When Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, perhaps George Bush’s most corporately compromised judicial nominee, appeared early in 2003 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the most devastating line of questioning she faced did not come from one of the big-name inquisitors on a committee that includes a Kennedy, a Biden and a Leahy. Rather, Owen was taken down by a mild-mannered Midwesterner with a flair for discovering and exploiting the weaknesses of the Bush Administration and its judicial nominees. Could Owen identify any opinion she had ever written, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin inquired, “that was politically unpopular with the established power structure in Texas?” As Owen first asked Durbin to explain what he meant by “established power structure,” and then stumbled through a non-answer that ended with her grumbling about political correctness, you could hear the wheels falling off the bandwagon the Administration had tried to create to win approval for their nominee. Even conservative Democratic senators recognized that they were dealing with a conservative judicial activist whose elevation to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit would pose a genuine threat to justice in the Deep South, and joined a filibuster that ultimately led to the withdrawal of Owen’s nomination.
How did Durbin know that Owen could not answer even the most basic questions about her subservience to political and economic special interests? Because, to a greater extent than any other senator, he has taken seriously the fight against Bush’s most troubling judicial picks: carefully targeting the worst of them, mastering their records and developing lines of questioning meant to illustrate to other Democrats the necessity of rejecting them. “He doesn’t just try to score points,” says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, the coalition of progressive groups that has been at the forefront of challenges to the Administration’s strategy for reshaping the nation’s courts. “He zeroes in on the issues that matter most and then he just starts demanding answers.”
For the most part, Durbin’s filleting of Bush’s judicial nominees has been an obscure pleasure enjoyed mainly by Washington liberal activists who monitor the progress of judicial nominations. But that’s about to change. When the 109th Congress begins to address the Bush agenda in coming days, Durbin–an unassuming, 60-year-old everyman with a self-deprecating sense of humor, a willingness to share the spotlight and a penchant for skipping Washington parties to return to his hometown of Springfield–is quickly emerging as the most aggressive and progressive member of the Senate Democratic leadership. Durbin has challenged the Bush Administration on everything from judicial nominations to flu vaccine to torture at Abu Ghraib. He has hit the ground running with votes against Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales and Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice. And there is every indication that he intends to show Congressional Democrats how to be something they have not been since Bush assumed the presidency: an effective opposition.
Those who have followed Durbin’s twenty-two-year career as a member of the House and Senate argue with confidence that his election as Senate Democratic whip, the second-highest-ranking position in the caucus, was one of the few bright spots in the dark days following the 2004 election debacle. “If you believe in progressive politics, you have to be excited that Durbin’s where he is,” says David Axelrod, a veteran Democratic consultant who has run a number of Senate races and last year managed John Edwards’s presidential campaign.
The November 2 defeat of minority leader Tom Daschle opened the way for a long-needed reshuffling of the Democratic Party’s leadership in the upper chamber. Yet the move of Daschle’s lieutenant, Nevadan Harry Reid, into the minority leader position inspired little excitement; Reid is scrappier than Daschle, but his centrist tendencies, particularly on hot-button issues such as reproductive rights and gun control, have always marked him more as a manager than a marauder. The rise of Durbin holds out the prospect of the something extra that Democrats have been missing: an edgy willingness to battle the powers that be, not just in the Senate but in the court of public opinion. “It’s not an accident that Durbin is the whip. I don’t think he’s been elevated to be a mute,” adds Axelrod, who has known the Illinois Senator since the late 1970s. “Harry Reid is a more reticent player. Because Reid is who he is, it was incumbent on the party to have an advocate in leadership, and that’s Dick.”