Donald Trump released a list of eleven potential Supreme Court nominees today, and as Jim Geraghty notes, if you take the list at face value, it’s a good one, with a number of solid conservative names on it. The list is mostly cribbed from a prior Heritage Foundation list and from names fed to Trump by Hugh Hewitt in a radio interview, and is heavy on state supreme court judges. It obviously is not the product of much due diligence, as it includes Twitter-savvy Texas supreme court justice Don Willett, who has repeatedly and hilariously mocked Trump on Twitter for months. Instead, the timing of the list’s release smacks of desperate pandering to conservatives, coming on the heels of a new poll that suggests an opening for a third-party candidate to scoop up conservatives and others disaffected by a Trump-Hillary matchup. Whether you believe Trump actually means any of this probably depends on your opinions of him already. Three quick thoughts on the list:
First, if anything, the buzz over this list is a sign of how infrequently Trump has attempted to appeal to Republican voters by doing the sorts of things that would normally be second nature to a Republican presidential candidate. A candidate like Ted Cruz or even Mitt Romney releasing a list like this would barely have been news, nor in the case of Cruz or Marco Rubio would it even have been necessary. Trump’s general-election strategy so far has been to make overtures to Bernie Sanders voters — scrapping his tax-cut plan, insisting he supports a federal minimum-wage hike, talking up the idea that Bernie is getting a raw deal in the Democratic primary, touting an Obama-style plan for peace talks with Kim Jong Un. One of the hallmarks of a losing general-election candidate is needing to spend lots of time shoring up his own party base after the primaries are over, and Trump seems only belatedly to be coming to the realization that he might have to do that. Thus far, he has actually been making it easier, rather than harder, for conservatives to justify opposing him in the general election — along with yesterday’s promise to scrap Dodd-Frank (a favorite target of GOP donors’ ire), this is the first thing he has done in months that goes in the opposite direction. It seems amazing that the Republican presidential nominee is only realizing, in mid May, how important the Supreme Court is to many Republican voters. But it may not be coincidental that Trump is feeling pressure to throw a bone to more conventional Republican priorities now that he actually has to raise significant amounts of money from the party’s donor base and needs to work through the party’s infrastructure to do so.
Second, it’s interesting to consider who the people on the list are connected to. Willett was appointed by Rick Perry, who has come out in support of Trump after fiercely resisting him throughout the primaries. Eleventh Circuit judge Bill Pryor is an ally of Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s few vocal supporters in the Senate, and was (like Sessions himself in an earlier era) the subject of a high-profile confirmation battle under George W. Bush. But it also includes Utah supreme court judge Thomas Lee, the brother of conservative senator and Ted Cruz ally Mike Lee, as well as Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Sykes, the ex-wife of Wisconsin talk-radio host and prominent “Never Trump” figure Charlie Sykes. (Judge Sykes was frequently mentioned on the short lists for the Supreme Court vacancies ultimately filled by John Roberts and Samuel Alito). The presence of Lee and Sykes on the list suggests that whoever wrote it up was either trolling or trying some fairly targeted pandering.
Third, the list has one glaring absence: Ted Cruz. Cruz has said that he doesn’t want to be on the Court, but that would not stop a savvy GOP nominee from floating his name and trying, when elected, to convince him to take the job. Naming Cruz would have five benefits. One, it would be a sop to his supporters, many of them still licking their wounds from the primary. Two, it would show a measure of grace and desire for party unity, unlike the “you’ll get nothing and like it!” message Trump has thus far mostly been selling to the 60 percent of the party who voted against him. Three, few things would endear Trump more to GOP Establishment Senators than the prospect of being rid of Ted Cruz. Four, if Trump actually won the election, Cruz would inevitably become the leader of the intra-party opposition and a constant thorn in President Trump’s side. And five, Cruz would also be the most likely person willing and able to challenge Trump in a 2020 primary. The fact that Trump didn’t include him on the list suggests either petty vindictiveness, a lack of political foresight, or perhaps simply that even Trump doesn’t envision a scenario where Donald Trump is the president in 2017.