It took only a few minutes after news broke of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death on Saturday for conservatives to demand that Senate Republicans block any replacement nominated by President Barack Obama....And the reaction has been pretty much unanimous -- within hours of the announcement that Scalia had died, all six Republican presidential candidates said in last night's debate that no Obama nominee should be approved.
Mere minutes after the Scalia news broke, Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who sits on the Judiciary Committee -- through which any Supreme Court nominee must go -- placed the chances of a replacement at nil.
What is less than zero? The chances of Obama successfully appointing a Supreme Court Justice to replace Scalia?— Conn Carroll (@conncarroll) February 13, 2016
Republicans frequently have excellent message discipline, but it often takes them a while to settle on a message. Recall that they mostly went silent for a couple of days after the November shootings at a Planed Parenthood clinic in Colorado. Nothing like that happened after Scalia's death. They didn't have to huddle. They didn't have to consult with one another. They didn't have to take polls or do focus groups or whatever it is that they do when they have a delayed response to breaking news.
They knew something like this could happen -- maybe a death, maybe a resignation. For a while there was talk about Ruth Bader Ginsberg stepping down near the end of President Obama's term, to ensure that he'd choose her successor. The GOP had clearly thought this through already. The decision to block an Obama appointee was made long ago.
Matt Yglesias is right:
The “election year” thing seems like a red herring. If Scalia died 12 months ago, GOP wouldn’t have voted for a liberal replacement either.— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) February 14, 2016
In fact, I don't think he goes far enough -- twelve months ago, Senate Republicans would have blocked any Obama appointee, even, say, an old-school Republican moderate sent up as an olive branch.
I know there's some skepticism about predictions of ongoing intransigence. Yastreblyansky, in comments yesterday, wrote:
Steve, if Obama doesn't get a nominee through the election will be entirely about Roe v Wade and Obergefell. Do you think the Republicans really want that? I think they're bargaining.I think some of them may be bargaining. Mitch McConnell may be bargaining. But he's not just bargaining with the president -- he's bargaining with his own crazy voters, and they aren't inclined to bargain. That's why Donald Trump is leading in the GOP presidential race and Ted Cruz is second: because those two candidates agree with voters that compromise shouldn't be the way government does business. Trump is just presenting himself as a strongman, but Cruz is specifically endorsing the argument that Republicans should block literally everything Democrats want, even though the president is a Democrat and there are more than enough Democrats in Congress to sustain any Obama veto of Republican legislation. Republican voters think GOP members of Congress should resist all Democratic policies -- no, reverse them -- and anything less is treason. So McConnell has to promise absolute resistance to a replacement pick -- and he probably has to deliver, or Republicans will threaten to turn against the party in November (or in party primaries involving incumbents).
Yes, Republican obstructionism will motivate Democrats. But remember that Republicans scored a blowout in the 2014 midterms after the 2013 government shutdown. They probably fear alienating their own voters more than they fear motivating Democrats, because Democrats have a history of not having strong reactions to awful things done by the GOP.
The task now for Republicans is to declare any Obama nominee a dangerous extremist. They'll tell us that the nominee is the most radical person ever proposed for the Court, no matter who it is. Then their task is to bottle up the nominee well before summer.
Here's the problem: Democratic voters aren't like Republican voters. Republican voters are intensely political. They watch Fox and listen to talk radio all day. Far fewer Democratic voters are intensely political. That's why they weren't motivated by an active sense of rage at the 2013 government shutdown in 2014. If the Supreme Court fight fades from the headlines well before fall, it will loom in the background, but it won't inspire an active sense of rage, because Democrats don't nurse grievances for very long.
Or maybe I'm wrong:
Fight over a probable nomination to replace Scalia most harmful to swing state Senators like Kirk, Ayotte, Burr, Portman, Toomey and Johnson— Will McAvoy (@WillMcAvoyACN) February 14, 2016
Which is why I can imagine these Republican senators -- all of them up for reelection in November in states Obama won -- strategically breaking from their party and calling for a vote on Obama's nominee. Yes, I know: There are only 54 Republican senators, so if four break away, a nominee can be confirmed, right? Sure -- but Republicans could just filibuster the nominee, for which they'd need only 41 senators, and then any Republican who feels vulnerable can just theatrically denounce the obstructionism while doing nothing about it.
Am I reading this wrong? Am I just being my usual gloomy self, assuming that the GOP will win and pay no price? Maybe -- but the other possibility, and maybe it's a stronger one, is that Republicans will be overly confident of success because this kind of thing has been working for them going into midterm elections. Also, Establishment Republicans like McConnell probably feel they have to do this, out of fear of the GOP base. They may not care about the presidential race because they don't like Trump or Cruz -- they may jut think this is how they need to save their own asses given Republican voter rage. So they'll do it because they think they have no choice.