Democrats Can Walk and Chew Gum

The Democrats need not choose between the midterms and the Supreme Court.

The New York Times’ David Leonhardt offered Monday a healthy three-step guide for liberal Democrats about to lose their minds over President Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court. I want to gloss a few of his points before I add my thoughts to his.

Leonhardt is right in that the Democrats can’t win this fight. The Republicans are going to get their justice. They need 51 senators. Yes, Susan Collins is making noise. She won’t vote for anyone with sights set on overturning Roe, the Maine senator said. But all that’s needed is for Trump’s nominee to say the magic words: “Roe is settled law.” That will be enough. The Republicans are going to get their justice.

The trick for the Democrats is accepting reality without looking like they are surrendering. It’s not clear to me that they know how to do this. The temptation will be to say anything out of desperation. Case in point, Chris Matthews.

Last week, the MSNBC host kept insisting, weirdly, that if Senate Democrats fail to stop Trump, the party’s base will revolt. With so much at stake in November, I seriously doubt it. (Anyway, he’s describing Republican, not Democratic, voters.)

Leonhardt is also right in that liberals must get organized.

As they say on Twitter, this times a million:

Over the last half-century, conservatives have put more energy into building a movement — creating ideological institutions, grooming judges and, perhaps above all, winning local, state and congressional elections. Democrats have emphasized higher-profile politics, like the presidency and landmark court cases. Democrats can’t afford to do so anymore.

It can’t be overstated how deeply elite Democrats believed during the Obama years that losing statehouses and the US House was not worrisome. It can’t be overstated how deeply they believed the party needed only to hold the political center, whatever that was, while waiting for demographic change to move the country to the party. This was the case after the 2014 midterms, which made Obama a lame duck. This was the case, in fact, all the way up to the moment Donald Trump became president.

Elite Democrats are now fully awake to the fact that the Republicans are going to use the courts as a bulwark against the demographic change Democrats had once hoped would manifest their destiny. But it’s more than that. The GOP is going to use the federal judiciary to undo the past. Roe is settled law until it isn’t. Ditto for any Supreme Court precedent liberals have taken for granted for half a century.

Leonhardt’s last step is for liberals to know their strengths. To win the midterms, focus on health care, not guns; on corruption, not abortion.

“Nothing in American politics matters more right now than the outcome of the midterms,” he said. “It is the difference between emboldening Trump and starting to hold him accountable. … In the coming weeks, Democrats will be talking about the Supreme Court, but they should be thinking about the midterms.”

This is where I part ways with Leonhardt. This isn’t either/or.

First, remember this is a midterm election we’re talking about, not a presidential election. Presidents always lose the House, perhaps the Senate, too, because partisans animated for partisan reasons come out in force. Democratic voters are already mobilized. Adding abortion to the list probably won’t make much of a difference.

Second, remember that a president under investigation for possible conspiracy with a foreign government to win the presidency is about the change the court for a generation. As I argued, this is the stand Senate Democrats should take: no confirmation of court nominees until the American people know the president didn’t cheat to win. If the GOP moves ahead, they will compromise the court’s legitimacy.

This will not stop the Republicans. They will move ahead to confirm Trump’s nominee no matter what. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already scheduled a confirmation vote for after the midterms. He hopes it will drive out the GOP base.

Leonhardt is right in saying that the Republicans are all too happy to debate abortion (voters are ambivalent). But in setting Roe in the context of the Supreme Court’s legitimacy, the Democrats can move the center of gravity to their advantage.

In confirming Trump’s nominee, the Republicans will have affirmed the Democrats’ claim: that the court’s legitimacy is in doubt. And in confirming, the GOP will have established a context in which the only way to address an illegitimate court that has undone what had previously been settled law is to legalize abortion by statute.

If Leonhardt is any indication, the major press has not yet linked Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court to the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. The Democrats can change that. They must. They can’t win this fight in any other way.


New additions!

Please welcome Chris Luongo to the Editorial Board family! I asked Chris yesterday to contribute to our efforts here. Like me, he has a main gig but does politics on the side. He’s doing this for love of country, and because it’s fun. Follow him on Twitter!