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Opinion In Supreme Court fight, Republicans lead with their chins

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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Senate Republicans continue to dig in behind their position that they will not give any consideration to anyone nominated by President Obama to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. But wait! Another group of Republicans has now stepped forth and indicated a willingness to examine that nominee’s background and fitness for the High Court. Does that mean we’re seeing a thaw?

Well, no. The group in question is the Republican National Committee. Roll Call reports that the RNC is vowing to launch a major campaign against that nominee, once Obama has selected one:

Republicans aren’t waiting for President Barack Obama to name a Supreme Court nominee before laying the groundwork to turn him or her into a piñata.
The Republican National Committee is teaming up with America Rising, a conservative political action committee known for particular expertise in opposition research, to go on the offensive against any Obama nominee.
“This will be the most comprehensive judicial response effort in our party’s history,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “If the president wants to break with decades of precedent by pushing through a nominee in an election year, we’re going to vet that person and put their real record on display.”
The RNC effort will involve a fully array of tactics, from radio and digital commercials to robocalls to surrogate efforts in key states, according to an RNC official.

Beyond the claim that Obama would be breaking with “decades of precedent” by offering a nominee — a claim that should be viewed with some skepticism for the reasons outlined by Politifact — the choice of words here is interesting. Republican operatives will “vet that person and put their real record on display.” Ideally, of course, this is what would happen if the Senate were to hold hearings on that person. But that might afford the nominee a chance to directly respond to his or her Republican cross-examiners in a high profile setting (as opposed to only having Democratic groups mount all the pushback, which of course they will also do, once there is a nominee). Direct exchanges between the nominee and Republican Senators, alas, might reflect well on that person. And so the only “vetting” and examination of the nominee’s “real record” will be undertaken through the RNC and associated GOP-aligned groups.

That’s not meant as sarcasm. It’s the actual Republican party-wide position right now. Remember, Senate Republicans themselves have told reporters that they don’t want to hold hearings explicitly because it would risk drawing the wrong kind of media attention to the nominee, thus making it harder politically for GOP Senators — particularly vulnerable incumbents facing reelection in states carried by Obama — to oppose that person later. As CNN reported last month, Senate Republicans are holding off on any hearings, because

they risk giving Obama’s choice an opportunity to detail his or her life story and legal qualifications, and they’d rather stop the nominee before giving the White House and Senate Democrats a chance to build momentum.
…for vulnerable GOP senators, several Republicans argued that it would be much better politically for those members to avoid a vote, rather than have to cast a judgment on the merits of nominee who could be well-qualified and well-liked.

The vetting of the nominee, then, will be carried out by political operatives, even as Senate Republicans keep the nomination process on hold indefinitely.

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Now, to be clear, Senate Republicans are under no obligation to hold hearings this year. Despite Dem suggestions otherwise, the Constitution is silent on the core dispute at issue here. This is at bottom a battle over governing norms — over whether Democrats can persuade voters that Republicans should act on Obama’s nominee, in order to make the system function better, and over whether Democrats can successfully cast GOP inaction as so contrary to basic governing responsibilities that it becomes politically unsustainable.

Viewed in that context, the planned RNC attack on that nominee, however effectively it shapes public perceptions of that person, may also provide Democrats with another strong attack on Senate Republicans for refusing to hold any hearings at all. As it is, this battle is already littered with potential land mines for the GOP: Within days, Donald Trump may have tightened his grip on the GOP nomination, perhaps knocking Marco Rubio out of the race. Also within days, Obama may have put forth an actual nominee, whose qualifications and life story will be gaining media attention. That could make it harder for GOP Senators to hold out against considering that person, since they will be increasingly pressed to explain why they are doing this so that President Trump — who is widely being described by Republicans and conservatives as a danger to the republic — may end up choosing the next Supreme Court justice instead.

Or as Brian Beutler puts it today: “Republicans, who desperately want to stop Trump, are now effectively united behind the purpose of letting him shape the Supreme Court for a generation.”

It’s possible that Democrats may fail to extract sufficient political pain to force Republican action on Obama’s nominee. Or Republicans may end up calculating that doing nothing is the least bad option, since it avoids enraging the GOP base and doesn’t afford the nominee the sort of public exchanges with GOP Senators that might complicate opposing that person later. But the specter of the RNC vowing to “vet” the nominee and evaluate his or her “real record,” through pre-planned attacks on that person — even before the nominee’s identity is known, and even as Senate Republicans decline to do their part in the process — could help highlight the untenable absurdity of the GOP stance, making the Dem case that much easier to make.


UPDATE: It’s not quite right to assert that the RNC’s claim that Obama would be breaking with “decades of precedent” by nominating someone has been completely debunked, as the original post did. I’ve edited the above for accuracy. A good discussion of the issue is here.