Two little words – ‘judges’ and ‘vetoes’

As the general-election campaign begins, one critical question is whether both parties will be able to unify around their nominees. Will dissidents swallow their grievances and back their standard-bearers in November?

History and logic suggest the answer will be yes. And this year the most powerful reasons for unity can be summed up in two little words – judges and vetoes.

The powers of a president are sometimes hard to quantify. How do you measure the role of the bully pulpit, the ability to set an agenda and mobilize public opinion? And when a president loses credibility – as the current incumbent demonstrates – his influence shrinks with his popularity ratings.

But even the most derided president retains two basic constitutional powers: to make appointments and reject legislation. And that fact will – or should – be enough to convince all but the most disillusioned diehards to get on board.

The process of reconciliation will take time. Wounds suffered during the primary season are still fresh. In many states, about one-third of all Hillary Clinton supporters said they would not vote for Barack Obama, and resentment is particularly raw among female voters who felt their candidate was denigrated and derailed by ingrained sexist attitudes.

They have a point. Voters (and many TV commentators) seemed far more tolerant of words, descriptions, jokes and cartoons ridiculing Clinton’s gender than Obama’s race.

Democrats were also victims of their own success, producing two compelling candidates who promised supporters they would make history – as the first woman, or first black, to win a major-party nomination. Obama and Clinton were virtually identical on issues and ideology, so Hillaryland is not nursing grievances rooted in policy. But history, and identity, elicit far deeper emotions than, say, marginal differences between healthcare plans.

Republicans have the opposite problem. They barely produced one magnetic candidate, let alone two. It’s hard to imagine supporters of Fred Thompson or Rudy Giuliani sulking in their beer, convinced McCain used unfair tactics to unhinge their landmark candidacies. In GOP ranks, the most ardent dissenters are motivated directly by ideas and ideology, not identity.

McCain has a long history of tense relations with the Religious Right – he once called their leaders “agents of intolerance” – and a leading voice in evangelical ranks, Dr. James Dobson, has said he could never support the Arizona senator.

But if unity won’t happen immediately, it will eventually. And when Obama woos liberal feminists, and McCain appeals to conservative Christians, they will both invoke the same two names: John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

McCain has already emphasized that he will select judges modeled after the two men elevated to the High Court by President Bush, and he is shrewd to do so. No issue matters more to conservative Christians than the composition of the court, which often adjudicates the issues they care about most, from sexual behavior to religious expression.

Liberals care about the same issues, but they have a long list of additional concerns that could come before the court in the years ahead, from the rights of workers and prisoners to the rules on wiretapping.

The two Bush appointees have tilted the court to the right, but it is still roughly balanced between conservative and progressive wings with Justice Anthony Kennedy in the middle. Change is clearly coming (Justice John Paul Stevens is 88), and the new president could reshape the court for a generation.

And it’s not just the Supreme Court. One of President Reagan’s strongest legacies was filling the lower courts with younger and more conservative appointees, and many of those Reagan-era judges will be vacating their posts during the next presidency.

Democrats will continue to hold majorities in both houses of Congress next year. But they have already learned how hard it is to enact a program opposed by a president willing to wield his veto. One example: More federal money for stem-cell research commands broad bipartisan support, but sponsors could never overcome the president’s staunch opposition. And both sides know that a President Obama would sign measures to draw down the Iraq mission that a President McCain would surely reject.

Yes, there will be holdouts. Some wounds will remain unhealed, some grudges not forgiven. Some voters will be lured by the inane illusion that defeat is better than victory, and that next time, their chastened party will produce the ideal nominee.

But most voters will – or should – understand a basic truth of politics: Elections have consequences. And two words, judges and vetoes, make that clear.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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