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Jersey heat would favor Lautenberg

By Brad Keena
web posted October 7, 2002

I've got news for you. Frank Lautenberg will be the next Senator from New Jersey.

Frank Lautenberg

It really was no surprise to learn the New Jersey Supreme Court had acted so quickly to order former Senator Lautenberg's name replace that of Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) on the ballot. While the ethically-scarred Torricelli was certain to lose that contest (trailing in one poll by as much as 20 points), his announced withdrawal from the race took everyone - even party operatives - by surprise. Pointing to state law forbidding such ballot "do-overs" so close to the election (absentee and military ballots have already been sent out), the GOP should normally have every hope of persuading the U.S. Supreme Court to keep Torricelli's name on the ballot.

"If the lower court ruling is allowed to stand, political parties will be encouraged to withdraw losing candidates on the eve of election, replacing them with candidates who have not gone through the rigors of the nomination process in hopes of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat," Republicans said in their petition to U.S. High Court.

However, this is 2002, not 2000. Justices read the newspaper. They remember the heat they think they got after their divided ruling against the Florida Supreme Court, disallowing a ballot recount, effectively deciding the contested 2000 election with a Bush victory. [In reality, the criticism they read in the news was merely the orchestrated complaints of a few vocal Democrats, all singing from the same page before the controversy-hungry media.]

The fear of criticism, however irrational, promotes just enough self-compromise among the weak to convert noble resolve into shameless capitulation. These are the cases that separate soldiers from sock puppets. [As Maggie likes to say, "This is no time to go wobbly!"] Thus, I believe the Supremes will have little stomach for overturning that ridiculous - albeit unanimous - New Jersey court ruling. Though I doubt the High Court will even touch this [Why get hit by controversy when you can duck and chuck the case right back to the voters?], if the Supreme Court does muster the courage to review the case, I predict the fear of criticism will overcome at least two justices, making the vote to uphold the New Jersey High Court decision, 6-3.

In the end, and whether the U.S. Supreme Court gets involved or not, Lautenberg will be on the ballot and he will win come November 5. So why even pass state laws in the first place if the courts can create their own laws? Of course, if the High Court did prove me wrong - and I've never been wrong before - one other course of action would guarantee Lautenberg's return to the U.S. Senate: a Torricelli resignation.

On that point, an Associated Press reporter I spoke with recently told me about Torricelli's response to a seemingly simple question. Knowing New Jersey law does allow the governor to appoint Lautenberg to the seat should Torricelli fully resign from office, the question was a rather obvious one: would Torricelli quit the office as well as the race? "You're irresponsible," Torricelli shot back to the reporter who asked the logical question.

Now it all becomes clear. This is not about Democrats controlling the Senate - at least not in Torricelli's mind. This is about heat. Immersed in near daily public criticism and, eventually, bad poll numbers, Torricelli had had enough. Remember, no one can stand him, not even those in his own party. Lautenberg, who by the way is a liberal dope, despises him. Now the voters, his party base, are telling him he stinks. Time to get out? Not so fast: even Torricelli would never allow himself the indignity of a resignation, no matter what the stakes.

And so we come full circle. Though he pulled out of the race for other reasons, Torricelli is obviously tired of the heat. The Supremes - most of them - are afraid of heat. Former Governor Christie Whitman is in dread of the heat she hasn't even gotten yet for having appointed six of those rodeo clowns to the Jersey High Court.

Heat works. It's an effective political tool. However, the question we should ask future public servants is not whether they can deliver heat, but, rather, whether they can take it. To that question, the correct answer is the difference between a soldier and a sock puppet.

Brad Keena can be reached at jbkeena@hotmail.com.

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