Democrats will probably overwhelmingly oppose President Donald Trump’s nomination of conservative jurist Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. That’s a reflection of the party’s growing conviction that all-out opposition to the Republican agenda is a winning political strategy.
Their role model is Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who for eight years had one objective: thwart President Barack Obama at every turn. That strategy culminated with the decision last year to reject the Supreme Court nomination of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland without even giving him a hearing.
Politics more than merit will dominate the debate over Judge Gorsuch. It started almost immediately after Trump’s Tuesday night announcement when Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a former Harvard Law School professor, lashed out at the Gorsuch record and said she’d oppose him.
The early odds are that Republicans won’t be able to get enough Democratic allies to gather the 60 votes required to break a filibuster against the Gorsuch appointment. That means it’s likely that McConnell will change the rules to allow confirmation by a simple Senate majority. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Senate, 52 to 48.
Just two weeks into the Trump administration, congressional Democrats are concluding that Trump has decided to be a polarizing president, playing to the passionate support of the minority of voters who put him in the White House in November and content to antagonize most of the others. That means Democratic activists and donors will insist on fighting Trump at nearly every turn, starting with the Supreme Court nomination.
Already this has created some silly moments. Democrats refused to attend some confirmation hearings to spite the Republican majority and Trump nominees. And the party’s left wing had made unreasonable demands, criticizing Warren, for example, for voting to confirm Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Carson, a brilliant retired pediatric neurosurgeon, has few qualifications for the housing job, but it isn’t a sensitive post. Given Warren’s credentials as a fighting liberal, only the loony left would accuse her of being a sellout.
Moreover, there may be few issues where Democrats find it in their interest to seek common ground with Republicans. A big infrastructure spending plan could produce a rare bipartisan consensus.
Trump seems incapable of changing his confrontational, insult-driven style, which Democrats believe will prevent him from improving his mediocre poll ratings or widening his political appeal. He lacks the personal charm or magnetism that has enabled some presidents, notably Ronald Reagan, to exert influence when taking controversial positions.
Many of Trump’s campaign promises, like huge tax cuts tilted to the wealthy accompanied by reductions in domestic spending for the poor, will be easy for most Democrats to oppose.
Most, perhaps all, of Trump’s cabinet nominees will be confirmed, though a few, including education secretary-designate Betsy DeVos, are raising hackles even with some Republicans. It takes a simple majority to approve these nominees, meaning Democrats would have to pick up three Republican votes to block an appointment.
Most legislation would be easier for Democrats to block because it remains subject to the 60-vote filibuster rule. Some Democrats face tough re-election fights in 2018 in Republican-dominated states, so they might be tempted to go along with Trump on some matters.
Gorsuch is widely admired for his intellect among conservative judicial experts, and there’s no doubt he is well qualified. But Democrats will counter that Garland was equally distinguished and are likely to dig into the Gorsuch record to make his confirmation process as contentious as they can.
If Gorsuch, a former clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy, is eventually approved, it won’t much change the ideological composition of the court since he would replace the conservative Antonin Scalia, who died almost a year ago. But Democrats, even before the appointment was announced, figured the departure of aging justices could create several more Supreme Court vacancies in the next three or four years. So they want to make an all-out effort this time.
There is almost no example of a senator, Republican or Democrat, who has suffered politically in recent years for opposing a court nominee. And McConnell’s strategy resulted in steady Republican gains over eight years, including taking control of the Senate and White House.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.