Supreme Fallout

Yesterday morning when I was discussing the topic of my weekly TPMCafe column with my editor over there, I offered to do either a joyful trashing of Chris Christie’s presidential prospects or an analysis of how Republicans were coping with last week’s landmark Supreme Court decisions. I was hoping for the former assignment, since “shooting fish in a barrel” wouldn’t even begin to describe how easy it is to mock the MSM’s ineradicable confidence in the New Jersey governor. But instead I drew the latter task, and it turned out to be lengthy and complicated.

For that reason, I won’t try to digest the column here. But it did occur to me as I wrote it that SCOTUS gave Ted Cruz, whose presidential candidacy seemed to be floundering, a potential new lease on political life. More than any other candidate, he’s responded to the decisions with a single bullet theory, demanding action to rein in five decades of “liberal judicial activism” via an old populist (left and right) panacea: retention elections for Supreme Court justices.

Yes, Cruz’s “proposal” is an absurd overreach that will never, ever happen, but it gives him an early lead in answering a question a lot of conservative activists are undoubtedly asking themselves this week: who can we trust to appoint judges who won’t stab us in the back?

Most likely Iowa Caucus-goers don’t have law degrees, and certainly have no way of appreciating how marginal–some would say ludicrous–the plaintiffs’ case in King v. Burwell really was. All they know is that John Roberts twice had the opportunity to kill or disable a health care law that they’ve been told for years is one of the most blatantly unconstitutional acts of villainous tyranny in U.S. history, and twice sided with the tyrants. Similarly, SCOTUS’ decision in Obergefell probably looks just like the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Varnum v. Brien, legalizing same-sex marriage in that state. The decision fed a very focused and partially successful conservative campaign to deny the judges in question “retention” at the ballot box–precisely what Cruz is proposing for SCOTUS.

I would call Cruz the clear winner in the post-SCOTUS reaction among GOP presidential candidates but for one other development: Obergefell gave Scott Walker an excuse for changing his own position on same-sex marriage; he now embraces a constitutional amendment to overturn SCOTUS. Betsy Woodruff at the Daily Beast reports that this well-timed flip-flop has done wonders for Walker’s standing among Christian Right leaders, who had been sending all sorts of signals to The Faithful that the guy might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It seems Walker has now met all the most important litmus tests, which means Iowa remains his contest to lose in the early betting.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.