In the hours after Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden death in February 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made one of the riskiest decisions of his career: He wasn't going to let the Senate consider President Barack Obama's pick to fill the vacant seat. He'd wait until after the presidential election to confirm someone.
It was risky for all sorts of reasons: McConnell was making himself single-handedly responsible for leaving a vacancy on the Supreme Court for more than a year, a highly unusual (though not unconstitutional) thing to do. Democrats whipped this up as a rallying cry to urge their base to vote for Hillary Clinton in November and turn the Senate Democratic. McConnell had to gamble that Donald Trump would win the presidency.
McConnell, in other words, was staking it all — the Senate, the presidency and the conservative balance of the Supreme Court — on this one, bold decision.
But he won all three, of course, and this week it's paying off in dividends. McConnell can claim he's singularly responsible for keeping the Supreme Court with a 5-4 conservative balance, and with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's retirement, he now has the chance to shape the Supreme Court in an even more conservative mold for a generation. Kennedy has traditionally been a pivotal swing vote, and his replacement could be much more conservative.
Senate Democrats are demanding that McConnell hold off on confirming someone until after the midterm elections, hoping that they will take back the Senate and force Trump to make a more moderate pick. But beyond asking nicely, there's not much they can do about it. McConnell is in charge of the Senate, and he can plausibly argue that midterm elections are different than the 2016 election. The one in November decides Congress, which only approves a Supreme Court pick. The other decides the president, who gets to make that pick.
Hours before Kennedy announced his retirement, McConnell was essentially bragging about his role in making the courts more conservative: “I think it’s the single most important thing we’re doing,” he said in an interview with Politico. “My view was the American people had given us an opportunity to move the country right of center.”
McConnell's actually been bragging about his decision quite a bit lately. In April, he told the Kentucky Today editorial board: “I thought the decision I made not to fill the Supreme Court vacancy when Justice Scalia died was the most consequential decision I’ve ever made in my entire public career.”
He said that even before he knew how vindicating this week in particular would be for him.
Before Kennedy's retirement, McConnell was celebrating two massive Supreme Court decisions that will shape the political landscape on immigration (upholding Trump's travel ban) and unions (that public unions can't require collecting fees from nonmembers) in his party's favor. The Supreme Court has also recently declined to force lawmakers to stop considering voters' politics when they draw their electoral maps, which could have helped Democrats as they try to take the majority of the House of Representatives in November.
In other words, we're only just beginning to feel the magnitude of the decision McConnell made on that February afternoon in 2016. And as bold as that decision was, the benefits for him and the Republican Party are an order of magnitude greater.