No one should be surprised that the Senate Democratic leader would oppose the confirmation of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States. It is what our elected lawmakers do best — capitulate to special interests. There was no reason to think otherwise for Harry Reid of Nevada, even if he does come from a state that went for George W. Bush in the last election.

In the annals of modern confirmation hearings, few nominees have shown more mental agility than Roberts, who calmly parried the thrusts of Senate Judiciary Committee inquisitors. One actually began to believe he was overqualified for the job, particularly given the intellectual make-up of the current court. His refusal to give opponents the ammunition they needed to prove he is a reactionary conservative bent on turning back the clock to pre-Civil War days left most of the Democrats frustrated and unsure whether to mindlessly follow the leader or hold their fire until the next appointment to the court.

Another nominee is expected momentarily, and some of the more moderate members of the Senate are convinced that voting against someone of Roberts’ obvious qualifications would cost Democrats the needed credibility to oppose a far more conservative appointment to fill the vacancy left by the retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Good thinking. The Charles Schumer approach of voting against most nominees for any job solely on the grounds they have been made by a Republican president is looking more like obstructionism than loyal opposition.

If there is any doubt that Reid was responding to the pressure of groups that have a big say in his party’s policies, it was dispelled by the fact that he made his announcement after being visited by members of such organizations urging him to lead the effort against Roberts. Their perceptions of the nominee, of course, have been based on his writings as a young lawyer who reinforced positions in the Reagan White House 25 years ago. Roberts repudiated some of these and explained away others.

Certainly nothing he said during the confirmation hearings would give much pause for concern _ in fact, just the opposite. At least, that’s the way it came across to the average American who, unlike those with a sophisticated understanding of constitutional nuances, found his responses, while at times necessarily guarded, as forthright as possible under the circumstances. No nominee named by a president of either party for such an exalted judicial position is about to say _ and shouldn’t say _ how he would vote on cases likely to come before him.

Reid said he did not expect fellow Democrats to be bound by his decision, and that they should vote their conscience. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said he would do just that and support Roberts. Reid made it fairly clear he wasn’t all that comfortable with his own decision, but there is a tradition to uphold here _ the extreme partisanship that has developed over the last 20 years.

The relative calm of the Roberts process, even though his opponents had weeks to try to find a smoking gun to shoot down the nomination, is an anomaly. It isn’t likely to be repeated in the next go-around, especially if the choice is one of several clearly conservative prospects. The sturm und drang that would result might not even be limited to the Democrats if the nominee is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whom conservatives oppose. That would produce a scenario of strange bedfellows, Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats, not often seen these days.

If Bush should name to the high court one of the federal judges whose confirmations to their current jobs were held up for months until a much-heralded compromise, it would set off a major confirmation fight probably resulting in a filibuster.

Reid would have served his party’s interests better had he announced that he was voting for Roberts. Such a position would have gone a long way toward dispelling notions that Democrats are opposed unfairly to any Bush nominee, well-qualified or not. Roberts is an easy hurdle to clear; the next one will not be.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)