Badly Played Again

It’s a useful metaphor. Two outs, bases loaded in a tie game, the bottom of the ninth – and there’s that high pop fly to shallow right. Three guys converge on it, shouting something or other to each other, and they run into each other, landing on their asses. The ball drops in for a hit. The guy on third scoots home. The game is lost and the manager shouts out that classic line – “Does anyone here know how to play this game?”

It’s like that in politics too. Someone should have shouted those words to the congressional Republicans in 2013 when that two-week government shutdown backfired. It didn’t force Obama to end Obamacare. It just pissed people off and cost a lot of money – and Obama could wait, as more and more vital services shut down. Everyone knew who was making life miserable for them, to get what they couldn’t get with votes or court decisions, the Republicans. Did they want to make themselves look like spoiled brats? They decided they didn’t want that.

They gave in. They got nothing. That’s not how you play the game. Ted Cruz drove that shutdown effort, which is one reason his Senate colleagues now despise him. Not that long ago he had made them all look like fools – and now he’s running for president. Trump is an embarrassment and destroying the party, but Cruz is just as dangerous. They remember what happened with Cruz, but now they face an awful choice. It will be one or the other running in November, when the votes are cast, and Trump knows even less about how to get things done in Washington.

Actually, he knows nothing. Neither knows how to play the game. They cover that up by saying they don’t play games, but in a way, all of politics is playing the game – working out a way to get what you want while impressing the public – those who will sooner or later be voting on whether to keep you in office.

That’s hard when the guy on the other side keeps outmaneuvering you, even if that’s sometimes no more than waiting for you to make a dumb-ass move, an unforced error. Obama seems to be the master of that, and he may have done that again:

Senate Democrats enthusiastically embraced Judge Merrick B. Garland on Thursday in his first visit to the Capitol as a Supreme Court nominee, but Republican leaders, brushing aside stirrings of defections in their ranks, vowed again that they would not hold hearings or a confirmation vote this year even if a Democrat wins the White House in November.

It was a strange day even for an often-fractious Capitol. Democrats moved forward with the traditional opening pageantry for a Supreme Court nominee, including staged photo opportunities and two largely ceremonial meetings. At the same time, the majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, sought to dismiss the fight over the court vacancy as an irreconcilable difference that should be set aside, like some routine piece of failed legislation, as the Senate moved on to other business.

This wasn’t a minor matter, and these guys were running into each other in shallow right field:

Tensions boiled over early after Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, and others suggested that Republicans might take up Judge Garland’s nomination in the lame duck session – should Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders win the White House – and outraged Judiciary Committee Democrats called Republicans duplicitous.

Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, noted that Republican leaders had repeatedly said they wanted to let voters in November decide the balance of the Supreme Court with their ballots in the presidential election. But now, Mr. Franken said, Republicans suddenly seemed prepared to deny voters that say in order to prevent Mr. Obama’s successor from potentially choosing a more liberal judge.

“I used to make a living identifying absurdity and I am hearing a lot of it today,” said Mr. Franken, who entered politics after a career writing and occasionally performing on Saturday Night Live.

They had fallen into a trap and all they could do was to pretend they hadn’t:

By the end of the day, Republican leaders made clear they were sticking to their original position and flatly ruled out any action on the nomination during the lame duck session. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on Thursday that he expected Democrats to keep repeating their demands for a confirmation vote, but he urged them to desist.

“It’s frankly a waste of time,” Mr. Cornyn said at the Judiciary Committee’s business meeting. “The decision has been made that we are going to wait for the voters to choose the next president and allow that president to make the nomination at which time that nomination, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican will be processed. But not before then.”

Even Mr. Hatch had retreated. “If it’s Hillary, it’s Hillary,” he told reporters with resignation at the Capitol, acknowledging that party leaders had decided Mr. Obama’s nominee would not be confirmed under any circumstance.

Adding to the day’s theatrics, Senate Democrats crossed the street and stood outside the Supreme Court building for a news conference where they reiterated the “Do your job!” refrain that has become their battle cry in recent weeks.

This was going all wrong for the Republicans:

Mr. McConnell has seemed as immovable as the Corinthian columns lining the front of the Supreme Court building. On Wednesday, shortly after Mr. Obama announced the nomination, Mr. McConnell telephoned Judge Garland to say there was no point in them meeting face to face.

In a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday morning, Mr. McConnell repeated his position and said it was time to move on to other business.

