Republicans think they've found the silver bullet when it comes to rejecting an Obama Supreme Court nominee out of hand.
The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler on Monday unearthed a 1992 speech from then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), when he was head of the Senate panel in charge of considering Supreme Court nominees, in which he advocated against considering a Supreme Court pick by President George H.W. Bush in an election year.
There must be some days when politicians wish C-SPAN had not been invented. https://t.co/ntA0l1o7XP
— Glenn Kessler (@GlennKesslerWP) February 22, 2016
Here's the passage from Biden's June 1992 speech that has everyone in a tizzy, as written up by The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis:
Were there a vacancy, Biden argued, Bush should “not name a nominee until after the November election is completed,” and if he did, “the Senate Judiciary Committee should seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings on the nomination until after the political campaign season is over.”
“Senate consideration of a nominee under these circumstances is not fair to the president, to the nominee, or to the Senate itself,” he continued. “Where the nation should be treated to a consideration of constitutional philosophy, all it will get in such circumstances is partisan bickering and political posturing from both parties and from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Biden echoed this sentiment in an interview with The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne shortly before the speech:
"If someone steps down, I would highly recommend the president not name someone, not send a name up," Biden said. "If he [Bush] did send someone up, I would ask the Senate to seriously consider not having a hearing on that nominee."
"Can you imagine dropping a nominee, after the three or four or five decisions that are about to made by the Supreme Court, into that fight, into that cauldron in the middle of a presidential year?" Biden went on. "I believe there would be no bounds of propriety that would be honored by either side. . . . The environment within which such a hearing would be held would be so supercharged and so prone to be able to be distorted."
"Whomever the nominee was, good, bad or indifferent," he added, "would become a victim."
If you're a Republican under pressure — or concerned about vulnerable blue-state GOP incumbents being under pressure — for considering holding up Obama's to-be-determined pick, what Biden said would seem to be pretty damning stuff.
But in the end, the vice president's past words probably don't fundamentally shift the high-stakes debate.
Here's how Biden defends it: He says he was speaking about a hypothetical (there was no court vacancy at the time). He was also speaking in June of an election year — not February — which is around the time something called the Thurmond Rule has traditionally kicked in. (Though congressional experts say the Thurmond Rule is less an actual rule and more of a guideline that both parties call on when politically expedient on when the Senate can shut down the judicial confirmation process.)
But the real reason Biden's comments probably won't give Republicans the edge is that there was likely never going to be a consensus among the American people on this anyway. And there's too much gray area in his comments for this to be seen as a game-changer.
A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans are split evenly on whether the Senate should vote on Obama's pick or wait until next year. Dig deeper into the results and you'll see there's little room for that number to change. A full 81 percent of Democrats polled say the Senate should consider Obama's pick — the same percentage of Republicans polled who say the Senate should wait to consider the next president's pick.
In other words, Americans view this Supreme Court battle through the same lens they view most events in Washington these days — through their politics.
What Biden's 1992 comments show more than anything is that politicians do the same, especially when it comes to the forever that is approving a president's Supreme Court nomination.
There are a handful of examples of major players in the Senate appearing to flip-flop — depending on the president doing the nominating — on whether the Senate can and should block Supreme Court nominations in an election year, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). As we noted, though, not all of the examples are so clearly self-contradictory. As in Biden's case, questions are raised of when this no-nominees period should begin and whether the Senate shouldn't confirm any justices or simply should be extra-selective in doing so.
Still, what today's players said yesterday doesn't seem to have changed a significant number of people's minds, if any at all.
"You can have all the competing quotes you want," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. "They amount to nothing."
Schumer was making the case, according to polls from Pew Research Center and Fox News, that a majority of Americans (between 56 and 62 percent) think the Senate should vote on Obama's pick. But Schumer's broader point about Biden stands: When there's so much discrepancy on both sides, it's difficult for one in particular to stand out.
That's why Biden's 1992 comments are less of a watershed moment in today's Supreme Court drama and just one more example of politicians saying things that make political sense at the time.