This is one of those days when it is hard to be a Godbeat blogger. Where do you begin with the ghosts in the stories about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr.? It is hard to cover the territory, even if you limit yourself to The Washington Post. Let's try to tiptoe through the minefield. But let me warn you right up front: I remain convinced that the key to this whole story is the old question, "Who gets to control the word 'moderate?'" This is a variation on the question I keep asking: If liberals are in favor of the status quo, which used to be called "abortion on demand," and conservatives support a complete ban on legal abortion, what do the "moderates" want?
Of course, we already know the MSM answer to these questions. Moderates want to maintain the legal status quo and so do liberals. Thus, there are no real liberals. There is no far left on the issue of abortion.
• For example, Michael A. Fletcher was assigned the "fire up the fundraising letters" story, in which activists on the far right and on the far middle gear up to raise money and support. But, behold, right there in the lead is the "L" word. No, not that "L" word, the other one -- "liberal."
Within two hours of President Bush's nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court yesterday, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way had e-mailed hundreds of thousands of its members, contacted journalists across the country and released a report on Alito's jurisprudence -- all in an effort to derail the nominee.
The conservative Third Branch Conference, meanwhile, spent the hours after the president's announcement happily planning ways to back Alito. In a conference call with leaders of about 75 right-leaning groups, the organization extolled Alito's conservative credentials and urged grass-roots support of his nomination.
The word "liberal" shows up again a few lines later and then again and again. In fact, does the word "moderate" appear at all? I didn't think so.
• But much more traditional language dominates the Charles Lane report with the headline "Alito Leans Right Where O'Connor Swung Left." That's a nice headline, by the way, if the issue is abortion (which it is). This report begins with the case everyone is talking about. Note the return of centrist/moderate langauge:
In 1991, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. voted to uphold a Pennsylvania statute that would have required at least some married women to notify their husbands before getting an abortion; a year later, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor cast a decisive fifth vote at the Supreme Court to strike it down. ...
The record is clear: On some of the most contentious issues that came before the high court, Alito has been to the right of the centrist swing voter he would replace. As a result, legal analysts across the spectrum saw the Alito appointment yesterday as a bid by President Bush to tilt the court, currently evenly divided between left and right, in a conservative direction. O'Connor "has been a moderating voice on critical civil liberties issues ranging from race to religion to reproductive freedom," said Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In this case, the centrist position is to defeat a restriction on abortion rights. What would the liberal position be? The story says that the court is, at the moment, perfectly balanced. Is that accurate, if the issue is abortion (which it is)? What would the court look like if it tilted to the left? How could it tilt further to the left on this issue?
By the way, Lane later reports this interesting information:
Alito struck down a New Jersey law that would have banned the procedure known by opponents as "partial-birth" abortion -- just as O'Connor did. His ruling, following the one O'Connor voted for, said the statute was unconstitutional because it did not include an exception for cases in which the woman's health was at risk.
• That important word "center" shows up again in a Dan Balz story on President Bush and the political right. Here we read:
Whether the upcoming battle, which is likely to focus heavily on the divisive issue of abortion, ultimately helps a president whose approval ratings are scraping 40 percent, and whose support among moderates and independents has plummeted even lower, is an open question -- and one hotly debated among strategists yesterday. Given the state of his presidency and party, Bush may have had no other choice than to name a Supreme Court candidate who would help to heal the divisions within the GOP coalition, even at the risk of further alienating voters in the center.
Here we go again. In most polls, one small camp of hard-core liberals wants an absolute right to abortion while a similar camp on the right wants to ban abortion altogether. In between is the mushy middle, consisting of people who resist a total ban but want to see abortion limited to one degree or another, depending on how a poll question is worded.
In other words, compromise is in the middle. Restrictions are in the middle.
But, to read Balz literally, the way to reach the center is by defending the legal positions taken by the left. Once again, the key question is this: What would it take to create compromise legislation on abortion, some stance between a complete ban and abortion on demand? If the key to this story is finding and defending the center, what policy is in the center?
• Here is one final example, right there in the headline of a report by Charles Babington: "As Democrats Lead Opposition, GOP Moderates May Control Vote."
We do not have to read far past the lead to see the dilemma facing reporters and their old-fashioned templates for this story. I am sorry if this is boring, but here goes:
Senate Democrats will lead the opposition to Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s Supreme Court nomination, but a handful of Republican moderates could ultimately decide its outcome, several analysts and lawmakers said yesterday.
The roughly half-dozen GOP senators who support abortion rights are scrutinizing Alito's dissent in a major 1991 abortion case. If they determine that his judicial record or his answers to questions signal a willingness to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, they will fall under heavy pressure to oppose him, said congressional scholars and analysts.
Again, we have the obvious question: What is the difference -- if abortion is the issue (which it is) -- between a liberal and a "moderate" Republican? If Roe is preventing compromise and compromise is the policy option that is located between the far right and the far left, how does one get to a "moderate" policy option without overturning Roe or radically redefining it?
I do think that some journalists, when they are making decisions about these kinds of style questions, need to do some more reading on the left and the right. Notice that both of these pundits support abortion rights. But both are seeking, well, moderation.