Big Red

Is John Cornyn too conservative to get reelected to the U.S. Senate—or just conservative enough?

In early April 2005, not quite halfway through his first term in the United States Senate, John Cornyn rose to address his colleagues. Newspaper reports would describe the chamber as “nearly empty,” but it didn’t matter, because everyone would know soon enough what he had to say. Cornyn had served on the Texas Supreme Court before being elected the state’s attorney general in 1998 and its junior senator in 2002, and in Washington he had quickly carved out a niche as a critic of the U.S. Supreme Court and a vigorous supporter of President Bush’s nominations of conservative jurists. The moment he had chosen to speak came during a time of high drama and intense partisanship in Washington. Terri Schiavo had died four days earlier, congressional (and presidential) intervention having failed to persuade the courts to prevent the removal of her feeding tube. Democrats were filibustering the nominations of judicial candidates like Priscilla Owen, another former Texas Supreme Court justice. Republicans were threatening to invoke the so-called “nuclear option” to declare the filibustering of those nominees out of order and to rule that they could be confirmed by a simple majority vote.

Cornyn’s ire had been aroused by a Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional in cases where the accused was eighteen or younger at the time the crime was committed. He condemned “the increasing politicization of the judicial decision-making process at the highest levels of our judiciary [that] has bred a lack of respect for some of the people who wear the robe.” This was normal rhetoric for Cornyn. But what he said next was not: “We have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country . . . and I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in . . .” And here he paused, averted his gaze from the C-SPAN camera, looked down, and bit his lip, as if he realized that he was about to say something that maybe he shouldn’t. “Engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have.”

The blame-the-victim message went off like a bomb. The next night, Jon Stewart skewered Cornyn on The Daily Show (“What an absolutely handsome crazy person”). The day after that, New York Times editorial writers, noting previous threats against judges in the Schiavo case by House majority leader Tom DeLay, complained, “When a second important Republican stands up and excuses murderous violence against judges as an understandable reaction to their decisions, then it is time to get really scared.”

Cornyn must have been a little scared himself, because he went into damage-control mode. The day after his speech, he made a conciliatory statement on the Senate floor that began, “As a former judge myself for thirteen years . . . I am outraged by recent acts of courthouse violence. I certainly hope that no one will construe my remarks on Monday otherwise.” Democrat Richard Durbin, of Illinois, a member of his party’s leadership, said something nice about Cornyn—the comments “seemed inconsistent with my knowledge of him”—and the hubbub subsided. Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle he had learned two things from the experience: that “if people can take what you say out of context and use it against you, they will” and “not to wonder aloud on the Senate floor.”

In one way, the episode was atypical of Cornyn’s performance thus far in the Senate: The 55-year-old is normally sure-footed and not prone to make mistakes. In another, it was right in line with the kind of senator he has become—and I do mean right—for Cornyn has been a very different politician in Washington than he was in Austin. It wasn’t only Durbin who found his remarks to be out of character. Back home, Texans were left to ponder what had happened to the middle-of-the-roader they thought they knew. Whether he’s been influenced by the staffers he inherited from his predecessor, Republican Phil Gramm, or has made a shrewd political calculation that the shortcut to advancement in the Senate is via the right side of the spectrum, the fact is that Cornyn has evolved into one of the body’s most conservative members. In 2006 he tied for the Senate’s third-most-conservative voting record in rankings compiled by National Journal , a nonpartisan weekly magazine for Washington insiders. (“A moderate in Texas is a conservative in Washington,” he told me.)

But votes alone don’t fully convey Cornyn’s ideological conversion. It is his willingness to be the champion of Republican wedge issues—he co-sponsored constitutional amendments banning flag burning and gay marriage, for example, and presided over hearings on both—that distinguishes him from other senators who see the world as he does. You have to be someone who is very comfortable in your own skin to take on such a role and all the blowback it engenders (critics said Cornyn was “cutting and pasting” the Constitution). So it was no surprise that it was Cornyn who offered the amendment in September rebuking the liberal activist group MoveOn.org for its ad in the Times referring to General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, as “General Betray Us.” In doing so, he forced Democrats to choose between defending or attacking their base and made the Times, which has been no admirer of his, look bad—and it earned him a front-page story in the Washington Post and an accompanying photograph of him holding up the Times in “Dewey Defeats Truman” style. (Cornyn, who has a fine sense of irony about politics, was amused that the Times was pressured to rescind the discounted rate it had given MoveOn, meaning that he had helped add $77,000 to the paper’s bottom line. “Crazy like a fox,” he said.) Still, you just don’t see the Republicans at the top of

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