The defeat of Richard Lugar by Richard Mourdock in Indiana last might might have consequences far worse than changing one Senate seat from conservative to extremist right wing. I am, of course, assuming that Indiana doesn’t provide another shock as when this conservative state went for Barack Obama in 2008. Jonathan Chait has a warning as to what could be the most serious outcome:
The most important and alarming facet of Lugar’s defeat, and a factor whose importance is being overlooked at the moment, is one of the things Mourdock cited against him: Lugar voted to confirm two of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees. Obviously, Lugar would not have chosen to nominate an Elena Kagan or a Sonia Sotomayor. But he was following a longstanding practice of extending presidents wide ideological latitude on their Supreme Court picks. In the absence of corruption, lack of qualifications, or unusual ideological extremism, Democratic presidents have always been allowed to pick liberal justices, and Republican presidents conservative ones. That’s not a law. It’s just a social norm.
But the social norms that previously kept the parties from exercising power have fallen one by one. Under Obama’s presidency, Republicans have gone to unprecedented lengths to block completely uncontroversial appointments, paralyzing the government and using the power to paralyze government to nullify duly passed laws. It is bringing on an approaching crisis of American government.
The social norm against blocking qualified, mainstream Supreme Court nominees is one of the few remaining weapons the Republican Party has left lying on the ground. But if Republican senators attribute Lugar’s defeat even in part to those votes for Kagan and Sotomayor, which seems to be the case, what incentive do they have to vote for another Obama nominee? And then what will happen if he gets another vacancy to fill – will Republican senators allow him to seat any recognizably Democratic jurist? Especially as the Supreme Court interjects itself more forcefully into partisan disputes like health care, will it become commonplace for the Court to have several vacancies owing to gridlock, for the whole legitimacy of the institution to collapse?
Not to mention the most blatantly political and unjust action by the Supreme Court since dominated by conservatives–blocking a recount and choosing the president in 2000.
The outcome is certainly not clear. Republicans have gotten away with seriously hindering the Obama administration by blocking nominees without justification, but a Supreme Court Justice is a far more high profile position. People who are unaware of how much the Republicans have obstructed progress are more likely to notice this and perhaps begin to realize how unreasonable the Republicans have become in recent years. The Republicans very well might pay a political price if they repeatedly filibuster moderate liberal Supreme Court nominees, and this might also lead to changes in Senate rules. This might not even be limited to the Supreme Court. Would anyone really put it past the Republicans these days to filibuster replacement appointees for members of the Cabinet who choose not to remain in Obama’s second term.
This all assumes that Obama is reelected, but this is hardly certain (as James Carville warns). Lugar’s defeat will scare other Republican Senators into following the extremist Tea Party line. While Mitt Romney might prefer a more moderate course, assuming he doesn’t mean much of what he has said this year, it is hard to see him standing up to the far right, forcing him to govern from the far right regardless of what he might prefer.
Leaving political office often does provide the more sane (or less crazy if you prefer) Republicans to say what they could not say while in office. Lugar has warned against the hyper-partisanship we are now seeing:
If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good Senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it.
This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve. The most consequential of these is stabilizing and reversing the Federal debt in an era when millions of baby boomers are retiring. There is little likelihood that either party will be able to impose their favored budget solutions on the other without some degree of compromise.
Unfortunately, we have an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint. This shows up in countless vote studies that find diminishing intersections between Democrat and Republican positions. Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years. And I believe that if this attitude expands in the Republican Party, we will be relegated to minority status. Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues.
John Danforth, who has often been a voice for reason after leaving the Senate, had this to say about Lugar’s defeat:
THINKPROGRESS: What do you think is happening here?
DANFORTH: An effort by some, and apparently a large number, 60% in Indiana, to purge the Republican Party and to create something that’s ideologically pure and intolerant of anybody who does not agree with them — not just on general principles, but right across the board.
THINKPROGRESS: Do you stand by your view that GOP is beyond hope?
DANFORTH: If this trend succeeds, yeah. What they will be left with, if indeed they want to purge the party of all but people who have a particular ideological slant… it’s not a way to win elections, it’s not political sustainable. It might make them feel good for a time but doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked. It didn’t work in Nevada or in Delaware in last election. They won nominations but couldn’t win elections. I don’t know how you win elections without getting 51% of the vote. I don’t see how you’re gonna get 51% of the vote if you make it clear that people in your own party, who don’t absolutely agree with everything you want to do, aren’t wanted.