A Few More Thoughts

April 30, 2009 7:11 p.m.

Some stories, like the Souter retirement, mainly speak for themselves. Almost to a certainty we knew President Obama would get one or more nominations to the Court. With Souter being the first, it seems likely he’ll get one or two more in his first term.

I’ve heard a few people mention that this represents a political opportunity for the Republicans. But for the life of me I cannot see that. Supreme Court nominations are extremely high stakes battles for partisans on both sides and each party wants to hit a nomination struggle with the most political muscle possible. President Obama has extraordinarily high personal popularity at the moment. His approval rating, while down a bit off the inaugural high, has stabilized and even tracked up a bit at a strong 60%. His party is nearing 60 seats in the senate. And the Specter party-switch, while perhaps not that significant in numerical terms, has left the senate Republican caucus deeply split and demoralized — with one faction savoring an emasculated, tea-bag-driven ideological purity and another disgusted with the party’s ultras and anxious to reenter the actual national political conversation. In other words, it’s about the worst footing imaginable for senate Republicans to try to defeat or stand united against whomever Obama chooses.

The way things might play out differently is if Obama chose someone who made it look like he was fatally over-reaching — a nominee who could galvanize a sense that Obama’s extremely powerful position right now made having a credible opposition party newly necessary. Unfortunately for the GOP, though, I just don’t see that happening. He hasn’t shown himself prone to mistakes like that, especially not errors rooted in excessive drama or over-extension. If anything the opposite.

And the truth is that when you mix Obama’s personal popularity, the progressive issue tilt that’s been especially evident in polls in recent days (see the ABC/WAPO and NYT/CBS polls) Obama just has a lot of room for maneuver.

That’s not to say he can simply pick whomever he wants. The center-of-gravity will be with the centrists Dems, including their newest member, Arlen Specter.

It’s been suggested that maybe this is not altogether a good thing for Obama and the Democrats. Because even though it’s a Supreme Court appointment, it will take away all the political oxygen from issues like health care. But I think this is an example of why the whole metaphor of political oxygen makes no sense. There’s only political power, which a president is constantly in the process of gaining or losing. Actual legislation takes time, which is always finite in Congress. But this isn’t a legislative battle. Besides the intense politics and a few days of hearings, it’s just a vote. It’s also not something like a Truth Commission, which, whatever you think of it on the merits, is profoundly divisive. Neither applies, necessarily, to a Supreme Court nomination. A Supreme Court nomination is as likely to enhance Obama’s standing and political power as diminish it. Which means there’s no reason — none that I see — to see it as a zero sum going versus other priorities like health care.

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