“When it comes to filling the current Supreme Court vacancy, which could fundamentally alter the direction of the court for a generation, Republicans and Democrats simply disagree,” he said. “We simply disagree. Republicans think the people deserve a voice in this critical decision. The president does not. So we disagree in this instance and as a result, we logically act as a check and balance.”

At the Judiciary Committee business meeting, senators traded recriminations and Mr. Franken expressed disbelief at the Republicans’ position.

“Let’s at least be honest while we are talking about this stuff,” Mr. Franken told Mr. Hatch, who had raised the idea of taking up Judge Garland’s nomination during the lame duck session.

Mr. Franken continued: “You can’t say ‘I want the people to decide; wait for the next president. Oh, wait a minute, if we lose the election, then we’ll vote for this guy.'”

Addressing Mr. Hatch directly, Mr. Franken said, “Will you at least admit to me that is contradictory?”

Mr. Hatch replied, “If I was in your shoes, I would be saying, ‘Well that’s wonderful, at least we are going to vote for this nominee one way or the other.'”

Mr. Franken was not mollified. “No, it’s double-talk. Don’t you see that as double-talk?”

This wasn’t supposed to happen. There was going to be no discussion of this vacancy at all – they said so – but they had been outmaneuvered, as Greg Sargent explains:

There is a scenario worth entertaining here in which Obama has the last laugh – and the GOP posture ends up leaving Republicans with only downsides, and zero upsides. That scenario goes like this: If Republicans don’t give Garland any hearing, and a Democrat (most likely Hillary Clinton) wins the presidential election, Republicans could then move to consider him in the lame duck session, to prevent Clinton from picking a more liberal nominee. But at that point, Obama could withdraw his nominee, to allow his successor to pick the next justice, instead.

Ah, they didn’t think of that:

The Republican argument for refusing to consider Garland (or anyone Obama nominates) is that the selection of the next justice is so hugely consequential that only the next president should make that choice, so that the American people have a say in it, by choosing who that president will be. Lurking behind this rationale is the understandable fear that if the court is tilted in a more liberal direction, it could deal a serious blow to a number of conservative causes – so better to roll the dice by holding out and hoping a Republican is elected president.

But with Donald Trump tightening his grip on the nomination, and the more electable “establishment” GOP candidates falling like dominoes, the prospect of Clinton winning the presidency is looking very real, and may continue to look even more likely as the campaign progresses. Republicans themselves fear that a Trump nomination could cost them the Senate, too. If all of that happens, Republicans might see no choice but to try to confirm Garland in the lame duck, before Clinton takes office and picks a nominee, possibly with a Dem-controlled Senate behind her. Some Republicans are already floating this idea.

But Obama could decline to play along with that scenario.

“Waiting until a lame duck session to decide whether to act is a high risk strategy, as Obama could always withdraw the nomination, giving a President Clinton the opportunity to swing for the fences,” Jonathan Adler, a libertarian-leaning law professor at Case Western Reserve University, tells me. Adler adds that Obama could simply justify this by arguing “that voters elected Hillary, and that he gave Republicans a compromise offer, and they rejected it.”

In mid-November, Obama could withdraw this nomination and nominate someone they’d really hate:

The amusing thing about this outcome is that, in justifying the decision to allow Clinton to pick a more liberal nominee than he did, Obama would be offering a version of the rationale Republicans offered for not considering his pick at all: the voters have rendered a verdict on what Scalia’s replacement should look like, by picking the next president, and now we should honor that. And in this scenario, Republicans might end up with only downsides: they might end up sustaining a lot of political damage by refusing to act on Obama’s nominee at all, and they’d end up squandering the chance to get a more centrist Justice, rather than a more liberal one. (They would have kept the base happy, of course, but at what price?)

Obviously Republicans might still stick to their current strategy, because – again – it’s worth taking a big gamble in hopes of electing a Republican president to keep the Court tilted in a conservative direction. And who knows – maybe they’ll prove right, and the GOP will take the White House. But if it’s looking more likely that Clinton is going to win, and if more chatter about the above endgame arises, Republicans might feel more inclined to confirm Obama’s nominee before the election.

That makes this a game of chicken, but Sargent adds this:

It occurs to me that I probably should have argued that in this scenario, Democrats and liberals would be getting the last laugh, as opposed to Obama getting it. After all, Obama by all indications does want Garland confirmed; he’d merely be deferring to Hillary after the election. And liberal Dems (some of whom are already disappointed by the Garland pick) would be getting their preferred outcome.

