely. Actually, if success on Social Security reform is the yardstick, Republicans aren't winning at all. What changes the score is success on judges. Thanks to the Gang of 14 deal to save the filibuster, a parade of relatively young and attractive conservatives are now being confirmed for the federal appeals courts, putting them in position to be nominated later for vacancies on the Supreme Court.
When the agreement on judicial nominations was struck in May by seven Republican and seven Democratic senators, many conservatives agreed with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid that it was a victory for Democrats. They were wrong. Since the agreement, the three prime targets of Democrats--Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor--have all been confirmed, plus two other less controversial nominees. And more conservatives are in the confirmation pipeline. So while Bush's chances of creating personal investment accounts have faded, his goal of shifting the ideological tilt of the federal judiciary is closer at hand.
Considerable credit goes to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Without his pressure to enact the so-called nuclear option barring filibusters of judicial nominees, the deal leading to the string of confirmations would not have occurred. Also, the showdown over filibustering helped place the very idea of filibustering judges in an unfavorable light. This is especially significant with the likelihood of a Supreme Court vacancy (or two) this summer. Another result was to declare, as the Gang of 14 senators did, that the filibuster may be used to block a judicial nominee only in "extraordinary circumstances."
Who decides when these circumstances occur? The answer is Republicans. Reid said the nuclear option is "off the table." But it's not. Three Republican members of the Gang of 14--Mike DeWine of Ohio, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John Warner of Virginia--indicated they would vote for the nuclear option if Democrats filibustered a nominee who was a conventional conservative and not an extremist. Such a nomination would not constitute "extraordinary circumstances." And only two of them would need to defect from the Gang of 14 deal to pass the nuclear option.
The fight over judges showed again the fecklessness of Reid. He mischaracterized the upshot of the Gang of 14 deal because he actually believed it was a triumph for Democrats. Reid has scarcely any influence over the Senate Democratic caucus. Heavyweights like Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware don't follow his orders. Reid promised Frist he would deliver enough Democrats to prevent a filibuster of John Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations. He couldn't deliver. Reid is no Tom Daschle, who was an effective obstructionist.
Republicans have also been aided by Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, who has made himself a big issue. He has stereotyped himself as a trash-talking party chairman. And the press has responded accordingly. Reporters now look for him to blast Republicans in over-the-top language. Or they ask him to repudiate the harsh things he's already said. Rather than make a fool of himself, Dean is supposed to be raising money and expanding the party. He's failing at both.
In comparison, Ken Mehlman is doing exactly what he's supposed to as Republican national chairman. Mehlman spends much of his time proselytizing Hispanics and blacks. He makes no wild charges about Democrats. Interviewed on Meet the Press, he declined even to criticize Dean. Mehlman proves that a strategist is better suited to be party chairman than a politician who has held elective office. His top goal is enlarging the Republican coalition. Dean lusts after the roar of the crowd and thinks about what office he'll run for next.
At a White House meeting last week with Republican congressional leaders, the president made a confession. He's been promoting legislation to allow thousands of illegal immigrants to get green cards and work legally for three to six years in the United States. "I have not communicated this issue as well as I should have," he was quoted as saying. "I'm going to do better."
What Republicans on Capitol Hill want is for Bush to emphasize border security. At town hall meetings in the home districts of House Republicans, the problem of illegal immigrant crossings is a hot topic. House Republican whip Roy Blunt believes a few legislative steps are needed to pave the way for Bush's plan to let illegals work in the United States. One would be to tighten restrictions on hiring illegal aliens. Another would be to give employers access to information about an immigrant's legal status. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay favors even tougher legislation. In any case, the Bush plan is not a top priority in Congress for now.
Social Security reform, however, remains a priority, despite the president's inability to stir public support. His plan is in the same position tax reform was in 1986. It seemed to have no national constituency, but it had the backing of President Reagan and a few Democrats. Tax reform passed, cutting the top rate on individual income to 28 percent. Bush's hopes for overhauling Social Security now depend not on public enthusiasm but on "legislative maneuverings" in Congress, a White House official said.
That is shorthand for persuading a few Democrats to break with their party. Bush hasn't been able to recruit any and neither have Republican leaders. But they faced the same situation earlier, on judicial nominations, and look what happened there.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.