I yield to no one in my despair about the U.S. Senate and the general gridlock of American public life. But I was surprised by this line in today's Politico story, about the Senate's vote yesterday to confirm Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court:
Though it confirmed her Thursday as the newest justice by a 63-37 vote, Kagan has the dubious distinction of receiving one of the lowest total of "yes" votes for a nominee during the past three presidencies -- and the lowest number of confirmation votes ever for a justice picked by a Democrat.
Let's think for a minute about this comparison. "Past three presidencies" takes us back deep into the dawn of time, all the way to the beginning of the Bill Clinton administration. Through that period there had been a total of six nominations before Kagan's, and five confirmation votes. The difference is the nomination of Harriet Miers, by GW Bush, which generated enough opposition that it was withdrawn before a vote. Of the five votes, three were laughers -- 96-3 for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 87-9 for Stephen Breyer, and 78-22 for John Roberts. One was comfortable but not a runaway, 68-31 for Sonia Sotomayor. And the other was narrower than Kagan's. Samuel Alito got through only 58-42 -- what we would call a "defeat" under the grossly abused "it takes 60 votes to do anything" practice of the modern Senate. So another way to write the paragraph above would be, "of the six nominees preceding Kagan, four went through the Senate with much bigger margins than she did, and two did not."
If we went back one administration further, we would see George H.W. Bush's (unfortunate) nomination of Clarence Thomas getting through by only a 52-48 vote -- again, a "defeat" by modern standards. Before that, Ronald Reagan had one nominee (Douglas Ginsburg) withdraw before a vote, and another (Robert Bork) outright defeated, 42-58. Richard Nixon had two straight nominations also outright defeated, 45-55 for Clement Haynsworth and 45-51 for Harrold Carswell.