Video: SCOTUS Special Interest
updated 7/6/2005 12:05:46 PM ET 2005-07-06T16:05:46

In an interview with "USA Today," on Tuesday -- President Bush's first since Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement  -- the president said this about the looming White House political battle, "I would hope that the groups involved in this process, the special interest groups, will help tone down the heated rhetoric and focus on the nominee's credentials and philosophy."

Mr. Bush also defended Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has been attacked by the right as being too liberal for the Supreme Court.  The president told "USA Today": "Al Gonzales is a great friend of mine.  I'm the kind of person, when a friend gets attacked, I don't like it.  We're lucky to have him as the attorney general and I'm lucky to have him as friend."

'Hardball' guest host Andrea Mitchell talked on Tuesday with by leaders of two of the most active groups on either side of the battle.  Ralph Neas is the president of the liberal group People For the American Way, and Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. 

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the interview, click on the "launch" button to the right.

ANDREA MITCHELL:  Mr. Perkins, the president says, cool it.  Cool the rhetoric and stop attacking his good friend.  You've been quoted as saying that you think Alberto Gonzales has a great future as attorney general, a very pointed reference to the fact that he is not someone that you would like to see on the Supreme Court.  Are you going to back off and can you accept Alberto Gonzales as the president's possible nominee? 

TONY PERKINS:  Well, I would agree with the president, that the rhetoric does have a tendency to get out of hand.  What we need to focus on is the process, that we have the president here, who has been reelected-has been reelected on large part because of his commitment that he is going to nominate justices along the line of Scalia and Thomas.  The American people put him back in office in large part because of that. And we need to focus on the process.  These nominees need and deserve an up-or-down vote.  And that's the way the process should work. 

MITCHELL:  But you haven't answered the question, whether or not you will now be more open-minded about Alberto Gonzales.  You ruled him out over the weekend. 

PERKINS:  No. As the president said, we're lucky to have him as attorney general.  He has done some things that are very important to us.  Announced an initiative to crack down on pornography and obscenity.  We would like to see him follow through on that.  We have be gotten into the process of the name game, of naming this candidate being acceptable or that candidate. 

MITCHELL:  Yes.  But you've pretty much ruled out Alberto Gonzales.  You've drawn a hard line, a red line, against him. 

PERKINS:  We have said-no.  We have said that the president committed to nominate justices along the lines of Scalia and Thomas, with that type of judicial philosophy.  That's what we support.  And that is what we'll work to see accomplished. Until the president makes that kind of nomination, we are not going to say anything about the prospective nominee. 

MITCHELL:  Well, "The National Review," a conservative publication, said in an editorial that, if Alberto Gonzales were the nominee, they would be appalled and demoralized.  Ralph Neas, does that reaction against Alberto Gonzales make him someone you could support? 

RALPH NEAS: It's been amazing, the last three or four days, how the right wing has first attacked Sandra Day O'Connor, after attacking and threatening to impeach Anthony Kennedy.  These are two Reagan mainstream conservatives.  And then, in the last several days, they've been attacking Alberto Gonzales, another conservative, a close friend of the president.  I think when the president was talking about toning down the rhetoric, he was addressing his friends on the radical right. 

With respect to Alberto Gonzales, we do have some problems with him, especially with respect to his counsel to the president on Abu Ghraib and on the detainees and his memos to Governor Bush back in the 1990s.  He has not exactly demonstrated a real healthy respect for the rule of law.  However, we have not, unlike the right wing, taken a position. 

We think that-that the Senate is going to have to exhaustively examine the public record of Alberto Gonzales.  And the hearings, with all due respect to groups along the political spectrum, are the most important part of advise and consent.  And it will be fascinating to see what his answers would be to a range of civil liberties questions, civil rights questions.
What we would like is a nominee in the mold of Sandra Day O'Connor, fair, a woman of courage, a woman of common sense, very unpredictable.  We did not always agree with her.  That's for sure.  But I'll tell you, she was the fifth and deciding votes on a range of decisions protecting reproductive health and privacy, protecting clean air and clean water, equal opportunity, separation of church and state. 

