Was it worth it?
Republican lawmakers must ask themselves this question at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, whenever that is. Perhaps then they will finally inventory every misdeed they ignored or encouraged, every scar they seared into our republic and its institutions, in pursuit of their holy grail: another Supreme Court seat.
Two Republican senators, Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), have said they oppose a vote on a Supreme Court nominee so close to the election. This principle, of course, was widely endorsed by Republicans four years ago, when the GOP-controlled Senate refused to even hold hearings for the nominee President Barack Obama had put forward in March.
Pundits keep asking whether other senators might suddenly grow a conscience and keep to this principle, too.
But that’s the wrong way to think about how most Republicans will make this decision.
The prospect of another Supreme Court appointment was precisely how Republican senators assuaged their consciences these past four years. Judges (and tax cuts) were not merely the justification but their ultimate reward. They’re why these quisling lawmakers held their noses and accepted so much bad, sometimes criminal, behavior from this administration.
The lure of packing the bench with conservative justices is presumably why Republican officials abandoned their putative commitments to limited government and free markets. It’s why they tossed aside free trade, fiscal responsibility; and their support for not “picking winners and losers,” not weaponizing government might to reward friends and punish perceived enemies.
It’s how the “party of family values” justified electing its thrice-married leader, who has been publicly accused of sexual assault by more than two dozen women. A man who boasted of grabbing women by their genitals, who allegedly slept with a porn star shortly after his wife had their child.
It’s how the “Party of Lincoln” excused overt bigotry against Muslims; against U.S.-born congresswomen of color who should “go back to” where they came from; against immigrants from “sh--hole countries”; against ethnic minorities who don’t share Trump supporters’ “good genes.” It’s how they brushed off his birtherism, his embrace of neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, his retweets of White supremacists, and the allegedly discriminatory housing policies that long predated Trump’s political career.
It’s how so-called constitutional conservatives ignored his attacks on the First Amendment; the gassing of peaceful protesters for a photo op with a Bible; his threats to “revoke” licenses of media organizations whose coverage he dislikes; his declaration that it was a “beautiful thing” when police fired rubber bullets striking a journalist just doing his job.
It’s how a legislature that once abhorred presidential tyranny has accepted its own constitutional castration. GOP lawmakers willingly submitted when Trump confiscated their powers of the purse; their power to regulate commerce with foreign nations; their duty to advise and consent on major appointments to the executive branch, now riddled with “acting” officials, some of whom courts have determined are serving illegally.
It’s how these stewards of taxpayer dollars turned a blind eye to the ways Trump and his cronies have directed Treasury funds into their own pockets.
It’s how a party that once prioritized the export of American democratic values came to excuse extorting foreign leaders into doing personal favors for Trump. It’s how they accept a president who kowtows to authoritarians, including those who place bounties on U.S. servicemembers. It’s how they tolerate a global environment in which allies are more likely to say they expect Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping, rather than Trump, to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”
Even when it looked like the clock had almost run out on their tacit trade — American democracy, swapped for tax cuts and judges — GOP lawmakers kept their eyes on the prize.
With about 200,000 dead from COVID-19, and nearly 30 million Americans filing for unemployment, Republican senators decided in recent weeks not to fixate on Trump’s mishandling of the dual public health and economic crises, nor even to ask what they might do to help. Instead of passing coronavirus relief, they have remained laser-focused on their precious bench. In the past month, nearly every Senate roll-call vote has related to a judicial appointment; not one addressed mounting hunger, school closures, financial desperation or American deaths.
Now, with six weeks until voters speak, the brilliant Supreme Court justice and self-proclaimed “flaming feminist litigator” Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed. GOP senators see the opportunity to replace one of the 20th century’s greatest champions of women’s rights with someone whose views on the subject fall somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries.
Why would Republicans cede this quo, after having irreversibly handed over so much quid?
Today they tell themselves, and their constituents, that the trade-off has been worth it. Tomorrow, the accounting may look different.