Wesley makes an excellent point that the Democratic Senate’s defeat of Robert Bork, resulting in Anthony Kennedy’s elevation to the Supreme Court, may well be the most consequential political victory of the last half-century. But it should also be a reminder that not all politics is presidential. Senators matter, a lot.
Recall the context of the Bork battle. If the Senate viewed the President as having a mandate to pick any qualified candidate, it would easily have confirmed Bork, who nobody disputed was an intellectual giant with more than sufficient experience for the job, nominated by a President with 18 months remaining on a term to which he’d been elected in a 49-state landslide. Moreover, Republicans would go on to win the following presidential election as well, their third in a row. The Democrats’ new Senate majority in 1987, by contrast, was built on winning seven Senate races (five of them against incumbent GOP Senators) decided by two points or less at a time when President Reagan’s approval rating was 63%. And the anti-Bork fight was led by a failed presidential candidate, Ted Kennedy, who had returned to the Senate after losing a presidential primary seven years earlier.
If you viewed politics solely through the lens of the presidency, this should have been a mismatched fight. But Kennedy and his Senate allies didn’t care if the general electorate was against them; they had a duly-elected Senate majority, they used it, and they changed the course of American history, in some ways probably permanently. For Republican Senators, especially those returned to the chamber after failed presidential bids (most recently Cruz, Rubio, Paul, and Graham), there should be a lesson there in the power of the offices they already hold. And for conservatives discouraged by the party’s presidential nominee, the Bork battle is a reminder that the Senate majority is still up for grabs this fall.