Americans Want the Senate to Consider Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee. But That Won’t Be Enough to Bring Action.

By Christopher Joseph

  • Public polling shows two-thirds of Americans want the U.S. Senate to at least consider President Obama’s nomination to the nation’s highest court  
  • Democrats think that means Americans will punish Republicans for their obstruction in November.
  • They’re probably wrong

The latest poll, released just Friday, confirms what other polls had already said:  Americans aren’t too keen on Republicans refusing even to consider a new nominee to the Supreme Court in an election year – a tell-off to the constitution they profess to hold so dear.  Democrats think – or at least say they think – the fact that Americans so clearly don’t like playing political football with the Court will hurt Republicans in this year’s elections. It could indeed cost the Republicans control of the Senate, where they hold a four-seat majority, Democrats say, because voters in swing states will reject this blatant show of partisanship. Democrats are even gearing up for a blitz of local action in the states of vulnerable Senators to ramp up pressure.

That won’t be enough to break Republican resistance, even if a few frightened senators defect, and it’s certainly not going to spell electoral doom for the GOP. Below I tell you why. But first, a bit of background.   

What’s the controversy?

Beginning with the most basic for the uninitiated, the U.S. Supreme Court has nine members who are appointed by the president but confirmed by the Senate. Confirmation usually entails some committee hearings where Senators ask probing questions about lightning-rod issues like guns and abortion, followed by a vote before the whole Senate. This process is enshrined in the Constitution.

The court matters so much because it decides huge constitutional questions that determine the legality of things like abortion, gay marriage, hand-gun ownership, and on and on. This reason is basically why Republicans are playing hard ball. That, and the fact that Justice Antonin Scalia was the best player on their team, and now he’s dead. Scalia died suddenly in February, and Republicans almost immediately argued that Obama should not name a replacement, given that it’s an election year, and even if he tried Republicans would refuse to examine the nominee or hold a vote. With Scalia gone, this president or the next has a chance to swing the ideological makeup of the court for years.  

Despite what Republicans have said, that is unprecedented. Other Senates have attempted to block nominees, and Vice President Joe Biden did try to play hard ball in 1992 to force a compromise choice for a nominee if it became necessary, but those events never came to pass. Refusing as an opening salvo to touch a nominee is quite a new thing, and maintaining that resistance even after Obama does suggest a compromise candidate, Merrick Garland, a man Republicans have heaped praised on in the past, takes the issue a step further.

What’s next?

Democrats intend to pressure Republicans into backing away from their position by threatening the elections of incumbents who have to campaign for a fresh term this fall. The 100-member Senate is a different beast than the 434-member House because candidates have to appeal to their entire state, not just a narrowly finagled district of like-minded ideological purists. In other words, rationality and decency are supposed to have a better chance of prevailing in Senate elections because a broader swath of humanity participates. Reasonable people, the thinking goes, don’t like nakedly ugly political partisanship, and they know it when they see it. This Supreme Court obstruction appears to fit the bill.

But the Democrats’ strategy is flawed for a few reasons, and I suspect they know that already. To point out the obvious, Americans don’t know much about the Supreme Court, and despite its huge importance, they don’t much care. Polls routinely show that scores of Americans can’t even name a single Supreme Court justice, and wide swaths of the population don’t understand the basic workings of the court or even notice when it makes a huge decision (some 45 percent of those polled right after the Court upheld Obama’s health reform, a law that has fueled Republican electoral wins for years, didn’t know the decision the Court made).  To put it simply, people aren’t going to decide how they vote based on an institution they never really cared about in the first place.  

“But this Supreme Court issue will catch fire as wider condemnation of the Party of No’s reflexive obstinacy and cynicism in the Obama era! You’ll see!” At least that’s what Democrats will say – that they can turn this example into a wider referendum on Republican tactics over the last eight years. But they haven’t been able to do that yet, despite trying mightily, and voters have had no problem punishing Barack Obama’s party in Congress since he started the job. Simply put, that strategy hasn’t worked yet, and it’s not going to start working now.

Let’s be honest: it’s far more likely that, should Republicans in sensible states lose this year, it will be because the top of their ticket has the name “Trump” or “Cruz” on it, not because the party refused to do its job.  That, or voters will be fed up with the Republicans who run their individual state – as we’re already seeing in places like Wisconsin, a once proudly progressive Midwestern state that underwent a GOP transplant and looks to be potentially rejecting its new organ.  


Photo Credit: CC Image courtesy of angela n. on Flickr