Terry Neal Responds

On Tuesday, we critiqued a column by the Washington Post’s Terry Neal. Neal’s column argued that both the Republicans and the Democrats are being hypocritical with respect to judicial nominations and the filibuster. He supported that claim in part by quoting a fragment of a sentence by Orrin Hatch, eleven years ago, where Hatch “said the filibuster tool should be used because ‘the minority has to protect itself and those the minority represents.'” In fact, we noted, if you read Hatch’s entire statement, he opposed use of the filibuster with respect to judicial nominations. Today we got an email from Mr. Neal:

Ordinarily I would be starting my regular weekly chat right now, but I’m off today for a three-day weekend, as my parents are visiting for Mother’s Day. So I won’t be online today. But I wanted to take a minute to respond to your blog. Below is a copy of an email I sent to Hewitt a couple days ago. I wrote a correction to my column earlier this week because clearly Hatch did not say the filibuster “should” be used. In my original text, I simply wrote that Hatch had noted that filibuster could be used by the minority to protect the interests of those the minority represents. In editing, the world “should” was added, and I didn’t do my due diligence to catch it before publication.
The larger point, and the one I was really trying to make, is that even though Hatch was clearly not supporting the filibuster in this particular instance, he was making the point that filibuster is something that could be used for a legitimate purpose. Today he argues that it is unconstitutional.
My critics have latched on to this point to suggest that it undermines the entire theme of the column, which is that both sides have been inconsistent. Given what I do, and the responsibilities that come along with it, I understand that people have a right to criticize. But the bottom line is, with or without the Hatch quote, the point still stands. Republicans now argue that all judicial nominees deserve a straight up or down vote. And many Republicans, including Bill Frist, voted against cloture in attempted filibusters of Clinton nominees in the ’90s. Republicans also used other measures, such as the hold, to successfully deny up or down votes. (As a side point, while Hatch did not support filibustering any Clinton judicial nominees, he did support a filibuster of at least one executive nominee.)
I am a columnist. I write from my perspective. And to me, these things seem inconsistent.
I think the charge of bias would be more accurate if I did not criticize Democrats for inconsistency as well or if I had only been critical of Republicans.
One final point. You and others have suggested that because I used a quote that some liberal websites have highlighted on their websites is proof of some sort of bias. I’d like to point out here that the Schumer quote I used was brought to my attention in an RNC email that was sent to reporters on April 12 under the subject “Senator Schumer’s Hypocritical Protest On Judicial Nominations.” Does the fact that I used a quote I pulled from an RNC press release prove I have a conservative bias? Journalists get quotes and information from the opposing side all of the time. I should have, however, been more diligent in checking the full context of both quotes and explaining that context. But the fact that I made a mistake in using the word “should” is not proof that I set out do do something nefarious. There’s not a journalist on this planet who has not occasionally made a mistake, and that’s what it was. We’re all human.
Take care and have a good weekend,

I responded as follows:

Mr. Neal, thank you for your civil and informative response to our blog post earlier this week. While it’s the nature of the beast, I suppose, that the tone of our commentary is critical, we are well attuned to the fact that everyone makes mistakes on occasion. I’ve certainly made my share. We’re glad to see that you’ll be running a correction.
On the broader issue of both sides’ hypocrisy, I agree that no one is spotless with respect to judicial nominations. The problem is one that started several administrations ago and has been getting steadily worse. I do think that there are gradations in the extent to which Senate obstructionism is blameworthy. One can argue that for a Senate majority to bottle up a nomination in committee isn’t quite as bad as when a minority filibusters a nominee. But I interpreted your column as basically coming down on the side of the Democrats, and I think you failed to give due credit to the Republicans, and specifically to Bill Frist, for proposing a compromise that would bring about a non-partisan bottom line: the proposition that every nominee gets a vote. Frist’s compromise would have ended not only the filibuster, but also the practice of holding nominees up in committee. But the Democrats wouldn’t go along.
That’s the bigger picture, but I wasn’t critical of your column for not agreeing with our overall perspective on the issue, but only for taking the partial Hatch quote out of context.
Have a good weekend, and thanks again for writing.

This is the correction the Post will be running:

An earlier version of this column erroneously reported that Sen. Orin Hatch said in 1994 that the filibuster tool “should” be used. Hatch described the filibuster as “one of the few tools that the minority has to protect itself and those the minority represents,” but he did not say that it “should” be used to oppose a federal judge’s nomination.

Whether the correction goes far enough is debatable, but it’s not a debate I have much interest in.
Whenever we express appreciation for the civility of an exchange with mainstream reporters and columnists, there are some who think we’re going soft. However, I am much more interested in having a constructive dialogue with mainstream journalists and others who don’t share our views than I am in conducting a flame war. If that’s going soft, I’m guilty.
UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt comments here; Hugh questions Neal’s characterization of Hatch’s position on the filibuster.


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