Either way, the Republicans lose. Does anyone here know how to play this game? Obama does, and Josh Marshall examines the unforced errors on the other side and how the strength of the Senate Republican position was no more than brittleness:

Just to review, “the three no’s” are the veritable catechism Senate Republicans devised and adopted in the days just after Justice Scalia’s death: no vote, no hearings, no meetings.

Republicans could have adopted a posture of outward good faith, hold hearings but find deal-breaker problems with any nominee Obama sent up and simply run out the clock. But once they opted for denying Obama another nomination outright, something like “the three no’s” became essential because it was important to end the discussion, end the debate as soon as possible, especially before it dragged into the heart of the election season.

They intended to shut down all discussion, but that was impossible from the start:

However many made-up rules or traditions or logic games Republicans want to come up there’s no getting around the fact that this is an unprecedented action – brought about at least in part by the extraordinarily high stakes over Justice Scalia’s replacement. Coming up with some prepackaged nonsense is good to give Republican partisans something to say on TV when they’re pressed on this. But nothing can hide the novelty of this gambit. There’s also little question that this is politically damaging for Republican senators in competitive elections this year. Republicans may not admit it publicly. But I guarantee you this is taken as a given.

Marshall thinks this will play out in state after state:

Republican partisans aren’t a problem. Most will likely support the strategy simply because of the stakes involved and the chance to deny Obama a third Justice on the Court. Partisan Democrats are irrelevant since they’re already voting for the Democratic challenger. But in blue or purple states, Republicans have to win loosely affiliated swing voters and even some fair weather Democrats to win. Those voters may not care terribly much about the Supreme Court, let alone shifting the balance of the Court in a liberal direction. But these voters are highly susceptible to “why aren’t you doing your job?” messages.

We all remember high school civics or at least School House Rock. When there’s a vacancy on the Court, the President nominates a Justice and the Senate approves or disapproves the nomination. That’s how it works. So if you’re in the Senate why aren’t you doing that? There are several explanations. But they don’t make much sense unless you are highly ideological or highly partisan. If that’s not you’re audience, you are left with a candidate not able to give a very good answer to why they’re not doing what appears to be a key part of their job – and also asking to be reelected. Add to that that swing voters who generally like to see independence of party discipline and it’s a bad political mix.

None of this is controversial. It hurts. The question is how much it hurts. And however much it hurts, the key for Republicans is to have it take up as little of the campaign dialog as possible. There’s no good political day discussing or explaining this gambit. The key is to end the debate, stop talking about it as soon as possible. And the debate only ends when both sides agree that Barack Obama will not appoint Justice Scalia’s successor and the press loses interest.

Well, that was the plan, but it was doomed from the start:

The three no’s, the flat refusal to go through with even the most initial and customary parts of the process, is meant to starve the debate of oxygen and end the discussion. That is so important because we are talking about an extremely well-worn, century or two-century old (depending on your definition) process that has a natural momentum toward completion.

If you’re a Senator and meet with Judge Garland to discuss his nomination, you’ll be asked what you thought of him. If you say that he seemed like a distinguished judge and it was a pleasant meeting (and it’s hard not to since the key senators have already voted to confirm him), the next question is obvious: So will you support a hearing on his nomination? If the answer is no, why? In a sense it’s not different or harder than any of the other flat refusals. But each refusal is just as hard to explain as the last one to anyone who does not bring a deep level of ideological or partisan commitment to the question. It’s that death of a thousand cuts politically, a slippery slope because, as I said, the process has a natural momentum forward. And it keeps the story going and going and going. Of course, you can just say ‘no’ at every point. But doing so delivers a never-ending string of hard to answer campaign trail questions.

This was the problem GOP and conservative court strategists pointed to at the outset and wrote detailed policy memos explaining the need to “starve the media of this story” by avoiding any discussion of “the credentials of the nominee.”

Cool, but the assumption that if they don’t talk about the process and the credentials of the nominee then no one else will was an absurd assumption:

What’s notable is that even in the first day of the Garland nomination, “the three no’s” started to break down. Here’s a list of the Senators who have already said they are willing to meet with Judge Garland. More importantly, the big news this afternoon was that Chuck Grassley, a pivotal figure since he’s the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, also agreed to meet with Garland – despite that fact that he’d appeared totally down with “the three no’s.” Today’s he’s upset that the White House put out word that he’d agreed to meet with Garland – which basically amounts to him saying, “Hey, please don’t make this messaging high-wire act any harder than it already is!” Good luck.

