Senator Lindsey Graham recently appeared on “The Daily Show’’ to endorse Ted Cruz for president. During the interview, host Trevor Noah ran an earlier clip in which Graham said that the choice between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz was like picking between getting shot or poisoned. Graham shrugged and said he’d decided to support Cruz because, well, Cruz is poison and maybe there is an antidote. What an endorsement!
The question that Graham and Noah didn’t discuss is how the Republicans painted themselves into this corner. The answer, at least in part, can be found in the Senate, where Republicans have spent years nurturing the extremism for which Trump and Cruz are merely the next logical step. In other words: Republican senators laid the foundation for their presidential front-runners.
Barack Obama won two consecutive elections and has been president for seven years. But since the first day of his presidency, Republican leaders have rejected his legitimacy and abused the rules of the Senate in an all-out effort to cripple the government under his leadership. They refused to try to make government better — opting instead to try to shut down government altogether rather than to accept a functioning government led by someone they didn’t like.
In 2013, as Obama began his second term, Republican leaders flatly rejected his authority to confirm any judges to fill any of three open seats on the second-highest court in the country, and Democrats had to change the filibuster rules in order to move those nominees forward. Once Republicans took over the Senate in 2015, judicial confirmations nearly ground to a halt.
And it wasn’t just judges. Senate Republicans tried to block the president’s nominees to serve on the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that resolves disputes between workers and their bosses. They held up the president’s nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency that defends consumers from shady practices in the financial sector. They held up the president’s nominees to fill top positions in the Environmental Protection Agency, the office that helps ensure that the air we breathe and the water we drink is safe. Republicans had few objections to specific nominees — they simply wanted to keep posts vacant and shut down as many parts of government as they could.
Now the Supreme Court has a vacancy, and Obama has nominated an experienced, well-respected judge, Merrick Garland. The president has done his job, as directed by our Constitution — but Republican senators refuse to do theirs.
Once again, Republicans readily admit that their refusal to act is not related to Garland’s qualifications. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin conceded that if the current president were a Republican, Senate Republicans would in fact be willing to consider a Supreme Court nominee. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah just a few weeks earlier called Garland a “fine man.” And Senator Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania said that if Garland were nominated by the next president, he would be willing to consider the nomination.
Senators have the right — and, indeed, the obligation — to review the qualifications of individual nominees and then decide whether to vote yes or no. That’s what advice and consent is all about. But Republican extremists don’t object to the qualifications of individual nominees. Instead, they block votes wholesale, in order to keep critical jobs vacant, and to undermine the government itself. In so doing, they insult both the president and the Constitution.
For seven years, through artificial debt ceiling crises, deliberate government shutdowns, and intentional confirmation blockades, Senate Republicans have acted as though the election and reelection of Obama relieved them of any responsibility to do their jobs. Senate Republicans embraced the idea that government shouldn’t work at all unless it works only for themselves and their friends. The campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are the next logical outgrowth of the same attitude — if you can’t get what you want, just ignore the obligations of governing, then divert attention and responsibility by wallowing in a toxic stew of attacks on Muslims, women, Latinos, and each other.
If Senate Republicans don’t like being forced to pick between a bullet and poison, then here’s some advice: Stand up to extremists in the Senate bent on sabotaging our government whenever things don’t go their way. Respect the oath you took to uphold and defend the Constitution. Show some courage and put that oath ahead of party politics. Do your job — and start by considering the president’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Elizabeth Warren is a US senator from Massachusetts.