Joe Manchin
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin Credit: Senate Democrats/Flickr

Carl Hulse at the New York Times has an odd piece today declaring that red state Senate Democrats facing re-election this year will be in a bind over whether to accept or reject Trump’s impending nominee to replace Justice Stevens:

Democratic senators running for re-election in Trump Country face an agonizing choice over President Trump’s coming Supreme Court nominee: Vote to confirm the pick and risk demoralizing Democratic voters ahead of the midterm elections, or stick with the party and possibly sacrifice their own seats — and any chance at a Democratic majority in 2019…

A decision by one or all of them to try to bolster their standing with Republican-leaning voters in their states by backing the president’s nominee would undermine Democratic leaders as they try to sustain party unity. And if their votes put the president’s choice on the court, it could hasten the move to the left by the party’s aggressive activist core, while intensifying the clamor for new, more confrontational leadership.

But if they hold together on a “no” vote, those senators could not only surrender their own seats, but by expanding the Republican majority, they could also narrow the path of Democrats to a Senate majority for years to come by ceding those states to Republicans.

This is a puzzling take on the situation for several reasons.

First, it assumes that “a move to the left by the party’s aggressive activist core” would be a bad thing somehow. That’s a common perspective at major media outlets from the Gray Lady to CNN to NPR, where you frequently see and hear the usual suspects flatly declare that progressive positions and attitudes will harm Democratic chances in swing states, without actually getting into the messy details of what that means. Is the suggestion that the politics of Randy Bryce, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown are a bad fit contested states and districts? Is it widely believed that Medicare-for-All funded by taxes on the Wall Street elite would play poorly in West Virginia and Montana? This is lazy punditry based on an outdated “there are a few extremists on the left and the right but the vast majority of people are in the center” deliberate misunderstanding of American politics that hasn’t been accurate since at least 1996.

Second, it wildly overestimates the degree of punishment Democratic senators like Tester (D-MT) and Manchin (D-WV) will take by rejecting Trump’s nominee for several reasons. Persuadable voters don’t actually want the court to lurch hard to the right, and they don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. Senators could flatly state that they expect a centrist nominee in the mold of Stevens rather than a hard-right one in the mold of Alito in order to maintain the balance of the court. If these persuadable red-state voters are as moderate in their temperaments as pundits seem to believe, then this argument will be persuasive.

Beyond that, it was Republicans who established the rule that the people should get to weigh in on a Supreme Court nominee. It would be painfully simple for Tester, Heitkamp and Manchin to declare that they have a principled objection to affirming any Trump nominee until after a new Senate seats in January 2019, at which time hopefully there will be more Democratic Senators able to give them a pass to vote to affirm a Trump nominee while the caucus nonetheless forces a more moderate pick. All they need do is affirm that they are following the McConnell rule.

There’s also the possibility of simply pointing out that a President under intense scrutiny from the FBI and Justice Department over widespread malfeasance should not be making generational changes to the court until the investigation is complete.

The number of conservative votes red state Democratic Senators would lose from standing their ground on these arguments would be far fewer than the deflated and angry liberals–even in a state like West Virginia–who might stay home and fail to come to the polls if their Senator cast the deciding vote on the justice would likely facilitate the banning of abortion in their state.

It’s not really a hard decision at all. It only seems that way from the outmoded political perspective in much of the mainstream press.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.