AS JUDGE SAMUEL Alito's confirmation hearings wrap up in the Senate, what sticks in my mind is that if this is a test of the supposedly refocused and reinvigorated Democrats, they have a long way to go.
Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway has been that troubles in Iraq, Republican ethics scandals, the revelations about electronic surveillance and high energy prices have given Democrats renewed confidence to act as the loyal opposition. Word was that liberal organizations have finally learned how to mobilize their members in the same way the Christian Coalition has done for years.
Yet with the Alito confirmation hearings, it was just more of the same.
For example, on the eve of the hearings, the Family Research Council's "Justice Sunday III" took place in North Philadelphia.
This was to be ground zero for the Moral Majority to flex its muscle. And that's just what they did. Hundreds of people packed the Greater Exodus Baptist Church and listened to leaders from all sorts of different backgrounds preach on about why confirming Judge Alito was important to the nation, and, according to them, changing the moral course we are on.
"Extreme liberal judges," Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell said, are "destroying traditional morality, creating a new moral code and prohibiting any dissent... The only way to restore this republic our founders envisioned is to elevate honorable jurists like Samuel Alito."
Each and every speaker, from the Rev. Herb Lusk to Sen. Rick Santorum were (excuse the pun) singing from the same hymnal.
Meanwhile, outside were fewer than 100 protesters, almost none as part of an organized effort.
Other than a couple of e-mails sent out by groups like People for the American Way telling people to show up for a protest, there was no other direction for those opposed to both the gathering itself and its message.
You have to applaud those who did show up for taking the time to come out and make sure the event inside the church did not go unchallenged. Yet, because of the lack of organization, each person outside the church had a different message, many of them uncivil and counterproductive. (One woman was carrying a sign that read, "F--- You, Falwell." Another read, "Focus on Your Own Damn Family.")
Some protesters expressed concerns about expanding presidential powers, while others said they were there because they wanted to show that Jerry Falwell didn't speak for all Christians. It was clear to me that, while not the fault of the individual protesters, the event outside the church was a disorganized ying to the well-told narrative yang inside the church.
Disheartened that those opposing Judge Alito and his far-right supporters had an opportunity to present a united front against the Falwell fest, I looked to the senators at the Capitol Hill confirmation hearings to make a much stronger case. After all, with all this new gumption they allegedly had, perhaps they would perform in such a way to get the American people to seriously weigh whether or not Judge Alito deserved to be elevated to the Supreme Court.
Boy, was I wrong.
Democratic senators rambled on, more interested in hearing their own theories on the Constitution and concerns about Judge Alito than they were in making him answer the tough questions.
Some exceptions arose, as they always do. Sens. Leahy and Durbin had bright moments, but Russell Feingold was the clear standout in both style and substance.
Joe Biden spoke at least eight times as much as Judge Alito during the senator's "question" period. He had a 400-word soliloquy that was all over the place, from supposed public puzzlement over some of the judge's decisions, a quip about the senator's son going to University of Pennsylvania, followed by the senator's recollection of speaking at Princeton.
Then, finally, he had an actual question about Judge Alito's recollections about being a part of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) - a radical-right group that, among other things, opposed women and minority representation in admissions.
Alito gave a quick 33-word answer saying he didn't recall specifics. Eagles Coach Andy Reid gives more detailed answers at his weekly news conferences. Biden then followed up with a "question" that was more than 1,300 words long!
This was pretty much the norm for most of the week among the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. They would make statements, Alito would nod and say, "Mmm-hmmm" every 30 seconds or so and then give a quick and non-substantive answer. Who could really blame him, knowing that the senator doing the questioning wouldn't focus on the lack of substance, but instead would go off and running on a rant again?
The behavior of the Democrats on the committee through the middle of the week was an odd strategy, given that, before the hearings, Democratic senators had stressed the need to hear detailed and specific answers on a number of issues, while strategists stressed that the Democrats' best chance at sinking the nomination was getting Judge Alito to hang himself with his own words.
Perhaps the strategy was to prevent Judge Alito from giving any detailed answers, and call for a vote rejecting him based on the lack of depth in his responses. It seems it would be quite easy for Republicans to counter this strategy by pointing out the fact that senators like Biden were all too eager to suck the air out of the room.
Post-hearing reaction from the Democrats was only marginally better. People for the American Way, in particular, sent out detailed critiques of the judge's answers every day, providing reporters covering the hearings with tons of good information.
But this was outweighed by the Democratic Senate staff whispering to the press that the Alito juggernaut was unstoppable. Is there any better way to dampen grassroots opposition than by saying their efforts are all for naught?
I was at the hearings, trying to judge everything for myself. I can say that, by yesterday, Senate Democrats seemed to realize the flaws in their strategy.
They began to ask Judge Alito more probing questions about two of the most controversial issues he faces - his opinions on executive power and his membership in CAP - or more acurately stated, his poor judgment in highlighting on a job application for what I can only surmise were political reasons an association which now, based on the records, appears not to be that strong.
But by then, it was too little, too late. Most of the public that could have been interested in weighing these issues had tuned out because of the air of inevitability that Democrats had put out there - or they were turned off by the kabuki theater that had gone on in the previous days. In the hearing room, when Democrats weren't giving Judge Alito tough questions, they were giving him judicial advice, bolstering the feeling that this was a done deal.
I point out these deficiencies in the opposition to Alito not because I've made up my mind on his nomination, but because hearing a fervent debate between the two sides, and hearing Alito have to defend himself and his past actions during the grilling of his life will help me make up my mind. It would also help Americans make up their minds on a multitude of concerns about him - from his views on civil rights to abortion to the environment to privacy to corporate vs. individual interests.
In a democratic republic, this type of debate is critical, so due public pressure can be placed on senators to vote the way their constituents want them to.
A CBS poll before the confirmation hearings showed that 70 percent of Americans felt they needed more information before they could form an opinion on Judge Alito. The bungling of the debate by Democrats has robbed the American people of that vital information for which they were asking.