GOP Vow To Block Scalia’s Replacement Only The Beginning Of Something Even Worse
Only an hour after the sudden death of arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was announced Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that he would block any nominee for Scalia’s replacement for the next year. This is tantamount to announcing that he will abdicate his Constitutional responsibility to fill a Supreme Court vacancy by blocking any nominee that President Obama put forward for the next year. This historically unprecedented affront to the Constitution in pursuit of relentless partisan gridlock is only the opening gambit in a larger game.
Republican leaders know that the 2016 election is going badly for them. The Democrats have two extremely qualified candidates stirring up the base’s and the moderate’s passions. Either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders will be able to excite the base and interest independents. While the Democratic nominating process is an embarrassment of riches, the Republican nominating process is just an embarrassment. Donald Trump, the clown-coiffed blowhard uncouth billionaire reality TV show host, continues to crush all the establishment favorites. The only candidate in a position to challenge him is far right Senator Ted Cruz, who has devoted his career to creating as many enemies as possible, and maximizing government dysfunction. Republicans face the real possibility of losing in a landslide, and losing control of the Senate in November.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, having to choose Scalia’s replacement is something of a godsend for Republican leaders at this moment. That is why McConnell was so quick on the attack, and why Republican candidates were so eager to echo his obstructionist sentiment, including this gem from Ted Cruz:
Justice Scalia was an American hero. We owe it to him, & the Nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next President names his replacement.
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) February 13, 2016
This could play out in many different ways, but I strongly suspect that Republican leaders are throwing up this wall of obstruction as an opening aggressive negotiating position in the debate over Scalia’s replacement, not as an actual policy decision that will stand for a whole year. If they thought they could actually get away with it, they might seek to gum up the Supreme Court for an entire year, but Obama is still much more popular than Congress, and if the seat were to remain vacant in the Autumn, it would lead to a Republican bloodbath in the election. No, what Mitch McConnell is up to now is a way to orchestrate key events in the 2016 election to be framed on turf that he can control by stalling on choosing Scalia’s replacement. Suddenly, McConnell becomes de facto leader of a party that was essentially leaderless while Scalia lived.
Choosing Scalia’s Replacement Will Become A Major Battle In The War For 2016
In the most immediate term, a battle over Scalia’s replacement gives the Republican Congressional leaders a glimmer of hope that they can stop Trump. Cruz, the ultimate grandstanding government shut-downer, benefits most from the rhetoric of refusing to approve a nominee. None of the establishment candidates have managed to stage a meaningful challenge to Trump. Only Cruz has proven able to edge Trump out on delegates. The GOP leadership will have to make their peace with him (if the rift between them was ever really as big as they act like it is). Chest-beating rhetoric about shutting down the Supreme Court because the twice-popularly-elected president is supposedly illegitimate in his final year, could buy Ted Cruz a few points in important primary states. As the primary process heads deeper into the Deep South it could be enough for Texas Senator Cruz to outflank New York businessman Trump for the nomination. This would put the Republican nominee deeply in Mitch McConnell’s pocket, and shut down Trump, the uncontrollable loose cannon.
Heading into the Spring, Republicans are likely to stonewall the nominating process for Scalia’s replacement until a key event. As one of the two parties is close to settling on a presidential nominee, McConnell is likely to allow an Obama Supreme Court nominee to come up for a vote. He may force Democrats to use the “nuclear option” to make it appear that he’s being bullied by the Democrats. Republicans are likely to seek to torpedo Obama’s first nomination, claiming that the nominee is a leftist extremist, no matter who it is, or what their record is. If the Democrats settle on a presidential nominee first, it will force the Democrat to defend a Court nominee, who Republicans will paint as extreme. If the GOP settles on a presidential nominee first, it will give the nominee someone to rail against. This will all be good for Republican fundraising.
Heading deeper into 2016, Republicans will probably eventually cave on a more centrist nominee, who they will probably still try to paint as a huge liberal. They will likely seek to time this, either to the second party settling on a presidential nominee, or to the lead up to the summer’s presidential conventions. This process will give McConnell an unusual amount of influence over the election, opening the possibility for him to have more of a say in whether he keeps his position as Senate Majority Leader next year.
Of course, Democrats will have their own strategy for the process, and will also seek to use the process as a fundraising bonanza, and to frame the election debate. This, in turn, will give Obama more influence on 2016. Since Republicans are likely to seek to paint whomever he nominates as a liberal, he might as well nominate a real liberal Justice who can seek to overturn Citizens United, and will be on the bench for decades. Democrats are likely to float a few trial balloons, and may engage in a misinformation campaign to force Republicans to oppose someone centrist and supremely qualified.
No matter how it plays out, it’s a huge gamble for Republicans to attempt something so unprecedented as indefinite stonewalling on a Supreme Court nomination. But Mitch McConnell seems eager to roll the dice.
Featured image via public domain.