The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is one of my favorite political writers. He’s smart, he’s fair, and he generally seems to have good instincts about the political prospects of both parties. However, I think he’s wrong to say that Mitch McConnell’s decision to immediately declare that the Senate won’t approve a new Supreme Court justice before the presidential election was a political mistake. Cillizza believes the immediate hard line will alienate moderate voters. Instead, Cillizza says that the GOP should have done the following:
Step 1: Say almost nothing about Obama picking someone to replace Scalia other than that the person will get a “fair hearing.”
Step 2: Convene the standard hearings on Judiciary for the nominee. Aggressively question him or her as you would any other nominee in Obama’s presidency.
Step 3: Never allow a vote on the nominee, using the 60-vote filibuster threshold as your best friend. (Fourteen Republicans would have to join the 46 Democrats and independents in the Senate to break said filibuster. That ain’t happening.)
Doing otherwise, says Cillizza, “hands Obama and Senate Democrats a political cudgel to bash the GOP.”
I think this analysis fundamentally misunderstands not only the fragility of the GOP coalition but also the nature of judicial nomination fights. If McConnell signaled a business-as-usual approach with the Supreme Court in the balance, the entire conservative wing of the party would have erupted with volcanic fury — and rightly so. I was at a Young America’s Foundation convention when the news of Scalia’s death hit, and the first emotion after the shock and sadness of Scalia’s death was preemptive fury at McConnell for a surrender they simply assumed was inevitable. In ordinary times there might be modicum of trust between GOP leadership and the grassroots, but these are not ordinary times.
Second, judicial nomination fights simply aren’t about the center. They’re about the base. The Left has understood this for a long time, and the Right is only just now catching on. If conservatives can hold the line before November, the fact that a tangible Supreme Court seat is at stake (they’re always hypothetically at stake, but now the fight is all too real) will likely drive wavering Republicans to the polls even if they’re not enthused about the eventual nominee. The stakes will be that high.
Writing in Mother Jones, Kevin Drum is one of the few left-leaning pundits who truly gets the continuing meaning of the Robert Bork debacle within the conservative movement. Here’s Drum:
What all this [the lingering fury over Bork] means is that Republican voters are likely to be more fired up by the Scalia vacancy than Democrats. And they’re going to stay fired up by Fox News and the rest of the gang. If Democrats want to match this, they’re going to have to really work at it. My guess is that the Supreme Court fight is good for a 1-2 percent increase in Republican turnout this November. It’s not clear to me if Democrats can match this.
I think Drum is right. And if you doubt that Supreme Court fights are mainly about the base, keep in mind that Justice Scalia was completely unknown to almost a third of the American electorate as recently as last July.
It would surprise me if Supreme Court appointments was even a top five concern of swing voters in November. But it will likely rank high for the core supporters who not only need to turn out to the polls, they also need to knock doors, place signs, and make calls. McConnell had to immediately tell the base that it has something to fight for — that he won’t give away one branch of the government before November. It wasn’t just the right call to draw the line in the sand, it was the only call.