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Democrats, Winning, and Clarence Thomas

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Are Congressional Democrats secret Republicans? You'd think so if you listen to what they do about Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

How else explain their long silence since Justice Thomas' January confession to perjury -- following a complaint detailing said perjury to the Judicial Conference of the United States, filed on January 21st by watchdog groups Common Cause and the Alliance for Justice? How do you explain their silence about his, and his wife's, glaring conflicts of interest?

Is this really the run-up to the 2012 elections?

Even given that successfully impeaching Thomas in a Republican House is a non-starter, Justice Thomas is a gift to the Democrats this election -- a golden opportunity to hammer on the notion that republics like ours are built on laws, not men, and that a principle good enough to impeach President Clinton is good enough for a man with the Constitution in his hands.

And yet: "There's not a lot of appetite to take this issue up in the House, and in the Senate, there's absolutely no appetite for it," says one Washington insider.

What you get instead is a lot of whining. "This was an issue that was a priority for (Rep. Anthony) Weiner, but it's not an issue my guy is forward on," says a senior aide to a ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "He thinks it's an important issue, but not one he where wants to take the lead; members of Congress claim issues and Weiner was leading on this -- it's just how things are done around here."

Stuff and nonsense, says the Washington insider. "They were pretty quiet about it before Weiner imploded" in a flood of Tweets.

Rep. Weiner had been making much hay about Justice Thomas in the weeks after the Common Cause letter to the Judicial Conference, a complaint to the Missouri Bar Association by citizens group Protect our Elections (Justice Thomas is a member of the Missouri Bar), a good deal of press coverage on the subject, and, finally, his March 1st introduction, with Rep. Christopher Murphy (D.-Ct.), of HR 863, said bill wanting Supreme Court Justices to be governed by the same ethics rules as other federal judges. That bill was referred to the House's Subcommitttee on Courts, Commercial and Administrative Law on March 21st and has since disappeared from view.

Luckily, the general reluctance among Democrats to keep the Thomas issue alive is not universal.

"We have picked up this stick and we'll be running with it as far as we can," says Francis Creighton, Murphy's chief of staff. Murphy is planning to run for Sen. Joseph Lieberman's seat (I.-Ct.) when he retires in 2012.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D.-NY), ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, is likewise pitching in. "Louise can't understand why more people aren't concerned about this issue," says Victoria Dillon, Rep. Slaughter's press secretary. "She's fired up and wants more people to get involved."

Rep. Slaughter is circulating an on line petition demanding Justice Thomas explain his apparent conflicts of interest and ethical lapses as outlined in a recent front-page story in the New York Times.

Whether the two members of Congress are the first in a general Democratic stampede toward the Thomas issue is another matter, and in fact, little else has been heard from a House delegation consumed by the on-going negotiations over the debt ceiling and other high-profile issues.

Of course, you can hardly blame Republicans for trying to ignore the issue in hopes it will go away; they're very right to understand Thomas' predicament as an enormous danger to their whole agenda. Without Thomas, they lose their lock on the Supreme Court; and without the Court, they lose the chance to set their legal landscape in stone for a generation or more.

But why the Obama Administration and the Democrats in general are so quiet is a mystery on its face.

After all; judicial ethics aside (you can almost see all Washington shrug about that) it's not only an opportunity to put every Republican running for office next year on the defensive, but to paint themselves as defenders of the rule of law, and Republicans as -- with some justice -- mealy-mouthed hypocrites. Opportunities like that don't come around so often.

And that opportunity is only magnified by the fact that while Bill Clinton was certainly impeached for committing the same crime to which Justice Thomas confessed -- perjury -- he was tricked into committing it once -- in a deposition about the Paula Jones case, financed by Richard Mellon Scaife.

The Justice, on the other hand, voluntarily swore under oath for 13 years that his wife Ginny had earned no income, when she'd made almost $1 million in the period -- and then claimed that he hadn't understood the instructions on the form.

The instructions in question are: "Are you married?" and "If so, did your spouse earn any income during the period in question?" Justice Thomas' defense crumbles at the slightest touch -- not to mention that he's routinely rejected the defense in cases before him.

Could any politician ask for more?

The most deeply damaging answer to that question for Democrats would be that the whole thing is probably about club membership; that whatever Kabuki show American politicians put on for the voters, they're all members of the same club, work for the same people -- not, said answer would observe, the American People -- and wouldn't pick up this stick unless their political lives depended on it.

If that's true, I have bad news for them. For all its dangers, faults, and vapid time-wasters, the Internet's also created a vast network of independent voices belonging to no club and perfectly willing -- nay, eager -- to join on this issue. When they do that, it's going to be the Democrats sitting on the sidelines, waiting for somebody else to do something, who'll have some explaining to do.

Visit me at my web site, Reinbach's Observer.