By Rachel Maddow
When they announce that they are running for president, deliver their stump speeches, make their ads or head out on their "listening tours" trailed by caravans of reporters, we get to hear how the candidates talk to everyday Americans. But when they talk to big-dollar donors, unless someone breaks the rules, we almost never get to hear those conversations.
During the run-up to the 2012 election, I asked a high-level Democratic campaign official about the distance between those two settings: Are the topics of conversation the same? When donors talk to candidates, do they raise different issues than regular folks do?
I got a surprised look in response — I think it was shock at my naivete — and a two-word answer: "Supreme Court." The direction of the court and potential court nominees came up infinitely more often with donors than they did with average people.
I then asked a senior Republican operative the same question. I got the same response, minus the shocked look (I think he already knew I was naive).
I'm not sure what has accounted for this heightened level of interest in the court among the donor class in the past, but I have a suspicion that this year, that interest gap may close.
Whether or not you like activism from your Supreme Court justices, this court's aggressive interventionism has established these nine men and women as the dynamic, creative and disruptive center of U.S. policy.
On everything from the states' systems for drawing legislative districts, to the Affordable Care Act, to voting rights, to the tear-down of campaign finance laws that has supercharged the leverage of the politically inclined super-rich, this court has shown a voracious appetite for finding cases with the potential to disrupt settled policies. The Supreme Court always matters, but under Chief Justice John Roberts, with the court so enthusiastic about shifting the direction of the country, it really (really!) matters who is on that bench.
Depending on where you stand on the issues, the Roberts court has been exhilarating or terrifying, but either way it's been nothing like the neutral "balls and strikes" umpiring promised by the chief during his confirmation.
And now, as June stretches toward July, another stack of blockbuster Supreme Court rulings looms. I imagine that — just like four years ago — the donor class is vibrating at a high intensity given the political ambition of this court, its fragile 5-to-4 majorities and the advanced ages of so many of the justices.
Congress has degenerated into an institution whose best days are when it simply avoids disaster. Thanks mostly to Congress, the powers of the presidency have evolved to become almost limitless in matters of national security and purely administrative on domestic issues.
But whoever is elected our next president will likely have the ability to reshape the most robust, intact and occasionally ferociously aggressive locus of power in our government.
The 2016 race doesn't really need an energy boost. Between the unprecedented spectacle of one party putting forth the largest viable candidate field ever and the other party trying an equally unprecedented strategy of a non-incumbent nominee-in-waiting, the race is already way more fun and fascinating than I would have expected at this point.
But with the Supreme Court basking in center-stage glory (or ignominy), poised to potentially take health coverage away from millions of families, to issue a sweeping civil rights rebuke or advance and to decide the fate of the legally and logistically beleaguered system of lethal injection, it would be naive to think that in this election the Supreme Court will be only an elite political concern.
Watch the debates this year. Choose your candidates wisely. When the justices rule on all of the huge cases to be decided this month, think about what kind of court majorities you want, for the rest of your life. As goes the next president, so goes the court.
Rachel Maddow hosts MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show and is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.