Republicans appeared to pursue a subtle but deliberate strategy at their convention this week: Parry one of Democrats’ favorite weapons back against them by making the Supreme Court one of the major issues in this fall’s presidential campaign.
For many months, Democrats have tried to woo independents and those Democrats not sold on Hillary Clinton by raising what for many is a frightening specter: Donald Trump naming justices to lifelong terms on the Supreme Court. You may have your doubts about Hillary, the argument goes, but think about the ramifications of a Trump-packed court.
We hadn’t heard that argument in reverse very often – until now. As Trump surrogates fanned out to events across Cleveland the past four days, reminding audiences that Clinton would fill Supreme Court seats as president was a consistent part of the repertoire.
When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talked with North Carolina’s delegates on Wednesday, he pointed out that Antonin Scalia was appointed to the court in 1986, while Walker was wrapping up high school.
“You’re talking decades,” Walker said. “And there are three words when it comes to the court that should scare any of us as conservatives: Justice Elizabeth Warren. Think about that; or a younger version of her could be on the court for 20 or 30 years.”
Before Walker, Sen. Thom Tillis addressed the delegates.
“Do we want someone in the White House who will stack the Supreme Court and make it basically a legislative body?” Tillis warned. Or “do we want somebody who will nominate Supreme Court justices who will honor the Constitution and use it as the sole guide to render their decisions at the Supreme Court?”
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback repeated the theme with N.C. delegates on Thursday, and other surrogates gave the same reminder to other delegations.
Several speakers raised the issue from the main stage, including Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence. “As this election approaches, every American should know that while we are filling the presidency for the next four years, this election will define the Supreme Court for the next 40. We all had better think very, very carefully about what this means for our Constitution and limited government. Elect Hillary Clinton, and you better get used to being subject to unelected judges, using unaccountable power to take unconstitutional actions.”
On Thursday, Trump, in typical understated fashion, tweeted: “… if the Dems win the Presidency, the new JUSTICES appointed will destroy us all!”
Supreme Court nominations are not typically near the top of the public’s agenda in a presidential race. But three things change that this year: the extreme distance between these candidates and their parties; public awareness of the court’s importance driven by a number of recent high-profile cases; and the vacancy created by Scalia’s death along with the looming possible death or retirement of as many as four other justices.
That’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity that has each side nauseous thinking about what the other side might do.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 83, slung the Court further into presidential politics this month when she called Trump a “faker” and said she could not imagine what a Trump presidency would mean for the Court or for the nation.
It’s not obvious which party most benefits from the Court becoming a prominent campaign issue. Voters aren’t likely to change their votes over it. It could, though, prod to the polls voters who are tepid on their candidate but who recognize the enormity of what’s at stake. Republicans this week weren’t going to let Democrats be the only ones to tap into that fear.