But very little that happened during Alito’s three days of testimony should have come as a surprise to the Democrats. The senators knew Alito was going to dodge direct answers to questions about Roe v. Wade and other hot-button issues. They knew the right would rally its extensive media and grassroots operations, even lining up people to cheer Alito when he arrived on Capitol Hill (much as they did for Oliver North during the Iran-Contra hearings almost two decades ago).

The Democrats must have realized that the mainstream media would focus on the most trivial aspects of the hearings—as well as on the windiness of the senators’ long-prefaced questions. The only hope to change those dynamics would have been to present a strong alternative narrative. That alternative narrative could have been how the right has spent three decades steadily building its infrastructure and clout to consolidate ideological control around an Imperial Presidency held tightly in Republican hands and endorsed by a restructured Supreme Court….

By undergoing rhetorical liposuction, the Democrats also might have trimmed down their flabby speechifying and instead posed pointed question after pointed question to Alito, eventually making his refusal to answer questions the central issue of the hearings, not their own bloviating.

Does the president have the right to override the McCain amendment and order the torture of detainees? What point is there in Congress passing laws if Bush, as the “unitary executive,” can simply declare them meaningless? What would Alito do if Bush announced that he would begin ignoring Supreme Court rulings?

Since the “unitary” theory holds that independent regulatory agencies must cease to exist, should the president have total control over a revamped Securities and Exchange Commission? If one of his contributors is caught up in an accounting scandal, should the president have the power to order the SEC to look the other way?

If a media outlet criticizes the president, should he have the power to order the Federal Communications Commission to cancel the station’s broadcast license? Would it be okay for Bush to give the license to a political ally or a campaign contributor?

Since you, Judge Alito, have long promoted the theory of the “unitary executive,” where are the boundaries of the president’s powers? For the duration of the war on terror, are there any meaningful limits on the president’s right to do whatever he deems necessary? Judge Alito, how do you differentiate between a system run by a “unitary executive” and a dictatorship?

Clearly, Alito would not have answered these questions. He would have fallen back on his ritual response of declining to comment about issues that might eventually come before the Supreme Court. But many Americans would have been shocked by Alito’s refusal to stand decisively on the side of a traditional democratic Republic and against an autocratic regime. It also might have dawned on millions of Americans what’s at stake in this debate….

At a time when many rank-and-file Americans are alarmed that the Constitution and the continued existence of a democratic Republic are in jeopardy, they see congressional Democrats more concerned about avoiding unpleasant confrontation than leading the fight against encroaching authoritarianism. Some Democrats, like Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, seem to think their chief purpose in Washington is to be on as many network talk shows as possible, a goal that requires them not to be seen as too extreme or strident in their criticism of Bush or his administration…

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