Red-state Dems under pressure for SCOTUS vote

Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) says that he could vote either way on President Donald Trump's yet-to-be announced nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Posted: Jul 9, 2018 7:56 PM
Updated: Jul 9, 2018 8:13 PM

The next few weeks figure to be extraordinarily painful for Democrats. What's still to be decided is whether the years -- and decades -- to come will follow with more of the same.

President Donald Trump's second Supreme Court nominee will, like his first, almost certainly be confirmed by Senate Republicans and, depending on how the confirmation hearings unfold, a few red state Democrats. The future of Roe v. Wade, along with Obamacare and other core liberal achievements, will soon be considered ripe for conservative legal and legislative challenges.

Some 12 days after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his decision to retire, Democratic leaders in Washington have yet to coalesce around a clear strategy for opposing his would-be successor. Progressive groups are working to organize and energize the opposition, but they too have been vague in articulating how or by what means this fight ultimately breaks their way.

They must also be aware, and have to live with the fact, that a number of the 10 Democrats running for re-election in states Trump won -- Democrats they'll need to rely on if they can reclaim a majority -- may break with the party, as some did in backing Neil Gorsuch's nomination.

It's a pitiable state of affairs. Whatever direction Trump goes, even if it causes some initial agita on the right, will almost surely end with a coalescing around the nominee. The best case for Democrats, meanwhile, is to keep from splintering while parlaying almost certain defeat into more fuel for the base as the midterm elections approach and the 2020 presidential season comes up on the horizon.

Moving that way will require a shift in thinking both on and off Capitol Hill. To start, it's not a cop-out to concede that, more than any ideological divide on the left or lack of tactical imagination, the trouble for Democrats now is rooted in simple math. Unless a GOP senator joins them, Democrats don't have the votes to defeat Trump's pick.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both of whom support abortion rights, could, in theory, break ranks with their party. But that seems less likely at this point than red state Democrats, especially those facing re-election, peeling off in favor of Trump's nominee.

Individual senators will, ultimately, go the routes they believe are mostly like to deliver them to another term. The long-standing conventional wisdom assumes that showing off an independent streak, a "maverick" tendency to "buck the party" (as the clichés go), is the best way to persuade and keep either nonideological or ideologically opposed voters.

But if Democrats have learned anything from the campaign that ended with Trump's election, or the years of political brawling that created the environment in which a Trump candidacy could flourish and win, they should understand now that the old rules no longer apply.

That means, in this Supreme Court fight, unified opposition will be essential -- even if it falls short of being successful. It means leadership, starting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, need to do everything in their power to deny Trump and the GOP their way.

Massachusetts' Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a rumored 2020 presidential contender, tried to set the stakes early on.

"Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement means that women's health, equal marriage, and civil rights are all at risk," she tweeted hours after the announcement. "This is the fight of our lives."

And one that Democrats will only suffer more for backing down from. Capitulation here, even where it might help save an endangered seat, will only compound the damage done and sow more doubt over whether the party can be trusted to defend its most fundamental, core principles.

Up for re-election this fall in a state won by Trump in 2016, Pennsylvania's Sen. Bob Casey, one of the few Democrats who oppose abortion rights, found a way to oppose a Trump nominee before he or she is even announced.

He gave progressives a jolt on Monday by revealing plans to oppose the pick hours before the announcement came down. He argued in a statement that Trump's decision to select from a list of 25 options "dictated to him by the Heritage Foundation" undermined the process from the start and that "any judge on this list is fruit of a corrupt process straight from the D.C. swamp."

Unified opposition, it turns out, doesn't require unified thought or tactics.

Casey's much redder state colleagues have been more circumspect. Alabama's Doug Jones and North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, the latter facing a tough re-election fight, have signaled some openness to backing Trump's choice. West Virginia's Joe Manchin could be swayed. Joe Donnelly, of Indiana, is another GOP target.

Theirs are politically unenviable positions, to be sure. But if the logic guiding their votes doesn't factor in a legacy that stretches beyond the coming elections, they could end up confirming not only a justice, but also a more damaging suspicion about the Democratic Party.

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