John, I don’t think there’s anything hidden or mysterious here. You’re right to note that two key goals in a nominee are finding a genuinely conservative justice, and finding someone who can make great intellectual arguments. But there’s a third factor that plays into this, and it’s not hidden. The president wants to find someone who, if possible, will minimize the possibility of a politically damaging confirmation battle. Clearly, the president chose someone he felt was a genuine conservative, and who also would be the most easily confirmable. For that, he sacrificed a distinguished record of high level constitutional reasoning.
Now you can certainly argue that this was a mistake. I myself wish that the president had gone with Luttig, or someone like that. And you can argue that even the political judgement here was mistaken. That is, it may well be that a huge confirmation battle would have energized the president’s base and in the end have done him more political good than harm. That is certainly arguable. But I don’t think the president’s calculation is mysterious. He decided to minimize what he believed would probably have been a damaging confirmation battle, by choosing a genuine conservative without a paper trail. And in the process, he picked up credits with one of his key supporting constituencies, just as president’s have always sought to do. Do I wish the president had taken another tack? Yes. But the motives and calculations here seem fairly straightforward to me.
Had the president gone with Luttig, we’d all be rallying now, but the left would be completely up in arms and we’d be facing a dramatic filibuster and the nuclear option. Fine with me. I think that in the end, that huge battle might indeed have changed the culture and have actually helped the president’s popularity. But that is a very tough call, and I can at least understand why the president chose differently.