The apparent iciness between the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination notwithstanding, a joint Clinton-Obama ticket is not out of the queston, New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said in an interview with the News on Friday.

In the interview, Schumer said the junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama still share “mutual respect,” and their rival campaigns have not spoiled their relationship to such an extent that the two candidates would be unable to take on the Republicans together in the fall. The senior senator, who has endorsed Clinton, also said Obama would make “an absolutely great” president.

The interview followed Schumer’s speech to a mostly like-minded — at least in Schumer’s estimation — audience of about 80 members of the Yale community, in which Schumer sized up the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president and their likely Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. During the speech, he also assailed the rise of judges whom he considers conservative activists — including President George W. Bush’s ’68 two appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court — and proposed revamping the Senate’s role in the confirmation process by emphasizing nominees’ records over hearings.

The event was co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society of Yale Law School and the Yale Law School Democrats.

After an introduction by Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh, Schumer predicted 2008 would be a defining historical moment because of the people’s motivation to involve themselves in the political process. Whereas in 1980, Americans widely accepted Reagan’s assertion that the excessive size of the federal government was to blame for their economic and political problems, Schumer said, in 2008 people think they need government again to help them cope with the “huge technological forces pushing their world around.”

“The idea that whenever the federal government moves, chop off its hand — that’s over,” he said. “If we Democrats ask what we can do to help and then do it, we can not only win this election but cement an entire generation.”

When asked which candidate he thinks is best suited to do that, Schumer delivered the consummate politician’s response.

“I’m for Hillary, but both would be absolutely great presidents,” he said.

Unlike during other recent elections, Schumer said, he has not heard grumblings from Democrats about a dearth of good choices.

He said Clinton knows better than anyone “how to get from point A to point B, even if it’s not a straight line,” while Obama, though not as experienced, “is the real deal — he’s smart and well-grounded.”

As for their current dead heat for the nomination — Obama has 1,275 delegates to Clinton’s 1,220, with 2,025 needed to win — Schumer said, “let’s cool our jets. The idea that we’re definitely going to have a deadlock is far from a foregone conclusion.”

The remaining primaries will bring yet more unexpected twists, Schumer said, as the lead has already changed twice and likely will again.

“I think we should just calm down and let the democratic process play out for a while,” he said.

In the interview after his talk, Schumer said the protracted battle between Clinton and Obama would not disadvantage the Democrats in the general election as long as it is over by the early summer. Both candidates know better than to put their personal career ambitions ahead of the party’s and the country’s best interest, he said.

“Everyone would like to avoid having a bruising fight in late August at the convention,” he explained.

Once the Democratic ticket is settled — and Schumer said he thinks it will be “settled in a rather amicable way” — the nominee will be poised to rout McCain, Schumer predicted. He said the popular perception of McCain’s appeal to independent voters is exaggerated, and his Iraq policies will make him unpopular among the general electorate.

“Anyone who thinks we should stay in Iraq for 10, 100, 1,000 years and put more lives and resources into Iraq is not going to win, even if it’s George Washington,” Schumer said, referencing recent remarks by McCain in which the presumptive Republican nominee called for a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq.

On judicial nominations, Schumer began his remarks by saying he regrets backing down on filibustering the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito LAW ’75 and said the Democrats should have fought harder to block their confirmation.

Although Alito was less opaque about his views and judicial record, Roberts was not honest about what kind of justice he would make during his confirmation hearings, Schumer said.

“We were duped,” he said.

The Roberts court’s numerous 5-4 decisions, many of them reversals of lower courts’ rulings, are at odds with what Roberts promised when he said during his confirmation hearings that he would exercise judicial restraint and be a uniter and consensus-builder, Schumer said.

“I don’t think that was an accident,” he said. “I think he really did not tell us who he was.”

Senate confirmation hearings are ineffective as a forum for evaluating a nominee to the bench, Schumer said. He said they provide fodder for the press corps but yield little insight into the nominees.

“It makes good theater, but that’s really about it,” he said. “They produce a lot of sound and fury that all too often signify nothing.”

Schumer said instead of emphasizing the hearings, senators should pay more attention to the nominees’ records. Nominees should be required to release all relevant documents, he said, and any nominee who is not forthcoming about his or her record should be rejected outright.

Additionally, Schumer said, the taboo on discussing ideology in confirmation hearings makes it difficult to discern what would likely be a nominee’s judicial disposition if confirmed.

Schumer said the conservative political faction he calls the “Hard Right” has tried to use the judiciary to advance its political agenda. The Bush administration’s greatest accomplishment, Schumer thinks members of the “Hard Right” would say, has been the appointment of conservative judges.

“Those judges are going to change America, in my opinion for the worse, for at least a generation,” he said. “One of the lessons we all have to think about is: How much should judges steer where the country is going? Is that what the judiciary is for, and does it work?”

Full disclosure and ideological examination would bind nominations by a Democratic president as well, Schumer noted.

“Dean Koh spilled his glass of water at that one,” Schumer joked, referencing speculation that Koh might be nominated to the bench under a future Democratic president. Koh and the audience laughed.

Schumer, whose daughter is a first-year law student, was visiting the Law School for the day. He had arrived tieless and “underdressed,” in Koh’s words, and was outfitted with a Yale Law School necktie before his speech. Earlier in the day, he audited professor Robert Ellickson’s “Property” class, where, Koh quipped, “he was informed that federal law is unimportant.”