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Roberts’ Triumph, Abramoff’s Cesspool and a Big Experiment

Three topics today: John Roberts, Jack Abramoff and the Gulf (the domestic one).

First, on Roberts, who will soon be confirmed as chief justice of the United States. Democrats are going through an interesting debate over strategy on the Roberts vote, both in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. Many, including representatives of most of the liberal interest groups that have opposed Roberts, believe Democrats should vote in large numbers against Roberts, both because he has not answered enough questions and because it is the best way to convince President Bush that he better not mess with them by nominating an even more ideologically rigid conservative the next go-round. [IMGCAP(1)]

I find this logic baffling. Roberts is a conservative, but his failure to answer a slew of questions explicitly does not mean that he is masking some fiery ideology that would move him to the right edge of the court along with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. He is a class act, smart as can be and clearly has a judicial temperament. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Bush, Karl Rove and everybody else in and around the White House and Justice Department would conclude that a strong Democratic vote against Roberts will leave the president believing that if Roberts can’t pass muster with Democrats, there is nobody he could reasonably nominate, given his worldview, that would — so why bother nominating anyone but a fire-breathing conservative?

The best way to have some traction to put pressure on the White House to go mainstream in the replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is to have a big, broad vote to confirm Roberts. Then, if Bush goes in-your-face to Senate Democrats and nominates a more clear-cut rightie, such as Priscilla Owen, Michael Luttig, Janice Rogers Brown or Edith Jones, he clearly is choosing to be a divider, not a uniter, and abandoning an achievable consensus.

People who have worked with Roberts and watched him closely in the past two decades, including Democrats such as former Solicitor General Seth Waxman and scholar-journalists Jeff Rosen, Cass Sunstein and Stuart Taylor, have all concluded that Roberts is far more likely to be cautious, constrained and prudent than reckless, expansive and fiery. There are real questions, including how far he will go in enhancing executive power in a time of terrorism, and how much he will defer to Congress. But Bush is the president. He was re-elected as the president. He has the authority to nominate justices to the Supreme Court. Can anyone believe, under any circumstances, that he would nominate a justice to the left of Roberts?

Now on to Abramoff. Yet another shoe dropped on Monday in this ongoing saga: the arrest of the White House’s top procurement official on charges of making false statements and obstructing an investigation related to Abramoff and the General Services Administration.

Based only on what we know now, this whole matter stinks to high heaven. The official, David Safavian, accompanied Abramoff and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) on the now-infamous golfing trip to Scotland, and, according to the charges, apparently helped an unnamed lobbyist (guess who?) in his attempt to acquire GSA-controlled property.

As we in Washington shift our focus to a major preoccupation with post-Hurricane Katrina fallout, we have to remember that there are other big stories out there that could shake up Washington and Congress in a big way. The Valerie Plame investigation is one, which should be reaching some kind of conclusion within weeks. The various questions about House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) constitute another, now including new indictments against some of his close associates in Texas. The Abramoff case is another one, and for various reasons, it could potentially be the biggest story of them all.

It is growing increasingly clear that Abramoff’s behavior as a lobbyist set new levels for sleaziness and that he spread his tawdry net far and wide, roping in many Members of Congress, a number of high-profile conservative activists outside the government and now, it appears, even players in the executive office of the president. Federal investigators and prosecutors are not going to let go of this story and they have a trail of e-mails and documentary evidence, and also the likelihood that some of the figures in this sorry saga will turn on others to save their own necks or reduce their sentences.

It is a tale of arrogance, greed and venality that comes right out of the Gilded Age. It may well topple some major figures in Congress and others along the way. And it could be a catalyst for a broader populist reaction in the country.

But in the meantime, we will keep most of our focus on the aftermath of Katrina, and especially the huge reverberations that will flow from the president’s pledge in his speech. The sweeping call for reconstruction of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, along with the promise to make the area a new opportunity zone with dramatically different social policies and a new role for government, could provide a regional rival to the New Deal in its scope.

So begins the new era of big government conservatism. It will not be born easily. I have to believe that this ambitious plan, which will expand the size and role of the federal government, will be met with some stiff opposition and a heavy dose of skepticism by many conservatives. I have to believe that many if not most of the details will be challenged or opposed vociferously by the governors and mayors in the region, bringing the president’s goals into direct conflict with conservatism’s cherished obeisance to the 10th Amendment and the primacy of state and local governments.

I have to believe that the coming conflict over ballooning deficits, higher government spending and an economy slowed by high fuel prices will leave a lot of blood on the House and Senate floors. How will the Republican president and the Republican Congress reconcile the president’s call for offsetting spending cuts to pay for this reconstruction — and DeLay’s declaration of victory in the war on spending — with all the fat now gone? How can anybody believe either claim? Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.