Columns

Meyer ’17: The GOP’s auto-obstruction

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, March 18, 2016

With the Senate Republicans trumpeting their opposition to President Barack Obama’s nomination of a respected, qualified moderate Wednesday, it’s hard to figure out their long game. Merrick Garland is as palatable as any Democratic nominee could be — U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, has called him a “consensus nominee” and predicted only a week ago that Obama wouldn’t nominate a moderate like Garland because of electoral politics. Evidently, the GOP leadership has decided they have something to gain by blocking Garland. But what?

If they hold out until after the election, they risk accepting a younger, more liberal nominee from Hillary Clinton. Otherwise, they are probably facing the unpredictability of a Donald Trump nominee. In private, I doubt that most GOP senators would prefer to let Trump pick than to seat Garland. But their knee-jerk stance after Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing backed them into a corner. To reverse course now would seem weak and would anger the all-important base.

As virtually every observer has noted, to block the Garland nomination is to put politics over policy. Garland himself is not the problem — the fact that Obama chose him is. I’m not naive enough to think that this is anything new; the U.S. Supreme Court has been intertwined with politics for its entire existence. The GOP leadership has come close to admitting as much. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, has insisted that the stand is over “the principle, not the person.”  But the “principle,” is not drawn from a non-existent pseudo-precedent about lame duck nominations. The principle is to block the President at every turn, consequences be damned.

The decision to block Garland is emblematic of the GOP’s decision-making over the past eight years. In other words, it’s a really bad move. I’m not saying that I disagree with right-wing values (or that I don’t). I’m arguing that the party’s political strategy has failed to accomplish any significant conservative objectives. The GOP is devoid of policy accomplishments despite controlling the House for six years and the Senate for four. The Affordable Care Act remains a law, despite countless repeal attempts from the House and a contrived appeal to the Supreme Court over the minutiae of statutory construction. Planned Parenthood is funded. The closest thing to a success was the sequester, but that would be a perverse lose-lose example of the term.

By opposing Garland, McConnell called the only play he seems to know. Immediately after the seat opened, he and his Senate colleagues chose to turn the nomination into a fight. They didn’t have to, but they did. Now, their trumpeting of ideological purity prevents an about-face, even though it’s clear that opposing Garland will do little to further conservative values.

The story of the party’s strategic blunders starts in 2007 with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Needless to say, U.S. Sen. John McCain’s, R-AZ, attempt to “energize the base” by picking her as his running mate didn’t work. As the Tea Party rose in power, the GOP continued to embrace the strategy of preaching to its most devoutly converted. As each election cycle passes, it has moved further from the center. Now, many pundits argue that the rise of fringe candidates like Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, was the result. The strategy of elevating the conservative base empowered the outer edge of the party’s constituency. The failure to deliver any significant results pissed them off, allowing Trump to run against the Republican Party from within.

Ironically, Trump has shown that all of the party’s straining towards consistency has been for naught. Many primary voters are evidently unbothered by his willingness to change stances and go off the standard GOP policy script.

None of this needed to happen. McCain didn’t have to choose Palin as his running mate. Back in 2010, McConnell didn’t have to declare that his top priority was to make Obama a one-term president (even if it was). The strategy of budget brinksmanship was one of many routes the opposition party could have adopted. None of these moves have paid off. We shouldn’t expect any different from the Senate’s refusal to vote on Garland’s confirmation. Though obstructionism may feel automated at this point, it’s a strategic choice that the Republican leadership continues to repeat despite its continued failure. Would-be-Justice Garland is the latest victim of a failed political calculation.

Daniel Meyer ’17 can be reached at daniel_meyer@brown.edu.

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