Washington insiders have long considered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to be a shameless and cynical operator. But the Kentucky Republican’s actions over the past four years have so radicalized the Supreme Court selection process that Democrats will surely respond to McConnell’s extreme partisanship once back in power. During Trump’s presidency, “the world’s greatest deliberative body” has been reduced to a crude vote-counting chamber; this new legislative reality means Democrats would need only 50 senators and one president to pack the Supreme Court in 2021. Expect that to happen, since McConnell’s callous response to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death will speed the GOP toward a permanent minority status.
To be fair, the Republican Party’s future was already grim; White resentment doesn’t mix well with revolutionary demographic change. And the appointment of yet another Trump justice before the election will only further alienate Republicans from women, suburban voters and independents.
It should be noted that when discussing the judicial nominating process, Rome was not burned in a day. The court wars have been running hot since Reagan nominee Robert Bork was vilified on the Senate floor as a champion of segregated lunch counters and back-alley abortions less than an hour after his nomination. With decades of inglorious history as a backdrop, Trump will soon nominate a judge for the highest court in the land with the goal of ending health-care coverage for millions and reversing almost 50 years of pro-choice precedent. But before Democrats submit to despair, they should remember wisdom I recall Illinois Sen. Paul Simon imparting upon his retirement: “In politics, sometimes when you win, you lose; and sometimes when you lose, you win.”
I was reminded of the late senator’s words when my phone began ringing after Ginsburg’s death. Democrats were inconsolable at the loss of their legal hero and believed her death would guarantee Trump’s reelection. Democrats always seem predisposed to assume the worst, but they should look more closely at the dynamics of this Supreme Court fight. The GOP’s brutish moves will end in defeat for Trump, McConnell and the Republican Party’s most endangered senators.
The biggest political loser will be Susan Collins. Maine’s senior senator spent her political career posing as a pro-choice moderate. But when the future of Roe v. Wade hung in the balance in 2018, Collins backed Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination. That flip-flop transformed Collins from the most popular Republican in the Senate chamber to the least — her approval rating in Maine was a towering 78 percent in 2015; after she voted for Kavanaugh, it fell to 42. Maine’s maladroit senator promised voters that the new justice would respect precedent. But Kavanaugh quickly made Collins look foolish when he voted to undermine Roe this year.
Trump likewise made a liar of the Maine senator after she voted to acquit him of all impeachment charges because, as she explained, “the president has learned from this case.” Soon the “newly educated” president fired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for the sin of testifying truthfully to Congress, interfered in confidant Roger Stone’s sentencing and encouraged congressional allies to launch a partisan investigation of Joe Biden. Now the prospects of another anti-choice justice on the court will only remind voters of all this.
Sen. Cory Gardner will meet a similar fate in Colorado, where the endangered GOP incumbent is already bleeding support from suburban voters and women. Iowa’s Joni Ernst is running in a state where 25 percent of Trump’s voters identified themselves as pro-choice in 2016. Ernst, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis and Montana’s Steve Daines will also feel the wrath of the constituencies Trump is alienating.
Still, the impact on Trump himself will likely be greater. The Kaiser Family Foundation polled Americans this year and found that 69 percent opposed the overturning of Roe; only 29 percent support its reversal. That is a political gantlet that only this president would charge through weeks before an election.
The collateral damage caused by Trump and McConnell’s strategic misstep will contribute to the president’s defeat and a Democratic majority in the Senate next year. The long-term impact on cases involving health-care coverage and abortion rights will likely be muted by the Democratic Senate’s response to McConnell’s brinkmanship. The Kentucky senator’s guiding principle of “might makes right” will soon be turned against him, and all his hard work destroying political norms in the U.S. Senate will be for naught.