Put that in your poll and smoke it

Don't like what the public thinks of the nuclear option? Blame the pollsters -- then hope that the public doesn't learn about your ties to white supremacists.

Published April 28, 2005 12:04PM (EDT)

What do you do if a poll shows that your political agenda is far outside the mainstream? If you're the far-right Family Research Council, you attack the poll, of course.

As we noted earlier this week, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that Americans oppose the Republicans' plan to prohibit filibusters of judicial nominees by a 66 percent to 22 percent margin. While the three-to-one margin in the Washington Post/ABC poll is greater than other polls have reported, the take-away message is the same: More Americans oppose the nuclear option than support it. That's what a Newsweek poll showed in March (57-32) and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed at the beginning of April (50-40).

But in a message to supporters, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins says that the Washington Post/ABC poll had it all wrong. "All that the poll showed was which side the two media giants are on," Perkins says. "Not once in the poll do the questions explain that what the Democrats are doing is both unprecedented and borderline unconstitutional."

Maybe that's because it isn't. Republicans filibustered Lyndon Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas to the Supreme Court in 1968, and Bill Frist himself voted in favor of filibustering against one of Bill Clinton's judicial nominees in 1996. Moreover, throughout the Clinton years, Republicans frequently blocked the president's nominees through the use of "blue slips" -- secret holds placed on a nomination by a single senator.

But Perkins has other complaints. He takes issue with the Washington Post/ABC poll because "the questions dealing with the unprecedented filibuster do not even mention the word 'filibuster,' leaving uninformed participants at a loss to what exactly the Democrats are doing." But the Newsweek and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls did use the word "filibuster," and they also showed public opposition to the nuclear option (a maneuver Perkins likes to call a "procedural rule clarification"). And one might argue that the ABC/Washington Post questions were too generous to the religious right. Rather than asking about the Republican plan to "cut off debate on judicial nominees" or "deny the minority party its right to filibuster" or "end more than 150 years of Senate tradition," the pollsters simply asked respondents whether they would "support or oppose changing Senate rules to make it easier for Republicans to confirm Bush's judicial nominees." And when pollsters described the Democrats' actions to date, they did so in a way awfully friendly to the Republican position. Rather than noting that the Democrats have blocked just 10 judges while allowing floor votes on 205, the pollsters focused only on Bush's appellate court nominees, saying that the Senate has "confirmed 35 appeals court judges while Senate Democrats have blocked 10 others." If we were Perkins, we'd be hard-pressed to complain about that phrasing.

But complain he does. Perkins says that the Republican National Committee has "internal polling numbers with much fairer questions which show the Democrats are on the losing side of the issue." Oh, really? When Republican senators were briefed on the GOP's internal polling last week, the word that leaked out was rather different: While the internal polls showed broad public support for the general notion that "well qualified" judicial nominees should get up-or-down votes, they also showed that 51 percent of the public opposes the nuclear option while only 37 percent supports it. Those numbers were enough to make a paragon of reason like Rick Santorum suggest that the Republicans might want to slow down on the nuclear option, but they apparently don't speak to Perkins and the Family Research Council.

Maybe that's because Perkins has other things on his mind -- like, say, a report in The Nation linking Perkins to white supremacists. The Nation says that Perkins addressed the Louisiana chapter of the nation's premier white supremacist organization four years ago and, as the campaign manager for a Republican Senate candidate, paid $82,000 to buy a mailing list from former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. Perhaps ABC and the Washington Post could work that into a polling question about the nuclear option.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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