It seems they really didn’t know how to play this game:

Now, from one perspective, Mitch McConnell can be caught in a million contradictions and awkward moments over the next ten months. But so what? He’s the Majority Leader. The Majority Leader decides whether to hold a vote. And without a vote, Garland never gets to the Supreme Court. On that front, McConnell controls everything that matters. Nothing can move him if he doesn’t want to move. What McConnell can’t control is the battle for control of the Senate next year, one which will be played out mainly in blue states and in which the battle for public opinion is all important.

It seems to me quite likely that with several Republican senators already teetering on the edge, the daily bad news of this drip-drip-drip is more than likely to deliver the Senate to the Democrats. And as those vulnerable senators (and perhaps others) get more and more squeezed, they’ll push to get out of under this burden. Not that that will be easy, since allowing Garland through would cause a huge backlash on their right. In any case, this is what “the three no’s” was meant to avoid.

Oops. Obama keeps outmaneuvering them, even if that’s sometimes no more than waiting for them to make a dumb-ass move. They will, and that extends to other matters. One needs to impress voters on other issues, like foreign policy, and Trump and Cruz, on the sidelines in this Supreme Court mess are working on that. Show that not only are you wise in such matters, parade out your impressive thoughtful responsible advisers. Rope in Henry Kissinger if you can, or some brilliant retired general or distinguished diplomat. Historians might do too – academics are impressive. That’s how you play the game – and really, it’s not a game. You want the best and brightest giving you advice – and of course voters will judge you on who you choose. 

Eric Levitz reports on how that’s been going:

On Wednesday, Donald Trump was asked whom he consults with on matters of foreign policy. “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things,” Trump replied.

So, Trump’s top national-security adviser – his own reflection shouting back at him from a mirror – doesn’t inspire much confidence. Ted Cruz’s top national-security adviser inspires even less.

This is why:

On Thursday, Cruz revealed his national-security advisory team. The first name on the list? Frank “Obama is a Muslim” Gaffney… the Joe McCarthy of Islamophobia. His think tank, the Center for Security Policy, is dedicated to raising awareness about the jihadist infiltration of the American government. For Gaffney, Barack Hussein Obama is but the tip of the iceberg – in truth, the Muslim Brotherhood has placed operatives throughout the federal government. Among their top agents: Clinton adviser Huma Abedin and anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist.

Yes, that guy:

In conservative circles, it’s one thing to accuse liberals with foreign-sounding names of “stealth jihad.” It’s quite another to say the same of a white male libertarian who has devoted his life to the noble cause of widening the income gap. After Gaffney wrote a full book on Norquist’s alleged sharia schemes, he was banned from the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference. (The strongest verifiable evidence of Norquist’s jihadist sympathies appears to be that his wife is a Muslim-American).

But this guy has said other things:

Saddam Hussein was behind the Oklahoma City bombing – Obama incorporated the Islamic crescent into the logo of a new missile-defense group – by appointing a Muslim-American to New Jersey’s state judiciary, Chris Christie may be complicit in treason…

But there’s more:

Cruz’s other advisers are nearly as alarming. His list includes three other employees of Gaffney’s think tank, along with former assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy, author of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America; Iran-Contra schemer Elliott Abrams; and Michael Ledeen, a former Reagan official who once said, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

Is that impressive? Levitz adds this:

By embracing neoconservative foreign policy, Cruz may be trying to win over the GOP pooh-bahs who could crown him the official anti-Trump. Or he may simply feel he has no better options – there aren’t a whole lot of neo-isolationist think tanks in D.C.

But just about anyone would make for a more responsible national-security adviser than Frank Gaffney – perhaps even a fascist former reality star who constantly touts his “very good brain” and ability to “say many things.”

Then add this: 

Donald Trump’s assertion that he consults himself on matters of foreign policy is no joke to former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden.

Appearing Thursday on “Fox & Friends” to discuss his latest book, the retired four-star general touted John Kasich as the only candidate left who grasps the complexities and nuance necessary to govern effectively in terms of national security. “He is a very serious man, and he got good marks when he was on the committees. He did his homework,” Hayden said, referring to the Ohio governor’s time in Congress.

When co-host Brian Kilmeade mentioned Trump’s answer Wednesday on whom the candidate consults with on foreign policy issues (himself), he followed it with, “I think he was kidding.”

“I don’t think he was kidding,” Hayden responded seriously.

That seems to be a problem with all of this. There’s really nothing more to say.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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