In the first case, that of Robert Bork (1987), the tactic worked. In the second, the confirmation of Clarence Thomas (1991), it didn't, but the scars left by the ugliness and relentless attempts to destroy these men left a very bitter taste in the mouths of many observers and set the tone for the debased rhetoric of the next two decades.
Those confirmation hearings were doubtless the backstory behind the impeachment of Bill Clinton by Republicans, which was in turn the impetus behind the awful treatment by Democrats of George W. Bush.
In any case, Joe Nocera, a columnist at The New York Times writes about the Bork case in a piece that recounts how even those involved in the slander of this highly qualified jurist admitted what they were doing. After describing Bork's qualifications for the Court Nocera writes:
I’ll take it one step further. The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn’t a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.Nocera's concluding sentence will not be welcome by many liberals, but it's good advice all the same:
It is, to be sure, completely understandable that the Democrats wanted to keep Bork off the court. Lewis Powell, the great moderate, was stepping down, which would be leaving the court evenly divided between conservatives and liberals. There was tremendous fear that if Bork were confirmed, he would swing the court to the conservatives and important liberal victories would be overturned — starting with Roe v. Wade.
But liberals couldn’t just come out and say that. “If this were carried out as an internal Senate debate,” Ann Lewis, the Democratic activist, would later acknowledge, “we would have deep and thoughtful discussions about the Constitution, and then we would lose.” So, instead, the Democrats sought to portray Bork as “a right-wing loony,” to use a phrase in a memo written by the Advocacy Institute, a liberal lobby group.
The character assassination began the day Bork was nominated, when Ted Kennedy gave a fiery speech describing “Robert Bork’s America” as a place “in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters,” and so on. It continued until the day the nomination was voted down; one ad, for instance, claimed, absurdly, that Bork wanted to give “women workers the choice between sterilization and their job.”
Conservatives were stunned by the relentlessness — and the essential unfairness — of the attacks. But the truth is that many of the liberals fighting the nomination also knew they were unfair. That same Advocacy Institute memo noted that, “Like it or not, Bork falls (perhaps barely) at the borderline of respectability.” It didn’t matter. He had to be portrayed “as an extreme ideological activist.” The ends were used to justify some truly despicable means.
[T]he point remains this: The next time a liberal asks why Republicans are so intransigent, you might suggest that the answer lies in the mirror.The invective shows no signs of an imminent abatement. Nancy Pelosi informs us that Republicans want women to bleed to death on the floor, others insist that Republicans want to see blacks swinging at the end of a rope. Morgan Freeman is quite certain that opposition to Mr. Obama is due to the fact that he's black, and, indeed, the left finds themselves taking every opportunity to shout that the entire Tea Party is a bunch of racists, despite the utter lack of evidence for their claim, and much counterevidence against it.
And so it goes.