The Alcove

The Huge Payoff For Killing Norms

A piece in Pacific Standard argues that Mitch McConnell’s Supreme Court gambit was a political masterstroke.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Donald TrumpSupreme Court

Over at Pacific Standard, Seth Masket observes that Mitch McConnell’s Supreme Court obstructionism has worked beautifully, and may even have helped deliver the White House to the Republicans. “McConnell risked making himself and his party look intransigent and dangerously irresponsible,” Masket writes. But McConnell calculated correctly. Soon enough, voters had forgotten all about the (still) languishing nomination of Merrick Garland. Far from a rebuke, “Republicans paid no electoral penalty for this maneuver,” which “was quickly absorbed into the partisan divide”—and when they found themselves saddled with a candidate who repulsed even their own voters, they discovered that the open seat had a powerful ability to make the holdouts swallow their initial misgivings. That open seat, Masket argues, “informed key constituencies, particularly evangelical Christians, that there was far more on the ballot than Trump.”

This fits with the belief that Trump was able to pull out a victory because he ultimately consolidated Republican support, rather than losing major sectors of the party. If the Supreme Court seat had been filled as usual earlier in 2016, the threat of vacancy would have remained merely hypothetical rather than potently real. (For some reason, this issue seemed to resonate more on the right than on the left.) If Masket’s account is correct, it was a brilliant tactical coup for Senate Republicans: They denied a liberal President his Court appointment, shored up support for their own faltering candidate, and helped him to victory—and have paid no apparent price for their violation of a longstanding norm (sound familiar?).

Masket’s piece raises two intriguing questions—one about the conditions that allowed this to occur, and the other about the future of the practice. To begin with the latter: Masket suggests that since Republicans “paid no electoral price” for swiping a seat from a Democratic President, “Democrats would be self-defeating not to respond in kind.” But even if they do, should Republicans fear equal damage from an in-kind response? I’d guess not: The structure of the Senate inflates the power of sparsely populated rural states, so Republicans always begin these escalations with an advantage. And second, the 2018 Senate map is brutal for Democrats: They have to defend seats in states like West Virginia and Indiana, and there are few other promising seats for the taking. It’s not inconceivable that the last two years of the Trump Administration could feature a filibuster-proof GOP Senate majority.

This brings me to the second question: Will the media landscape that saved Republicans this time around look any different the next time this tactic is deployed? Masket’s observation that the GOP gambit was “quickly absorbed into the partisan divide” nicely captures the way that outrageous behavior seems to vanish into an absolving swarm of accusations and counter-accusations that are all granted roughly equal credibility. Of course, the dynamic of this game favors the most cynical player, and it’s hard to imagine a way out that doesn’t involve a more informed public and a media that’s up to the task of informing them. The former will be difficult to achieve, but in the short term I’d happily settle for the latter. It’s hard to be optimistic when the consistent choice of major outlets is to settle into familiar partisan frames that dissolve culpability and seem premised on the belief that accurately informing their audiences of asymmetrical polarization is just bad practice. Only two months ago, the public editor of The New York Times declared that the paper should use the word “lie” “rarely”—in other words, that it should restrict itself in principle from using the word more often than some vague, arbitrary standard would allow—because “its mere appearance on the news pages, however factually accurate, feels partisan.”

Yes, you read that correctly: News organizations should not call out lies because it “feels partisan” to do so, regardless of the accuracy of the charge. If you’re concerned about the decline of norms of American politics—and the inevitability of their further decline if the public is kept unaware of what’s happening—that sentence should send a chill down your spine. Now read it again, imagine you’re Mitch McConnell, and try to contain your excitement.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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