I Have A Lot To Say — Part I

(A note to readers: Politics and History has been on hiatus for two months while I moved from Alexandria, Virginia, to Stephenson, Virginia. Now, my blog is returning. Much has happened in the last two months, and I will have much to say in the coming weeks. Indulge me.)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell orchestrated a judicial coup in placing Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court for two reasons: First, because McConnell could, and, second, because he believed it necessary.

The Kentucky Republican is an expert at wielding raw political power, and, with a president who outsourced the nomination of judges to the arch-conservative Federalist Society and a razor-thin but solid Republican majority in the Senate, McConnell had the tools he needed. First, of course, he needed to pave the way for seizing control of the Supreme Court by denying President Barack Obama his constitutional right to choose a successor to Justice Antonin Scalia. The refusal to even consider Judge Merrick Garland for the high court was a gross violation of the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution (more on this later in Part II), but McConnell stood firm and got away with grand larceny. His reward for stealing a seat on the Supreme Court: Probably control of the federal judiciary for decades to come.

The GOP-dominated Supreme Court. Brett Kavanaugh has replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy. second from left, bottom row.

For decades, conservative Republicans have been convinced that the only way to move America to the right is through dominating the judicial system. McConnell believes his success in putting right-wing justices on the bench will be his enduring legacy as majority leader. “I said it was a top priority, and it remains so,” McConnell said this past summer. The Kentuckian ruthlessly has pursued this goal up and down the federal judiciary. He worked to frustrate Obama’s ability to appoint district and appellate judges and has pushed through President Donald Trump’s appointees. The result is that where Obama succeeded in placing women and minorities on the bench, Trump, with McConnell’s assistance, is making the judicial system white and male again. And, very conservative. 

McConnell knows a gridlocked Congress can accomplish little. The Republicans control the Senate, for now, but their narrow majority makes enacting major legislative initiatives dicey, at best (See the late Senator John McCain and the failure to repeal Obamacare!) As former House Speaker John Boehner said before the last presidential election, “The legislative process, the political process, is at a standstill and will be regardless of who wins. The only thing that really matters over the next four years or eight years is who is going to appoint the next Supreme Court nominees.” 

Mitch McConnell’s political memoir.

McConnell’s gaze is longer than Boehner’s. (The choice of The Long Game as the title for McConnell’s political memoir is instructive.) The Senate majority leader has worked for decades to reshape the courts to insure the triumph of conservative principles. Much of the right-wing agenda is out of step with current American political beliefs, making legislative victories more difficult for McConnell. Republicans may not be able to repeal Obamacare or ban abortion through legislative action, but control of the Supreme Court and the lower branches of the federal judiciary opens up another avenue for the triumph of conservative ideas. As Chuck Schumer, McConnell’s Senate counterpart as minority leader, succinctly put it, “Senate Republicans haven’t been able to move much of their hard-right agenda because it’s so unpopular with the American people, so they’re trying to do in the courts what they couldn’t do on the Senate floor.”

McConnell also knows that the future is cloudy, at best, for conservatives. As the nation becomes more diverse, with women and minorities exerting more political clout, and more culturally and socially progressive, Republicans will find it harder to win the presidency and control Congress. A conservative judiciary might be the only bulwark against the triumph of liberalism in politics. A majority of right-wing justices might rid the nation of Obamacare, ban abortion (or so weaken Roe v. Wade as to make abortions virtually impossible to obtain), further emasculate voting rights, protect low tax rates for the super-rich, and undo all remaining restrictions on campaign spending. On this last point, McConnell’s other animating political passion has been opposition to campaign finance reform. For all the blather that political donations are a form of free speech, conservatives know that enormous political contributions by the very wealthy to Republican campaigns have an outsized influence on the political process.

The Supreme Court in 1896. Only elderly white men need apply!

As was true in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — up to the time when a conservative court changed and approved key New Deal legislation in the 1930s — the right has always depended on unelected judges to interpret the law to benefit the privileged and defy popular will. So far in the current century, a Supreme Court with a 5-4 conservative majority has issued decisions making it harder for minority groups — who traditionally support Democrats — to vote; allowing corporations and the wealthy to spend freely in political campaigns; and permitting gross Republican gerrymandering to stand, insuring GOP control of state legislatures and governors’ mansions. And, let us not forget, the egregiously unconstitutional decision that stole the 2000 election from Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. All of this, and more, was done with some relatively moderate conservatives as part of the 5-4 majority. How much more political devastation will ensue with rock-ribbed right-wingers Gorsuch and Kavanaugh on the high court?

A changing America and the perceived need to protect the right-wing political agenda motivated McConnell and his Republican senatorial cohorts to run roughshod over the constitution and legislative niceties and ignore the legitimate and serious allegations of women accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Kavanaugh’s fitness to sit on the Supreme Court was never a consideration given the prospect that Republicans may lose control of Congress in November. Nor did it trouble McConnell and his colleagues that Kavanaugh was nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and approved by a Senate majority that represented a minority of voters.

All that mattered was winning, and McConnell is a master at that.

(Part II appears Friday, October 12, 2018)

Posted October 9, 2018

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