Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's retirement is the shoe that everyone had been waiting to drop. It was the prospect of that shoe dropping — along with liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's still-unrealized retirement — that gave the GOP incentive to fall in line behind Trump in 2016. This is the moment Republicans have been eyeing since they broke with long-running precedent and used bogus justifications to blockade Merrick Garland's nomination in the last year of Barack Obama's presidency.
That maneuver — however ugly and unseemly and however much damage it might have done the GOP had the chips not fallen so right — has now entirely paid off. The Republicans got to replace Garland with a more conservative nominee in Neil M. Gorsuch, keeping the court with roughly the same balance as when Antonin Scalia was on the court. Now they get to shift it to the right by replacing its regular swing vote, Kennedy, with a conservative nominee. (This assumes they can get a bare majority in the Senate, where Republicans have 51 votes.)
The result is that more conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is likely to be the new fulcrum of the court rather than the more moderate Kennedy.
They could also get an election year issue that could accrue to their benefit — and help keep the Senate in Republican hands for a possible Ginsburg vacancy over the next two years. Democrats have clearly had the momentum in the 2018 midterms in recent months, and that momentum owed in large part to their superior motivation and enthusiasm.
A Supreme Court payoff for the Republican Party — with hearings and a confirmation likely to come close to Election Day — is the kind of thing that could remind not just GOP members of Congress but also Trump voters that their Trump gambit paid dividends. It also puts serious pressure on the many Democrats seeking reelection in clearly red states, like North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, Montana's Jon Tester and Indiana's Joe Donnelly.
Some will interpret this piece as a celebration of the GOP's political and tactical acumen and willingness to try to Win At All Costs. That's not the point. The point is that our politics just took another step toward the abyss.
The Republican Party made a choice to embrace the most unorthodox president in our history — a president many of them worried would sink their party and experts think may be doing irreparable damage to our political institutions. They have overlooked comments some of them viewed as racist, bigoted and sexist and given him a pass on decisions they clearly regard as bad for the country. And all of it was in the name of keeping the peace. All of it was with an eye toward the power that Trump may one day wield to shift the course of the country for years and decades to come.
Don't expect Republicans to do anything but bear-hug Trump from here and shrug off virtually every controversy that comes along. Trump just became much more powerful, and the GOP is going to be less willing to provide a check on him — if it even wanted to. That's only going to inflame Democrats who were already tired of playing by the old rules, so many of which Trump has already broken, and getting rewarded by losing.
If civility had a bad week, it's about to have a really bad next couple of years.