Phones buzzed, feeds bubbled and radio call-in lines lit up when President Barack Obama announced his nominee for the Supreme Court: Merrick Garland. If you later researched one of those few moments when black folks were universally vexed with their beloved first black president, this would be it: Why did he not pick one of us?
Three times the White House skipped over highly qualified black applicants (although one of those choices was Latina Sonia Sotomayor). Don’t we have enough gray-haired white dudes on the Big Bench, Mr. President?
There was remote hope he would finally pick someone other than white Ivy League law school chums. Civil rights leaders pleaded with the president to make his last pick diverse and historic (and preferably black). Some pitched for a black woman to fire up black voters in November. When the presumptive black list of nominees grew thin — Attorney General Loretta Lynch yanked herself out — some seemed resigned with short-listed U.S. Circuit Judge, and Indian-American, Sri Srinivasan. So long as POTUS mixed up the court’s complexion, all might be forgiven.
Moving on, it’s time to make sense of this thing. Let’s chew on five theories rationalizing the Merrick Garland pick:
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Let’s embarrass Republicans … some more. The GOP is struggling with enough image problems as is, so enter the president with a good, old-fashioned rub-it-in. Since Republicans have welded themselves to guarantees of obstruction, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others offering melodramatic “over my dead body” impressions, the White House gambles that opposition hypocrisy will do the trick.
Senate Judiciary Committee member and conservative elder Sen. Orrin Hatch’s praise of Garland (not once, but twice) as a high court pick doesn’t help the misled cause. So what’s the difference between the President Bill Clinton-nominated Garland of 1997 — when Senate Republicans (also in the majority at the time) gave him a hearing and a 76-23 vote to the D.C. Circuit Court — and the Garland of 2016?
Loosely paraphrasing Kevin Hart: “Gimme my Senate seat back, mitches!” Never underestimate the long-game grudges of a president who prefers the use of armed drones and stealthy Special Forces teams to kill terrorists. It’s probably not a coincidence that Garland is a Chicago native — and, well, look at that: Illinois has a representative in the U.S. Senate.
Of the many political humiliations Obama has endured, few stung as badly as when Republican Mark Kirk snatched his old Senate seat in 2010 — after the embarrassing appointment of temporary placeholder Sen. Roland Burris by later convicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Now running for a second term, Kirk must fend off a stiff challenge from disabled war veteran Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat.
Even if he’s a moderate, not a good look for Kirk to represent the party that wants to keep a homeboy off the bench. No surprise if Kirk has to quietly beg his fellow GOP senators to reconsider their stance.
You sink my nominee, I sink your Senate majority.Senate Republicans may appear solid on the surface with their 10-seat majority in the Senate, but a look at the 2016 Senate map shows some cracks. Republicans are faced with four “toss-ups,” compared with the Democrats’ one. And four other seats in the “likely” or “lean” category — Arizona, Iowa, Missouri and North Carolina — each have House GOP incumbents with low ratings, according to a Public Policy Polling poll on voter attitudes about the Supreme Court fight. In these states, voters aren’t feeling the Republican blockade; nationally, as YouGov shows, 53 percent of voters believed Obama should nominate someone to the Supreme Court.
Naturally, the president sees an opening where, even if he doesn’t get his nominee approved, he’s gift-wrapped a Democratic Senate for the next Democratic president.
Better the white guy as sacrificial lamb. Republicans (desperate for an anti-Obama battle cry this fall) seem hell-bent on rejecting any nominee, even when they like him. For Garland, that’s OK: As an esteemed white judge, he’s propped up better racially, professionally, optically and financially to weather the storm. It would’ve been uncertain for Lynch; a nomination cage match could have left her spent and tainted. Or could 45-year-old U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson — favored by many black political leaders — have emerged unscathed from combat with hostile Republican senators?
Let’s not alienate white voters, please. A 48 percent majority of white voters told YouGov that Obama should nominate a replacement, versus 40 percent who didn’t. With 79 percent of black voters saying the same thing, the White House may have felt that it needn’t worry about any community blowback. A quick cost-benefit look from the president may have found that a nominee of color pitted against white Republican opposition on Capitol Hill wasn’t worth the hassle, given the brewing national “race war” narrative permeating the election. That’s too much racial powder keg for one year.
Pushing the diverse nominee, while ideal, could have also come at the risk of Democrats losing white moderate and independent voters who aren’t all that aligned with multicultural policy priorities. This would have been equally problematic for more-than-likely Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton, fresh off a primary battle with Bernie Sanders over who was the “black friendly” candidate.
Now she has to pivot to white voters (since, well, they are 70 percent of the total electorate). The Garland nomination just took the fight down a notch. And it’s not as if she has to stick with him if she wins (and he hasn’t been confirmed). Theoretically, with her in the White House and Democrats running the Senate, it doesn’t get any better than a nominee confirmed in the first 100 days of one’s administration.
Charles D. Ellison is Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs broadcast.