© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sudden Supreme Court Vacancy Dominates Political Spectrum


It was just hours after Antonin Scalia's death, and the political debate over his seat had begun. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said any nomination should come from the next president. This is the end of a two-term presidency, and we are in the thick of an election. President Obama, though, says it is his duty to send a nominee to the U.S. Senate. Let's bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson to talk about this. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this election so far has, in many ways, been a real referendum on the Obama presidency. Republicans have certainly been trying to make it that. Does this nomination fight have a chance to change the dynamic?

LIASSON: No, Obama was already central to 2016, to the elections. Hillary Clinton is a quasi-incumbent. She's essentially running for his third term. And as you said, Republicans feel they have to rescue the country from the damage they believe the president has done, so this makes that fight exponentially more intense. Up until now the only court vacancies Obama has had to fill are the ones left by liberals. So this is a chance for him to potentially change the balance of power on the court, and it makes the remainder of his presidency much more consequential, therefore much more controversial. And it has repercussions for the campaigns and for Obama's legacy.

GREENE: You know, Mara, I - we have Rep. Sen. Orrin Hatch on the show this morning, and I asked him if some of this is sort of messaging from the Republican Party and also, you know, sort of designed to put pressure on Obama to affect his choices. And he said no, it's not about messaging. But is that might - is that what's going on here in a way?

LIASSON: Well, this is an unusual nomination because the chances of confirmation are so slim. And it is possible that the president could pick someone merely to send a message. But it's more likely that the White House thinks picking the most qualified, broadly acceptable, history-making nominee, not unlike what the president did with Sonia Sotomayor, is the best way not to just send a message but to help Democrats make the point that Republicans are being obstructionist. There's another way that the GOP's promised not to even have hearings on any Obama nominee will affect his choice in one way, which is that whoever is nominated has to be willing to be nominated with no chance of joining the court, to be a sacrificial lamb, at least not until there's a Democratic president in 2017.

GREENE: Oh, you're saying Republicans who've taken this hard line have set up that chance that Obama might have to nominate someone with absolutely no chance at all.

LIASSON: Absolutely.

GREENE: Well, what effect might this have on the Democratic side of the election, I mean, the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders?

LIASSON: Well, right now, Clinton and Sanders are saying the same thing, that the Senate should not obstruct an Obama nominee. But the debate in the Democratic primary is all about pragmatism versus idealism. It's possible that if Obama nominated someone who, under any other political circumstances, could get 60 votes, that person might not be progressive enough to satisfy Bernie Sanders. Let's say that at one time or another the nominee represented big corporations. But that's assuming Sanders would want to break with Obama on the nominee at a time when he is trying to prove to African-American voters in the South that he's a good friend and ally of the president. So I suspect the impact on the Democratic primary will be minimal.

GREENE: Mara, on the Republican side, we've already had some Republicans trying to tie Jeb Bush to his father and brother, who made nominations to the court who conservatives weren't that happy with. I mean, is this nomination fight potentially going to have an effect on the Republican side of the presidential campaign?

LIASSON: I think it might. One big question, of course, is whether a 10-month long battle to block whoever is the nominee could backfire against the Republicans in general. But in terms of the Republican candidates running for president, it could help Ted Cruz. He's been running as a constitutional conservative. He said he wants the entire 2016 election to be a referendum on the Supreme Court. You also might hear establishment candidates like Rubio, Kasich and Bush making the argument that Republicans should pick the most electable candidate because the stakes are so high.

GREENE: Well, and Mara, don't nomination fights on the Supreme Court really drive excitement in both bases, in both parties? Could that be the big impact we see here?

LIASSON: It might. You know, up until now the Supreme Court was more of an issue for the Republican base. They feel that Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act were betrayals of conservatives. Now that there's no longer a conservative majority on the court, they might be even more energized. But it also could energize Democrats. Because up until now a conservative majority court, which we've had for almost 50 years, is something they just had to live with. All of a sudden, a Democratic president has the chance to reshape the court, and it makes the stakes in this election much, much higher.

GREENE: All right, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.