The GOP rank-and-file just love to call Obama an emperor, insinuating that he’s left the constitution behind and become a lawless president. They accuse him of abusing his executive authority and label him accordingly. But President Obama has done much more to get his way than sign a few executive orders. At nearly every alpha-item turn, the President has outfoxed the entire Republican congress even after they took control of both houses in 2012.
The president has a handful of foreign policy accomplishments like the historic Iran deal, the historic Cuba re-engagement, and historic climate deals. And there’s more. The president won every shutdown or near shutdown fight over spending and the debt limit, passed him signature healthcare reform bill, and managed to preside over same-sex marriage’s court win as icing on the cake. The Republicans have been powerless to stop him, and yet have managed to become known as ‘the party of no’ even as they attempt to stifle his every initiative.
Now comes the death of Antonin Scalia, noted conservative jurist and scourge of the left, and the subsequent nomination of Merrick Garland. Almost predictably the reaction on the right was nakedly political. ‘Obama gets to name another justice, replacing a conservative?! Over my dead body!’ Many of them, even before the end of the day, had publicly come out as saying they would never confirm a justice nominated by President Obama, even though nearly a year remained before the end of his term.
Let me now take a moment to mention that Republicans have become amazing adept at these kinds of knee jerk reactions, and this is probably the most notable to date. It’s even more damazing than their last major political failure when, led by Senator Ted Cruz, they shut down the government over the federal budget in October of 2013. In this case, and in an astonishing display of political malpractice, they have tied their deliberate intransigence to an unpopular issue directly connected to the presidential election.
In picking this issue to make a stand, the Republicans have given several great political tools to their adversaries and have left themselves no way out of their own box.
First, this knee-jerk display of partisanship will be seen as obstructionism by objective people. Most people feel that this popular president has a right to select the replacement. Also, the constitution is clear on presidential and congressional responsibilities. The Republican’s primary rationale – that the American people should have their say thereby delaying consideration of a replacement – rings hollow, given that it’s only March. And those who say Obama ignores the constitution are now forced to eat their own words as they ignore their own party’s political departure from any kind of strict adherence to the letter of the law. Many will be hammered for months as hypocrites.
Secondly, vulnerable Republicans and those who aren’t plain crazy will understand that this posture of denying Garland a vote will not play well with moderate voters. The President’s approval rating is high right now, and varound surveys reportedly agree with the President that the nominee should be considered by congress and given a vote. These Republicans will put pressure on their own party to move past the issue, and in so doing, squeeze Mitch McConnell between their own vulnerable candidates and their immovable base.
Finally, this issue isn’t going away and is tied existentially to the election. This means that voters will, in part, make decisions based on the optics associated with this event. Democrats will no doubt work tirelessly to keep this partisan blockade of this nomination on the minds of voters right up until election day. The Republicans are acting unfairly and Some voters will probably punish them for it.
So Republicans, led by Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell, have once again built themselves a nice box to sit in. If they hold firm on their position not to grant a vote to the nominee, they will suffer repeated attacks all the way through election day. On the other hand, if they relent, they will be seen as weak and ineffective by their unrelentingly extreme voter base. They really have nowhere to go on this issue.