Grassley Puts Legacy, Reelection at Risk

It’s not knowable what Senator Chuck Grassley really thinks about his party’s decision to deny Merrick Garland even a hearing on his nomination to the Supreme Court. All we know for certain is that he’s willing to be a solider in the fight. As the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the decision to stonewall Garland is ostensibly his, although it’s obvious that the ultimate decision was made by the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Grassley either agrees with it or he’s swallowing his misgivings, because he’s out there making arguments in defense of this obstruction.

He’s also taking hits. His home state’s Des Moines Register is mercilessly criticizing him for it, once again with a piece by the editorial board today. The editors of the Register seem to think that Grassley’s reelection is secure (“At this point, he is heavily favored to win re-election in November, so if retaining his job is his only real concern, the senator has little to worry about”), so they’re taking a different approach.

They’re aggressively suggesting that Grassley is threatening his entire legacy.

It’s not fair, but politicians who move fleetingly in and out of the national consciousness are often defined by a single event that captures the public’s attention and overshadows everything that came before. Grassley is a household name in Iowa, but the Supreme Court fight has catapulted him into the national spotlight. Many Americans know only one thing about Chuck Grassley: He’s the man who is blocking the president’s efforts to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Grassley’s staff has said the Supreme Court controversy is “clearly not a defining issue,” but that claim seems to ignore reality.

And they’re not being polite about it:

After 57 years in elected office and countless legislative accomplishments at both the state and federal level, Grassley seems destined to be remembered largely for this single, petulant act of politically motivated obstructionism…

…By announcing, within hours of Scalia’s death, his intent to prevent any Obama nominee from getting a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley did more than stake out a controversial position on an issue. He called into question his own integrity and he created the appearance, at least, that he was putting politics ahead of the national interest.

That’s not just the assessment of liberal Democrats, some of whom have expressed grudging respect for the senator over the years. Many Republicans are also deeply troubled by Grassley’s actions.

So, Grassley’s integrity is being questioned and his actions are being defined as petulant. He’s at risk of being remembered for a shameful last act rather than a long and dedicated career filled with more positive accomplishments.

I don’t imagine this is the kind of thing the senator enjoys reading, and he’s undoubtedly even less pleased to know that Iowans are consuming this assessment along with their morning oatmeal.

But he claims not to care:

“Do you think I spend my day wondering about how Chuck Grassley will go down in history?” Grassley asked reporters. “I don’t care if I ever go down in history. I’m here to do a job and how the history books treat me — my name will probably never be mentioned in the history books.”

It seems that Grassley has taken a hard-right turn as the party he represents has careened starboard. And, he may look like a safe bet for reelection now, but his approval numbers have taken on significant water this spring. A Hart Research Associates poll from April 22-24 showed that his favorability numbers have dropped from 60% a year ago to 42% today. He may not be in the danger zone, yet, but there’s plenty of campaigning to do between now and Election Day.

My sense is that Grassley is more than willing to go down with the ship, but poll numbers that show him at real risk of losing have more promise to weaken his stance than the simple shaming and legacy talk being employed by the Register.

Of course, the decision isn’t really his, and if he really disagrees with it, his only choice may be to resign his post as chairman of the committee charged with vetting judicial nominees for the Senate.

I don’t see that happening, so what we’re going to find out is if most Iowans who vote are going to hold this against him and actually cast their votes based on their disapproval.

His likely opponent, Patty Judge is no slouch, and I wouldn’t count her out.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.