GOP’s 2016 SCOTUS Artifice A Short And Long-Term Strategic Failure

The bottom line: when the Republican Party took its unified February gamble to stonewall replacing Scalia, the reasoning was already tough to follow.

In mid-February when ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, the Republican Party, which agrees on little else, came to an immediate, united decision. There will be no filling of the vacancy for the remainder of the Obama term, not even a perfunctory meeting with the sitting President’s candidate, Judge Merrick Garland. Part of a long string of unprecedented party obstructionism, the gambit remains predicated on three basic assumptions:

  1. An immediate 4-4 ideological split on the part of the remaining eight justices benefits Republicans more often than not.
  2. The Republican Party will retake the White House in November.
  3. The new Republican President will be amenable to the party’s conventional wisdom when it comes to the nomination process.

The confidence with which the GOP co-opted these presumptions seemed illogical in the dead of winter. Because the success of numbers two and three depend upon the narcissistic wild card known as Donald Trump – who’s never been anything but the presumptive Republican frontrunner since this shit show began. But from the vantage point of mid-summer, following months of unpredictable political and social chaos at both the micro (Trump) and macro levels (Democratic House members’ gun control sit-in, the prolific murder of black men by police), number one no longer seems as reliable.

Writer Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times is correct in pointing out, as she did this week, “It’s worth remembering that today’s conservative justices are a good deal more conservative than the liberal justices are liberal.” This is precisely the state of affairs that created the GOP’s February certainty that they could afford a SCOTUS nomination standoff. But you know what they say about theories generated in a vacuum. Reality has a way of perverting them.

It was never entirely clear that the public bought into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s tenuous argument that “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice.” Because when this patriotic pronouncement was made, there was nearly a year left in President Obama’s second term and the “people” had voted for him to do the job of appointing judges – twice. I suppose however given the party’s perceived panic over the court tipping liberal while a conservative President stood in waiting, they couldn’t be blamed for trying.

But the Trump “campaign” continues its disorganized fundraising and ground strategy while the candidate himself demonstrates with every soundbite and tweet that he’s unfit for the nation’s highest office. Juicy #DumpTrump rumors seem to multiply with each daily news cycle. Consider another Times headline from this week: Would Donald Trump Quit if He Wins the Election? He Doesn’t Rule It Out.

Things have gotten so out of hand that the establishment is suddenly cheering the idea of New Gingrich as Vice President. Newt Gingrich! As if the 2012 reject and godfather of the government shutdown is going to bring order and sanity to the conversation. Even the Trump-fellating Joe Scarborough believes “that would be a very imbalanced ticket that would make voters, especially swing voters, especially nervous in the fall.”

Though it’s been an insane year and there are no sure things, Trump is highly unlikely to be our next President. Nearly every major poll has Hillary Clinton ahead by a sizeable margin. And though I agree with Gail Collins that it’s incumbent upon Clinton to do more than “win simply by default,” it’s hard to envision a majority of voters selecting the champion of Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin, regularly spouting ignorance, racism and one percent cynicism. Even if we yearn for more than to check the “not crazy” box.

But even if Trump makes it through, the candidate’s routinely combative meetings with the Republican establishment should make clear that he can’t be counted upon to adhere to party doctrine. Then there’s the SCOTUS’ recent decisioning, which has struck fear and anger in the hearts of McConnell and his tribe. It seems the 4-4 split counted upon to carry conservative rulings through November is yet another strategic miscalculation. Don’t look now but:

  1. Roe vs. Wade is back in a big way with the 5-3 June ruling crushing Texas’ disingenuous, dangerous “women’s health” restrictions to legal abortion.
  2. On the same day, SCOTUS ruled 6-2 that domestic abusers can lose gun ownership rights. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to celebrate any sanity when it comes to weapons proliferation.

The bottom line: when the Republican Party took its unified February gamble to stonewall replacing Scalia, the reasoning was already tough to follow. Moreover, the offered logic wed them permanently to the position. After all if you claim you’re exercising stubbornness in the name of democracy, it’s hard to shift gears if say, your candidate is a maniac, has no chance of winning the election and/or SCOTUS decides not to play along with the reliable ideological divide.

The endgame will be as it must always have been: a Democratic President will nominate the ninth judge to sit on the Supreme Court bench. The Republicans didn’t have to generate another long-term, unforced error to tarnish a floundering brand, humiliate Judge Garland and reiterate that conservative lawmakers have left the business of governing. There are numerous reasons to reject Trump in November, but it’s important to remember that he’s merely a symptom of a much greater ill.

Becky Sarwate is the current President of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, founded in 1885, as well as Recording Secretary for the National Federation of Press Women. She is a national award-winning journalist, blogger, newsletter editor and theater critic. Becky lives in Chicago with her partner Bob and their menagerie of pets. Keep up with her at
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