Something queer happened during Representative Christopher Cox's recent and unsuccessful quest for a lifetime appointment to the powerful 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Practically overnight, the Newport Beach Republican—whose voting record is among the most conservative in Congress—became a compassionate moderate with broad political appeal.
That's if you believe TheOrangeCounty Register.
"Cox is not a venomous right-winger," the paper editorialized on May 13, shortly after it was rumored that the Bush administration would name him to the federal bench. He's a "pretty conciliatory guy," who would be "a moderating force on the court, pulling it back to the center."
In fact, Cox is a notorious right-winger and much loved by conservatives. In the 2000 election, for example, such special interests as the American Conservative Union scored the seven-term congressman "100 percent perfect" based on his voting record. The Register itself has applauded Cox for hammering Democrats and their policies with a "monkey wrench"—something that might make him history's first armed conciliator.
But that was just one of three bizarre arguments the Reg has advanced in defense of Cox. In the end, none of them worked. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, placed holds on the congressman's nomination, which died in late May when Vermont Republican Senator Jim Jeffords left his party and gave the Democrats a one-vote majority in the Senate, where nominations must win a majority of votes. Cox may be pompous, but he's no fool: the Harvard Law graduate—who in the 1980s personally represented Orange County's biggest convicted swindler of elderly citizens—quickly pulled his name from consideration.
Still, it's instructive to follow the Register's tortuous twists in the Cox case.
Perhaps sensing the Cox-as-moderate makeover would be a no-go, the Reg moved on to a second, equally unbelievable (and inconsistent) claim: Cox deserves a judicial appointment because Newport Beach—California's whitest and richest Republican district—is "diverse, mainstream." It may have been the first time Orange County's largest paper has celebrated diversity, long a dirty word among the paper's all-white editorial staff.
The Register's third argument was its most absurd. According to the paper, "mere philosophical disagreements" with a nominee are not ethical grounds for blocking a president's nomination.
That represents a radical shift for the Register. While Bill Clinton occupied the White House and the Republicans owned the Senate, the paper encouraged the GOP to reject the Democrat's nominees on political grounds: Lani Guinier was too "radical," while Janet Reno was philosophically "ignorant."
But the most illustrative example of how the Register tailors its philosophy to fit momentary conservative aims is Bill Lann Lee, Clinton's choice as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1997. Though the paper has since argued that Feinstein and Boxer fouled by blocking Cox because of his conservative views, the paper claimed (preposterously) that Lee was a member of the "extreme fringe" because he "will resist change in federal preference programs."
The Registerdidn't stop there. Though some Senate Republicans reluctantly admitted that Lee was "professionally qualified" for the post, the paper called Lee a "token" and—playing to cheap stereotypes—asserted that the Chinese-American was unworthy of Senate confirmation because he is "sneaky" and "underhanded."
Go further back in time, and you can see still another shift in a hat trick of philosophical course corrections—a kind of flip-flop-flip. When Republicans ran the White House, the Reg was all for presidential prerogative. For example, in the cases of Robert Bork (for Supreme Court, 1985), John Tower (for secretary of defense, 1989) and Clarence Thomas (for Supreme Court, 1990), the paper bitterly railed against what it saw as unconscionable Senate "obstructionism" against Republican nominees. Every presidential nomination should win confirmation, the Reg argued, unless there is "evidence of incompetence, dishonesty or malfeasance." Perhaps we should call the paper's philosophy neither "conservative" nor "libertarian" but rather "convenient."