How the 2014 Midterms Wrecked the Democrats' Supreme Court Hopes
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death leaves an opening for the Republican president and Republican Senate to replacing a notorious pro-abortion, arch-liberal Supreme Court justice with a rock-ribbed, unflinching defender of young souls in utero.
Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have made plain their intention to fill the vacated seat. Nothing short of a meteorite crashing into the Capitol dome will stop the President’s nominee from being confirmed. McConnell has herded the votes; Trump is giving no quarter to courtesies like making the pick contingent on November’s electoral outcome.
Before the country enters a conservative counterpoise to the Warren Court era, it’s worth considering the series of events that brought us here. Justice Ginsburg could have easily passed during a Hillary Clinton presidency, or had her successor elevated by a Chuck Schumer-led Senate. The 2020 Republican presidential candidate -- Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, or, Elohim have mercy, an ever-hopeful Mitt Romney -- could be begging Democrats to withhold the inevitable: putting a young progressive jurist on the Supreme Court with decades of service ahead.
That’s not what’s happening, much to the relief of millions of potential babies. And it isn’t just because a Republican occupies the White House. It’s not just that Mitch McConnell kept his mulish grip on the Senate through the 2018 midterms.
The election that set the propitious conjuncture of sinking a conservative shaft into the federal government’s highest judiciary echelon was not in 2016, but two years earlier. The 2014 midterms -- when Republicans captured the upper chamber, taking full control of Congress and ensuring President Obama’s last two years in office were lamer than a duck on crutches -- are what conceded Ruth Ginsburg’s seat to a pro-life Republican.
The Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel noted the significance of this oft-brushed-over-yet-climacteric election. “Whenever candidates claim this is ‘the most important election of our lifetime,’ my hipster rebuttal is that 2014 was. If [Republicans] don’t win the Senate, Obama replaces [Justice] Scalia, lowering the stakes for 2016 and probably electing Clinton,” he tweeted last year.
Hypotheticals are no easy thing to prove, especially in politics. Construing correspondences between campaign cycles is, as Matthew Walther aptly put it, a mug's game. Too many counterfactuals can disrupt a simple narrative. What if Hillary actually visited Wisconsin? What if the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape never leaked? What if Trump heeded the advice of the Potomac smart set and relaxed his talk on illegal immigration early in the race? What if James Comey didn’t shilly-shally on Clinton’s illegal official email use, and didn’t reopen the case two weeks out from polling day? What if Anthony Weiner exerted enough self-control over his paraphiliac urges after the first time he was busted for sending bare-chested photos to minors?
Any one of these events, had they transpired, could have changed the course of the election. Or maybe they wouldn’t.
It is, however, a rare bettor’s gimme that Antonin Scalia’s untimely death was a prime motivator behind waffling Republicans to fall in line behind a nominee who was not quite a card-carrying GOP member. Surrendering the nation’s final legal arbiter to an abortion-industry flack in black robes was out of the question and out of the conscience of the average Republican ballot puncher.
By wrestling the reins of the Senate from the Democrats, Mitch McConnell and co. set the stage for keeping Scalia’s seat in limbo. The canny maneuver mustered the GOP forces enough in swing states to breach the once-indomitable “blue wall,” then topple it.
As George Bernard Shaw said, every good drama has didacticism within it. What’s the takeaway here? It’s actually an old lesson in liberal time preference. The 2014 midterms saw historically low turnout. Only about a third of the registered public voted. Barack Obama couldn’t close the enthusiasm gap, despite telling supporters he was on the ballot in all but name. Democratic voters didn’t see the value in keeping the Senate in their hands; the House was then John Boehner territory, with no significant legislation forthcoming.
A year and a half later, that lazy calculation proved shortsighted. Democrats didn’t envision why upper chamber control would matter in a Supreme Court struggle. They couldn’t see beyond the immediacy of Obama’s last yawn-filled term. And the White House and three Supreme Court seats ended up being the price.
Elections do indeed have consequences, even when our leftist friends sit them out. The big bad of Democratic woes isn’t the loyal opposition but their own myopia.
Winning the 2014 midterms may have been the most significant conservative electoral victory of the last decade. And to the victors go the spoils of remaking the entire judiciary branch for a generation.