When word was leaked by the White House that they were vetting Nevada's Republican governor Brian Sandoval for the Supreme Court, I suspect that my initial reaction was similar to many. It was somewhat along the lines of "Say what???!!" Certainly, Mr. Sandoval is not a diehard conservative, indeed almost a centrist, though by GOP standards, and supports issues uncommon for the Far Right, like abortion rights and same-sex marriage (although that's now settled law and not likely to come up for a challenge any time soon) -- but he also has supported far more conservative issues than I think remotely acceptable for an appointment to the Supreme Court by a Democratic president, such as on guns and unions.
But later in the day, the more I thought about it, the more I've come to the conclusion that the news was freaking brilliant.
First, one has to keep in mind that this wasn't a nomination. It was just leaking word that Mr. Sandoval was being vetted for consideration. And it's a fair thing to do -- if the president doesn't think he'd get a preferred-nominee past the Republican Senate, maybe he wouldn't want to risk having a possible Republican president make the nomination. So, at least taking a more moderate Republican nominee (by far-right GOP standards...) into consideration is worth the time and effort to check into him. More to the point, though only one name was leaked, I'm sure the White House is vetting a lot of potential candidates, not solely Brian Sandoval. In the end, I think the likelihood of Brian Sandoval being actually nominated is tiny, close to insignificant. But for the reasons just mentioned, it's not unthinkable and therefore worth Senate Republicans taking seriously.
Second, by leaking the name, it paints these Senate Republicans into a horrible corner.
Just by leaking his name, Republicans in the Senate now have to decide if they're going to stick by their insistence not to even simply meet with any Supreme Court nominees made by the president -- a position which has made their recalcitrance appear unconstitutional. If they do decide to stick with that -- then they will be put in the awful position of taking mere "appearance" of unconstitutionality out of the equation by virtue of not even meeting with a member of their own party. Worse, they will be on the public record of mortally offending Hispanics for not even meeting (!) with a highly-qualified governor and former federal judge who's of Hispanic heritage. It is highly likely that, not even considering this issue, the Hispanic vote will flood to Democrats this year, most especially if Donald Trump is the GOP nominee. But if for some reason Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz win (or get put on the ticket), this refusal to meet with a Hispanic for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court will go a long ways to blunting and off-setting that.
But let's say that Senate Republicans decide that this is a way out of their Recalcitrance Conundrum and that they actually could live with Brian Sandoval as the Supreme Court nominee (or understand that they can't afford to avoid him), and so agree to meet with the GOP governor. Well, if so, they are then setting precedent. That's because this therefore puts them in a position of absolutely having to do what they insisted they wouldn't -- they would have to meet with all other candidates who the president vets, including liberals or moderates. After all, they couldn't just meet with the one Republican and not anyone else. I believe that that would be a far-worse PR disaster than just not meeting with anyone. And if they realize that they now have to do what they had said they would not, and therefore meet with the all liberal and moderate nominees, suddenly that shows the president's strength in breaking the GOP's unbreakable battle line, and opens the door to him actually making a nomination -- and once that happens, and a nomination is, in fact, made, it becomes all the harder for Senate Republicans to vote against a highly-qualified nominee who they had met with.
To be clear, Senate Republicans could still vote against the nominee -- and likely would. But again, it would be a huge public relations disaster for Republicans to meet with a high-qualified nominee -- with the hearings televised for all the public to see -- and then vote the person down for what will clearly be purely political partisanship.
Moreover, there are a number of Republicans running for re-elections in tight races in "purple" states. And if there is a well-qualified nominee to the Supreme that these vulnerable Republican candidates must vote on, suddenly it becomes a big problem for them to vote against such a qualified nominee, and risk showing their partisanship in blocking a constitutionally required act by the president for no reason other than party politics.
Of course, there are likely other reasons the vetting of Brian Sandoval is taking place. And other reasons the names were leaked. But I suspect, at the very least, that these reasons above played some part in the decision process. And, just as a guess, I suspect a large part.
So...well played, Mr. President.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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