Mitch McConnell has forgotten his poker face. Last week he placed his opening ante in a remarkably large gamble. In what many consider to be a new political low, Majority Leader McConnell issued a statement a mere hours after Justice Scalia’s death was announced saying the Senate would not consider a new Supreme Court nominee under President Obama. This is a gamble in its own regard, but then yesterday voters in South Carolina gave Donald J. Trump a rousing mandate heading towards the Republican nomination.
In a normal presidential election year this gamble would have a decent chance of paying off. Most elections in the past couple decades have been relatively close and only but a couple times in the past hundred years has a member of a two-term president’s party been elected. Thus, by waiting until next year, McConnell could envision a Republican president nominating the next Justice.
However, this isn’t a normal election year and if Donald Trump becomes the nominee next fall, we will more than likely end up with a Democratic president. McConnell is taking a huge personal risk here and the blame will fall squarely on his shoulders should the chips fall on the wrong side of the table.
The Republican electorate is shaping up to bet the farm on Donald J. Trump as their nominee for the White House. While he may have gained traction among blue collar Republicans as a symbol of the revolt against the political establishment, he has very little – some would say no – appeal among Independents and Democrats. Failure to broaden his support would likely lend him to the same fate as Wendell Willkie, the last business mogul candidate, who lost in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.
If Trump or any other Republican loses in the fall, McConnell will likely be left with a narrower majority in the Senate and a new Democratic president who will have a mandate to nominate a Justice of their choosing. After all, in McConnell’s hastily released statement he asserted that the people’s decision next fall should speak for the type of Justice to be nominated.
Before the South Carolina primary, there was still a glimmer of hope that Republican voters would come to their senses and choose a more classic candidate. But the Trump machine kept rolling, fueled by record turnout and relentless media coverage keeping him in the headlines.
Trump’s base of support primarily comes from white, non-college educated voters. Along with picking off parts of the evangelical and hardline conservative vote, Trump has formed a speckled coalition that likely can carry him to the Republican nomination. The problem however, is that his brand is unlikely to appeal to anyone whom it hasn’t appealed to thus far. His divisive nature has alienated Hispanics, Muslims, women, Democrats and a host of other voters whose support is required to eventually secure 270 electoral votes.
All of this makes McConnell’s hardline stance on the Supreme Court nomination that much riskier. If Trump succeeds in becoming the Republican nominee and then fails to form the broad, bi-partisan coalition needed to win the general election, then McConnell’s bet will have backfired.
Had he not issued such a reactive statement last week, McConnell could have played his cards in a number of other ways that would have allowed him to hedge his bets against next November’s outcome.
First, he could have issued a statement saying he’ll give the Obama’s nominee a fair hearing. Then as the year wore on, he could delay, stall, and offer countless excuses until the Senate recesses for the campaign season next fall. With the clock expired he could then blame Democrats for picking an “extreme” candidate and failing to reach a consensus on the next Justice.
Or, with the American people’s best interest in mind, he could have used his position as a power-broker in the Senate to force the President to nominate an ideological centrist whom the Senate could confirm, thus denying Democrats the full liberal shift they foresaw with Scalia’s passing.
While neither of those tracks would produce a 100% ideal outcome for McConnell, they would certainly be preferable to allowing a President Hillary Clinton to nominate and confirm a truly liberal Justice.
Only time will tell how this story plays out, but if I were a betting man, I’d place my money that it won’t end well for Mitch McConnell. His overt attempt at obstructionism to deny President Obama the ability to seat a new Justice on the Supreme Court was short sighted, reactionary thinking that will in all likelihood produce a worse result for conservatives than the alternatives.