Once upon a time, Merrick Garland would have been the kind of Supreme Court selection who would have received bipartisan support in Congress. Harvard-educated, well-respected on both sides of the political aisle and chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, Garland has the credentials — and centrist bona fides — that would ordinarily make him a slam-dunk pick for the highest court in the land.
Of course, we no longer live in that world.
Instead, we live in a world where Senate Republicans have chosen the path of partisan obstructionism. After Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans would not consider any nominee to fill the seat until after the election. It was a decision driven largely by the GOP’s most extreme supporters, who would rather the party leave a seat on the court vacant for a year, on the off-chance that Republicans take back the White House in November. But in order to pacify the far right, McConnell tied his own hands — so much so that even if Obama selected a noncontroversial milquetoast judge, Republicans would have little choice but to oppose him or her.
Enter Merrick Garland.
It’s not to say that Garland isn’t an excellent judge. From all accounts, he’s a smart, fair-minded, detail-oriented middle-of-the road jurist — a solid selection who is nonetheless unlikely to get anyone’s — particularly liberals’ — juices flowing.
But that’s precisely the point. If President Obama had selected someone more liberal, especially one who holds controversial positions, he would be handing the Republicans a rallying cry. They would suddenly have a rationale for opposing the pick, other than their transparent intention to prevent a Democratic president from changing the ideological balance of the Court.
Garland isn’t that guy. If anything, his selection by Obama has angered liberals, who view Garland as insufficiently progressive.
By blocking Garland, Republicans have contributed to the view among the electorate that they are the obstructionist party. And even members of the party recognize this. Republican senators in purple and blue states, like Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Mark Kirk in Illinois, are wavering over the party’s refusal even to meet with Garland. Meanwhile, in Iowa, Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley is being hounded by reporters for his refusal to grant a hearing to Obama’s choice. With public opinion surveys showing that the GOP’s position is deeply unpopular, Grassley and his fellow Republicans will likely have to put up with this for eight more months.
The overall political effect of Garland’s selection is minor; that was likely true of any nominee. But to the extent Democrats can further expose GOP obstructionism for what it really is, Obama has done just that.
And really, he has no one to thank more than McConnell. The majority leader would have been much better off giving every possible consideration to Obama’s selection, and then blocking him or her. But that would not satisfy the Republican base. Instead, he and his fellow Republicans have locked themselves into a position that they are now stuck with until Election Day. Or to put it succinctly, the GOP’s annus horribilis continues.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.