If she is replaced with someone in the mold of Scalia and Thomas, the way Tony Perkins puts it, a right-wing conservative, more than several dozen precedents will be overturned.  It would be a constitutional catastrophe.

MITCHELL:  With all due respect, the rhetoric has been as tough and as partisan on the left as on the right, maybe not from you, but certainly from others.  For one thing, Senator Kennedy said that he felt that it was really a matter for the president to come up with a consensus candidate.  There's nothing in the Constitution and there's nothing in advise and consent that says that president should do more than consult with Democrats or with the opposition party. 

NEAS:  Well, the Senate and the president have a co-equal constitutional responsibility with respect to lifelong federal judges.  Of course the president can ignore the Senate.  What Senior Kennedy is doing is exactly what conservative Republican Senator John Warner, ex-conservative Senator Alan Simpson said over the weekend.  Let's not have a fight.  Let's not have a polarizing battle.  The country is at war.  We have a war on terror.  We have got tremendous domestic economic challenges. 

Let's get a unity candidate.  Let the president be the uniter, rather than a divider. ... At this time -- at this time in our nation's history, we need the president to bring the country together in someone that everyone can support, not just Tony Perkins and the radical religious right. 

MITCHELL:  Let's let Mr. Perkins get into it. ... Mr. Perkins, what about a consensus candidate?  Would you support someone who is a mainstream moderate conservative, whatever that means? 

PERKINS:  Yes, whatever that means.  Well, first off, this is not a partnership between the president and the Senate.  It is not co-equal.  The president nominates and then the Senate gives their advice and consent.  The idea that the president has to sit down and confer with members of the Senate before he even makes a nomination is found nowhere in the Constitution. 

You see, why the stakes are so high in this battle is because folks on the left, like Ralph and others, realize that they have no other hope to push forward their public policy agenda but through the courts.  They have lost in the legislative branches, election after election.  They've lost in the executive branch.  And so, the only hope they have is in the courts.  And so, they want, with Edward Kennedy and Charles Schumer, to keep this liberal stranglehold on the court that is forcing these policy initiatives on the people. 

MITCHELL:  You know, is this a bonanza for both of you guys, in terms of your organizations.  The left and the right are planning to spend $18, $20 million.  This is on the scale of a presidential campaign.  This is a way to get money for your organization and to mobilize your own bases, no matter what the outcome is. 

NEAS:  Andrea, we have not talked about money yet.  We hope there won't be a fight.  We don't want a fight.  If the president picks a fight, obviously, we're going to respond and strongly oppose...

MITCHELL:  Would you filibuster a Supreme Court nominee?

NEAS:  I don't think it is even ripe to even talk about a filibuster.  We don't have a nominee.  We hope there's not a fight.  We hope that the president will listen to the gang of 14, all the swing senators on the Republican side and on the Democratic side.  They said, let's consult.  Let's work out a bipartisan consensus candidate.  I hope that happens.

PERKINS:  What about the American people?

NEAS:  If that happens, then there doesn't have to be money spent by either side.  If there is a fight, of course we're going to raise money, so that we can get our message out to the American people, to the Senate, to the press, to the president. 

And we can never match Tony Perkins' deep pockets and the pockets of they radical religious right and the economic right.  But I think we can raise enough money to get our message out.  And we'll have the people power and a great team working on it. 

MITCHELL:  Well, you can guys can poor-mouth, but the first ads went up within an hour of the announcement of O'Connor's resignation or retirement.  Mr. Perkins, what about the amount of money that is going to be spent in this thing? 

PERKINS:  Well, I think there will be a lot of money spent, because the court has made itself the arbitrator or the decision maker for everything.

They have become the super-legislature.  And that, of course, brings all of the these issues into focus and the forefront.  And people realize that, when you have 5-4 decisions, as we've had on so many important issues, about the government snatching private property, you've got them coming down against the Ten Commandments just in the last two weeks. 
And so, people understand how important it is.  And whatever resources well, we will obviously bring to this, because so many of the issues we care about are decided by the courts, where it shouldn't be.  It should be decided by the legislative branch. 

But what we have, more than the money, are the constituents, the grassroots network across this country who really connect the dots.  They get it.  They understand what is at stake.  They are energized.  They will be engaged in this process.  

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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