They served popcorn in the media filing center during Saturday night’s presidential debate. I slowly lifted each piece, my mouth agape, my eyes wide, while this horror flick unfolded on the screen before me.
It seemed unlikely that any group of candidates could render as an afterthought the sudden death of one of America’s most consequential Supreme Court justices. But in what may have been the most sophomoric presidential debate in U.S. history, the six remaining Republicans managed to do just that.
For more than two hours, the candidates ripped at each other, tossing personal insults, mocking each other, debating whether one said F you and whether another threatened to moon the world. High school debaters have more substance and poise. Jerry Springer should have been the moderator rather than John Dickerson.
“This is just crazy. This is just nuts. Geez oh man,” said John Kasich, pressing his adult-in-the-room strategy.
Democrats had to love every minute of it. Leading Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted: “Seriously, this is insane. The GOP is destroying itself tonight, and they have no one to blame but themselves.”
David Frum, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, tweeted: “Does this look to America like a party ready to govern anything?”
Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative magazine National Review, tweeted simply: “Train wreck of a debate, no?”
Focus on court
While the Republican circus is very much alive, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is not, and that will roil the rest of the campaign. With Scalia age 79, Ruth Bader Ginsburg 82, Anthony Kennedy 79 and Stephen Breyer 77, Supreme Court nominations should have been one of voters’ most important criteria in electing the next president all along. Scalia’s death, though, propels the issue to near the top of the heap.
Quickly after the Scalia news broke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”
Donald Trump was the most honest about whether President Obama should nominate a replacement. “It’s called delay, delay, delay,” he said.
Kasich, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz said Obama should not nominate anyone. Only Jeb Bush defended Obama’s right to nominate a justice. “I’m an Article II guy,” Bush said.
The focus since Scalia’s death has been on Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says the president “shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, (and) judges of the Supreme Court...”
But it appears Republican senators and presidential candidates, who portray themselves as strict constitutionalists, need to place their focus equally on Article II, Section 1, which says the president “shall hold his office during the term of four years.” Not three years. Not three years and one month. Four years.
The candidates said Scalia’s replacement should be appointed by the next president to give the American people a chance to have a voice. But the American people already had a voice. They elected President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012, knowing that he would nominate Supreme Court justices if there were vacancies during his term.
If Ginsburg were to die in February 2020, would a President Cruz argue that the next president should nominate her replacement? Unthinkable.
Cruz and Rubio said no Supreme Court justice has been seated in a president’s final year in 80 years. This is incorrect. A majority Democrat Senate voted 97-0 to confirm Republican President Reagan’s nominee, Anthony Kennedy, on Feb. 3, 1988, during Reagan’s final year in office.
President Obama should nominate quickly, but not someone notably partisan. If Obama overreaches with someone perceived as a diehard liberal, public opinion will side with Republicans.
He should instead pick someone who is unquestionably qualified, and who Republicans in the Senate have already approved to the federal bench.
The Constitution calls on him to nominate a justice. The Senate should then follow its constitutional duty by holding confirmation hearings and taking a vote.
At least two things could happen. McConnell and the Republican leadership block any vote. Or they allow a vote and defeat a consensus pick that they unanimously approved to the federal bench in recent years. Either is not only bad for America, but politically risky as well.