In October 1987, Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court was defeated by a vote of 58-42. Yesterday, Samuel Alito was confirmed by the same vote. What accounts for the switch? Presidential popularity? No, Ronald Reagan's job approval hovered around 50% in the fall of 1987, about eight to ten points higher than George W. Bush's rating today. Shifts in public opinion? Most measures of public opinion have showed little change over the past nineteen years. In 1988 and 2004, the National Election Studies showed the exact same percentage of Americans calling themselves conservative (including those labeling themselves as "slightly" or "extremely" conservative): 32%. Personality? I guess Alito's civil-servant colorlessness beat Bork's law-professor contentiousness. Ideology? Alito expressed his conservatism more unabashedly than John Roberts did; not surprisingly, Roberts won the votes of 22 Democrats while Alito only got four -- still more than the two who backed Bork.
Only four Senators who voted against Bork voted for Alito: Robert Byrd (D-WV), Arlen Specter (R-PA), John Warner (R-VA). and Dick Shelby (R-AL). Byrd was Senate Majority Leader in 1987, but has voted conservatively on cultural issues for years. Specter is now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Warner is also a powerful committee chairman, both senators have faced serious primary challenges from conservatives. Shelby switched parties in 1995.
The biggest change that allowed for Alito's confirmation was the partisan realignment of the South. Twelve Senate seats from the South that were held by anti-Bork Democrats in 1987 now belong to pro-Alito Republicans:
State Anti-Bork Democrat Pro-Alito Republican
Alabama Howell Heflin Jeff Sessions
" Dick Shelby Dick Shelby
Florida Bob Graham Mel Martinez
Georgia Wyche Fowler Johnny Isakson
" Sam Nunn Saxby Chambliss
Kentucky Wendell Ford Jim Bunning
Louisiana John Breaux David Vitter
Mississippi John Stennis Trent Lott
North Carolina Terry Sanford Richard Burr
Tennessee Albert Gore Jr. Lamar Alexander
" Jim Sasser Bill Frist
Texas Lloyd Bentsen Kay Bailey Hutchison
Of course, the South was the story in 1987, too -- many observers were shocked that all but two Southern Democrats (Hollings and Boren) had voted against Bork -- this was widely seen as a testimony to the new-found clout of black Southerners. Interestingly, none of the four Democrats who voted for Alito represent the South. Instead, three hail from Republican-leaning states in the Great Plains -- Ben Nelson (NE), Tim Johnson (SD), Kent Conrad (ND) -- plus Byrd.
Five seats that once belonged to pro-Bork Republicans now are filled by anti-Alito Democrats: CA (Wilson / Feinstein), DE (Roth / Carper), MN (Durenberger / Dayton), NY (Schumer / D'Amato), WA (Evans / Cantwell). Seven non-Southern seats have switched from anti-Bork Democrats to pro-Alito Republicans: AZ (DeConcini / Kyl), ME (Mitchell / Snowe), MT (Melcher/Burns), NE (Exon / Hagel), OH (Glenn, Metzenbaum / DeWine, Voinovich), SD (Daschle / Thune). Six out of the seven are "red states;" three will be seriously contested this fall.