Last weekend on CBS's Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer asked Utah Senator Orrin Hatch -- the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee -- why liberal groups had so vehemently opposed the nomination of Judge Charles Pickering for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It's the kind of question Hatch has been getting a lot lately, but his response on this occasion was rather puzzling.
It's probably a bit much to ask Hatch, a Pickering supporter, to characterize his opponents' motives with pinpoint accuracy. (Among a number of prominent complaints, women's groups opposed Pickering's pro-life outlook; other activists claimed he had shown an unwillingness to follow judicial precedent.) Still, one might have expected something a bit more airtight than a sweeping -- and rather odd -- theory of regional antagonism. Pickering's appointment had been killed, Hatch submitted, because the judge's Mississippi background played into liberal activists' outdated fixation with Dixie (click here for a transcript):
Well, I think a lot of it comes down to they want to continue the Old South reputation. I think it is a branding of the whole South. They want to keep that up because by doing so they can rally their very liberal forces into a whole wide variety of ways.
Now, it's certainly true that many liberals do have a Mississippi Burning image of the South, and frequently find themselves wondering just how much things there have really changed. (Idea Log, being from New Orleans, certainly does.) But Hatch immediately undercut his regional interpretation by arguing that Pickering's background set him apart from his own Mississippi neighbors:
Here is a man who sent his kids to integrated schools, primarily African-American schools, at a time when other people in the South were avoiding public schools and going to private schools.
In other words, liberals do have a lot to worry about when it comes to the South. Thanks, Orrin.
And this was merely the beginning of Hatch's geographical bewilderment. He further suggested that, in contrast to down-home Mississippians who knew and supported the true, reconstructed Pickering, the judge had been opposed by "outside groups" that were "all Washington based."
Presumably Hatch meant liberal organizations like People for the American Way, which fought the Pickering nomination doggedly. But here again, the Utah Senator placed himself in something of a trap. Previous to denouncing liberal Washington groups, he'd noted that Pickering received a favorable review from the American Bar Association. This just happens to be an umbrella organization with a Washington office and presence (though it's centrally located in Chicago) that the right has taken to accusing of liberal bias in much the same terms as the other groups Hatch mentioned -- when they don't like what it says, at any rate.
Clearly, Hatch would have been better off defending Pickering on merit. As it is, these contradictions -- uttered within the space of little more than a minute -- give the impression that he isn't so much pro-Mississippi or anti-Washington as he is pro- those Mississippians and Washingtonians who took his side in the Pickering matter.
Granted, there was plenty of opportunism to go around in the Pickering matter, as befits any partisan fight. But if both sides were grasping for straws, Orrin Hatch seems to have drawn the shortest.