On SCOTUS Nominee, Democrats Should Play Both Hard and Smart

It should come as no surprise that Chris Matthews thinks Senate Democrats should play hardball when it comes to Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. But after watching his rant last night with Steve Kornacki, I’m hoping that Democrats also play this one a lot smarter than he is suggesting.

Let’s talk about just a few of the ways Matthews got it wrong. First of all, he obviously didn’t pay any attention (until the end of the discussion) to the question Kornacki actually asked, which was about the strategy Democrats could use to win over a couple of Republicans or a tactical maneuver they could use in the Senate to delay a vote on confirmation until after the election. Matthews’ response was to suggest that Democratic leadership is at stake. That is obviously not a tactic and it would be ludicrous to think that Senators like Collins or Murkouski would be interested in anything that would strengthen the hand of Democrats.

Eventually Matthews went on a rant about the tactics Republicans have employed with Supreme Court nominees going back to Merrick Garland. Someone should probably point out the fact that when McConnell blocked Garland, the GOP had a majority in the Senate. Recent history would tell us that in 2009 and 2010, when Republicans were in the minority, even an obstructionist like McConnell couldn’t stop the confirmation of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.

Finally, after Kornacki kept coming back over and over again to his question about a strategy or a tool Democrats could use, Matthews pretty much admitted that he didn’t know. This is the guy who is paid a lot of money to talk politics on television and he’s advocating for a strategy on which he hasn’t bothered to inform himself.

Frankly, that whole mess from Matthews reminded me a lot of the attempts by Sen. Ted Cruz to shut the government down as a strategy to repeal Obamacare. I use the word “strategy” loosely because it was never going to be successful in repealing Obamacare. Here’s what even his colleagues said about that:

“It was very evident to everyone in the room that Cruz doesn’t have a strategy – he never had a strategy, and could never answer a question about what the end-game was,” said one senator who attended the meeting…

“He kept trying to change the subject because he never could answer the question,” the senator said. “It’s pretty evident it’s never been about a strategy – it’s been about him. That’s unfortunate. I think he’s done our country a major disservice. I think he’s done Republicans a major disservice.”

Having an end-game is the starting point of a successful strategy. When it comes to blocking Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, those who know more about the rules of the Senate than I do have suggested that there is no procedural way for Democrats to accomplish that in the current Congress. That leaves a question of whether or not they can win over at least two Republicans. I’d suggest the odds are long to non-existent on that one, but I agree with what Greg Sargent wrote.

[Democrats] can do everything in their power to frame the stakes for the country in the coming battle over Trump’s pick, educating and mobilizing large swaths of the voting public in advance of the elections, making this deeply uncomfortable for the handful of GOP senators who could conceivably be persuaded to vote no (even if that’s a huge long shot), and for Republican incumbents who are vulnerable this fall.

In terms of the message, I agree with John Stoehr, the smartest move at this point is not to adopt McConnell’s rule. The majority leader himself is content to drop that one…for now. To the extent that Democrats embrace it, the rule takes on a life of its own and presidents going forward will not be able to get their nominees confirmed as long as the opening comes during “election season,” which increasingly covers most of every calendar year.

It is time for a new rule on SCOTUS nominations:

Here’s how Stoehr put it:

No confirmation of lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court until the American people know Trump did not conspire with the Russian government to win the presidency, and did not obstruct justice in the determination of that fact.

It is very possible that between now and the midterms Robert Mueller will at least release his findings on obstruction of justice, and there is the specter of Manafort’s upcoming trials this summer/fall, unless he eventually pleads guilty. In other words, short of starting a war with North Korea or Iran, the whole Russia investigation is going to be front and center very soon. If Democrats are advocating for this new rule in the midst of all that, it at least ups the ante for voters to pressure their Republican senators against voting for Trump’s SCOTUS nominee.

As I mentioned previously, even if Democrats win back the Senate this November, a Republican will occupy the White House until 2021. I’m not convinced that it will be possible to obstruct a Supreme Court nominee until then. But aside from the stakes we’re facing, Democrats could make a strong argument that filling this seat should at least be delayed until we know whether or not this president conspired with the Russian government to win the election and obstructed justice to cover it up. That’s how you play this one both hard and smart.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.