“I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” Senator John McCain said on a radio interview in Pennsylvania on Monday. “I promise you. This is where we need the majority.”
So John McCain, in his 28th year in the Senate, is promising an even more extreme version of the nihilistic politics practiced by congressional Republicans since Barack Obama took the oath of office.
This article was originally published at The Washington Spectator
McCain’s contempt for the electoral process was revealed by his shameless gamble to select Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. By that time he’d run in 11 primary and general elections for the U.S. House seat he held until 1986 and the Senate seat he’s struggling to hold onto today. He’d been around the block enough times to understand, in the words of LBJ, “the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad.” He knew better.
Now, with a rank partisan objective, McCain is revising the unwritten rules of the Senate, where Republicans will see to it that at least one seat on the Supreme Court will remain vacant four or eight years, assuming Hillary Clinton is elected president and the GOP holds onto its majority. And one vacancy, of course, is unlikely. Antonin Scalia’s death in February left one seat open, but two of the sitting justices are 80 years or older and another is 78. The next president might make as many as three appointments to the nine-member bench.
The promise to block any Hillary Clinton nominee to the court is a new low, even for John McCain.
Writing in ThinkProgress, Ian Millhiser described the Arizona Senator’s statement as “an existential threat to the Supreme Court.”
By implying that only Republicans can confirm Supreme Court justices, McCain turns judges into party functionaries.
Millhiser asks if seats on the court were to remain vacant for “five, or nine, or 13 years from today, when Republicans finally manage to gain control of both the White House and the Senate, why would Democratic governors have to obey decisions of such a court?”
To be fair, McCain didn’t create the Republican politics of obstruction.
The programmatic opposition to almost all of Barack Obama’s agenda began in 2009 when only three Republican Senators (and no Republicans in the House) voted for his $787 billion stimulus package and continues today with the Senate leadership’s refusal to schedule a committee hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
Yet even if Republican contempt for the legislative process no longer surprises us, nothing quite compares to a United States Senator promising to oppose any Supreme Court nomination put forth by a president who is not yet elected.
McCain is acting in compliance with the norms of a party that congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann described in The Washington Post as “an insurgent outlier in American politics.”
“It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise, unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Was there one moment when contempt for the legislative (and constitutional) process became acceptable in the Republican Party? One tipping point? One incident that prefigured the nihilism of today’s congressional Republicans?
In fact, there was.
It was 1998. It involved President Bill Clinton. And then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s decision that no Republican member of the House would get a free pass on the vote to impeach the President.
Many House Republicans, including Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, were wary of voting to impeach and believed that a censure motion offered by Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephardt provided them a reasonable alternative.
DeLay, a former exterminator from a Houston suburb, harbored an intense hatred of Clinton, and refused to allow any vote on a motion to censure. In two letters to House Republicans, DeLay informed them that a censure vote (or to double down with “censure plus,” which would include a reduction of Clinton’s presidential pension) was not one of their constitutional powers.
Then DeLay, a former Republican House Whip, began to whip the impeachment vote, summoning reluctant members to his office, dispatching aides to deliver threats.
When New York Republican Peter King was seen talking to Democrats, a DeLay aide pulled him aside and warned him that his boss “would make the next two years the toughest of your life.”
Long Island Congressman Ben Gillman, in his third decade in the House, was summoned to the Majority Leader’s office and informed that his House Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship would be denied him if he didn’t vote to impeach.
DeLay enlisted the services of a right-wing Orthodox rabbi to shame lame-duck Congressman John Fox into voting to impeach “a president who would take a phone call from a Congressman while getting oral sex from an intern.”
And here we come full circle to Donald Trump’s guests at the second presidential debate. Judiciary Committee Chairman Hyde had secured a room in the Gerald Ford House Office Building for a document dump of “evidence” so questionable it was deemed unsuitable for use in the impeachment process, with the understanding that only members of the Judiciary Committee would have access to it.
The material in the “sex vault” included notes from investigators’ interviews, depositions, a statement made by “Jane Doe 5,” or Juanita Broderick, who had claimed Clinton forced himself on her 25 years earlier. Nothing a competent lawyer would describe as evidence. DeLay ignored Hyde’s restrictions and opened the archive to all House Republicans, insisting they examine the material.
Then he warned that if they refused to vote to impeach, “evidence” from the “sex vault” could be made public in primary races in their districts.
This is a historical footnote, which I spent weeks tracking down while co-writing a book on Tom DeLay in 2003, but it’s also an important moment in the history of the gradual decay of the Republican Party.
The Majority Leader of the House of Representatives was telling members of his conference that their constitutional responsibility to begin the process of removing an elected president from office was a required party-line vote.
Newt Gingrich’s politics of destruction was a prelude to this moment, but once Tom DeLay defined the impeachment of a president as a political act rather than a grave constitutional responsibility, for the Republican Party there was no turning back.
Eighteen years later, John McCain is playing by Tom DeLay’s rules.