On Jan. 31, while the Trump administration enjoyed its first and only controversy-free day, my deepest, darkest fears became reality — Sen. Mitch McConnell was rewarded handsomely for his Merrick Garland antics.
With President Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, the Senate Majority Leader not only got the conservative justice for whom he had been pining, but also validated his long-standing belief that he has no obligation to respect the institutional norms of American government.
McConnell’s unprecedented 294-day blockade of President Obama’s nominee to the high court was not just an isolated incident — it was the culmination of a lengthy series of iconoclastic maneuvers aimed at consolidating power. Over the last 31 years, McConnell built a career off unabashedly-obstructionist tactics, foregoing responsible governance in favor of grandstanding and empty rhetoric — he is the physical manifestation of everything that everyday Americans despise about Washington elites, now boasting the highest disapproval rating of any sitting member of the Senate.
A cold, calculating opportunist, McConnell showed time and time again that he only respects norms when it’s politically expedient to do so. Once an avid user of the filibuster during debates in the 1990s over McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, McConnell has since changed his tune on the controversial delay tactic — now that it’s convenient for him. Becoming the most powerful man in the Senate in 2010 only gave him a larger platform for his nonsense; he stated from the get-go that “our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.” Though that never came to fruition, his party kept their promise to fervently oppose the president at every step, blocking an ambassadorial nominee for 820 days (the count ended only by her death) as retribution for the president’s signing of the Iran nuclear deal, and leaving 61 federal judicial nominees unconfirmed. This isn’t normal, and shouldn’t be regarded as such. McConnell’s behavior is irresponsible, dangerous, and corrosive to the robustness of American democracy.
In light of this, I hold an opinion wildly unpopular with most Democrats, and am prepared to make one of my most heavily-qualified statements ever. Did Senators Cruz (R-TX) and Burr (R-NC) imply that they would have allowed the court vacancy to go unfilled for four years if Clinton had won? Yes. Did DC’s resident invertebrate, Speaker Paul Ryan, insist that the Senate was not constitutionally-obligated to hold hearings on a judicial nominee? Sadly. Was Merrick Garland’s demise an abject travesty, brought to us by partisan hackery? Absolutely. Despite all of this, the Democrats should treat Gorsuch exactly the way that they would one of their own nominees — with tact and without contrived delay tactics.
There is no doubt that Gorsuch is a nightmare to social progressives (though no more so than Justice Scalia); however, from a strictly pragmatic perspective, Gorsuch’s brand of consistent and principled separation-of-powers constitutionalism bodes well for those seeking a powerful check against executive overreach in the new administration. In many ways, Trump’s nominee is the anti-Trump — a staunch advocate for Fourth Amendment protections and decentralized power. The Democrats are not going to get a remotely-liberal nominee for at least another four years, and pie-in-the-sky idealism has not proven to be an effective strategy in recent election cycles. Building political capital is all about strategically choosing points of engagement, and this should not be one of them.
It’s not an easy decision to make, and the calculus is complex, with plenty of moving parts. Democrats can either choose to filibuster, thus requiring a 60-vote threshold for confirmation, in an attempt to derail the nominee, or they can proceed as usual with a simple-majority vote. Should they choose to filibuster, Senate Republicans possess the numbers, political will and ability to do away with the judicial filibuster (the so-called “nuclear option”), and confirm Gorsuch anyway. This would cause problems down the line if another justice were to leave the bench, thereby creating a situation in which the ideological balance of the court could flip.
The dilemma reveals a larger issue at hand for the Democrats — at present, they have no overarching political strategy. While the most vocal members of the liberal base are clamoring for fireworks and in vehement opposition to Trump (resembling the Republicans vs. Obama in 2010), this is not necessarily the case in the moderate wing of the party, which seeks to balance principle with responsible governance. Is sacrificing the filibuster a suitable price to pay for a strictly symbolic move that appeals only to a vocal minority? Is caving on Gorsuch really an event that will depress progressive turnout in two years? Given the uncertainty, the risk of Democrats overplaying their hand seems too large to justify an action with dubious payoff. Instead, Democrats must assert themselves as the party of accountability, championing steadfast commitment to the very norms that allow our government to function properly. Trump made it increasingly clear just how important these norms are in situations where no formal laws exist to temper the behavior of those in power. The next several months will be telling — was “when they go low, we go high” just a kitschy campaign slogan, or is it something more?
The Supreme Court is one of America’s last bastions of institutional integrity. It is not perfect, nor is it some fortress of impartiality, completely immune from politics, but it is undoubtedly the most dignified branch of our dysfunctional government, steeped in rich tradition and an unabating reverence for the Constitution. Congress must treat it with the respect it deserves — so much more than what it has been given. Indefinite obstruction of Supreme Court nominees is neither right nor sustainable. I do not expect Senate Democrats to vote for Gorsuch, but if they’re going to do so, vote him down fairly and on his merits, or lack thereof, not because of Mitch McConnell’s tomfoolery.
Matthew Ribel is a College sophomore from Chantilly, Virginia.