As liberal and conservative lobbyists exchange bitter salvos in anticipation of President Obama's choice to succeed Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Vice President Biden must be experiencing deja vu.
Twenty-two years ago, then-Sen. Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, found himself in the national spotlight when President Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. The battle over Bork was joined almost the minute he was nominated.
Liberal advocacy groups branded Bork a right-wing extremist far outside the mainstream. Conservatives countered that the Appellate Court judge and former solicitor general had superb credentials and was a powerful advocate for judicial restraint.
"Once you are burned like that, your trust level goes down."--Kate Michelman, former NARAL executive director
Even though Biden worked to defeat the nomination, he had come to distrust the liberal activists in the run-up to Bork's hearings. The left-leaning advocates were just as unhappy with Biden in 1991, when Clarence Thomas won confirmation under Biden's chairmanship.
Today, that sour relationship may put liberal lobbyists at a disadvantage, as Biden is poised to play an important role in offering counsel to Obama. The vice president will also help the nominee navigate the Senate, where he served for 36 years.
It's not clear how Biden's lingering unhappiness toward the liberal advocacy community will play out, but it won't aid the activists in making their case to the White House for an unwavering liberal as a counterweight to the Court's conservatives.
The bad blood started in 1987 when Biden outlined his strategy for the Bork nomination to a coalition of liberal groups, including, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, the NAACP, and the National Abortion Rights Action League. The chairman stressed to participants that his words were for their ears only. "Look, this is how I am going to conduct this hearing, tactically and otherwise," he told them, as he recalled in an interview in 2005. "I am not asking your opinion. I am not asking your input. I respect your views. But I am here to tell you how I am doing this."
The next day, Biden read newspaper reports that he was following the liberal activists' game plan, as if he were their puppet. Clearly, some of those at the meeting had fed that story line to reporters. At a time when he was preparing a presidential run, Biden was attacked for trying to curry favor with leftist groups at the expense of fairness to Bork. He learned a lesson.
"That is why I have never since that day met with them -- not once," Biden said in the interview. "I will never do it.... My criticism of the groups is that they adhere to a policy that I refuse to subscribe to. They adhere to the policy that the ends justify the means."
Kate Michelman, NARAL's executive director in 1987, recalled in a recent interview, "He was offended by that incident, and I have to say I don't blame him for being upset. I understand, frankly, he would be wary of meeting with the groups again because it was a very difficult experience for him. Once you are burned like that, your trust level goes down."
Today, though liberal lobbyists won't say so publicly, they are just as wary of Biden, whom they contend seriously mishandled Thomas's nomination. Had he been more aggressive, they say, Thomas would never have been confirmed.
Michelman was among those disappointed by Biden's approach to the Thomas nomination. "It was badly managed, it was terribly done, and he was the chairman," she said. "It was not a bright spot in his career."
Still, Michelman maintains confidence that Biden will weigh in with Obama in a positive way that should reassure the Left. "What I don't have any question about with Joe Biden is his commitment to a Court and to judicial nominees who will protect our rights. He is dedicated to that, and I think it is one of the legacies that he wants to leave -- even with Clarence Thomas."
Despite such confidence, liberal activists' anxiety about Biden extends to a certain degree to Obama, who, they fear, might be tempted to avoid choosing a controversial, surefire liberal nominee so as to avoid complicating the rest of his ambitious agenda. After all, a bitter battle over a judicial nominee can have long-lasting reverberations. Just ask Biden.
This article appears in the May 9, 2009, edition of National Journal.