Supreme In-Chief

02.26.12

Clarence Thomas Is a Long Shot for President, But His Candidacy Makes a Lot of Sense

Call it a longshot if you like, but in this anything-can-happen political year, the Supreme Court justice has qualities to recommend him to a broad spectrum of voters.

With the Republican presidential nomination still up in the air, the possibility of a brokered convention is looking increasingly likely. Under the party’s rules, the delegates won by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and the others in the primaries and caucuses are obligated to vote for their assigned candidate only on the first ballot. If no candidate wins the required number of votes, the delegates can throw their support to anyone. There’s speculation that party insiders, unhappy with the current field, might float the candidacy of someone not now in the race, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Jeb Bush.

While Christie and Bush might be fine candidates, perhaps the Republicans should consider a more inspired and game-changing pick: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Far-fetched?  Maybe. But a Thomas candidacy would energize Republicans in a way that few other Republicans can and would steal tremendous media attention from President Barack Obama.

Unlike the flip-flopping Mitt Romney, Thomas is a true conservative who could appeal to all of the segments of the Republican coalition. Tea Partiers would see Thomas as one of their own. Not only has he been a consistent voice to curtail the power of the federal government but his wife Ginni, a Tea Party activist herself, has been a leader in the fight to repeal Obama’s healthcare reform law. Wall Street Republicans would be buoyed by Thomas’s opposition to environmental regulation and his free market philosophy.  Blue-collar workers could embrace Thomas’s up-by-his-bootstraps story of rising from incredible poverty–until he was 7, his home had no indoor plumbing–and his votes to end affirmative action and preserve the Second Amendment. Evangelicals will like that he’s against abortion, gay rights, and limits on prayer in school.

Thomas is also very smart. When he first joined the Supreme Court, some people thought he would just mimic Justice Antonin Scalia, the intellectual leader of the Court’s conservative wing. Over the years, however, Thomas has become a powerful voice for his brand of constitutional conservatism and has proven himself a more devout believer in originalism than even Scalia. Today, it seems as if Scalia is more likely to follow Thomas.

Although known for his silence on the bench—he hasn’t asked a question during oral argument in several years—Thomas is outgoing and charming off the bench. When he was on tour promoting his autobiography, he easily engaged audiences with his wit, insight, and willingness to talk straight about his upbringing and the Court. About his refusal to ask questions, he’s drawn laughs by joking that his “colleagues should shut up!”

While he lacks experience in international affairs and the economy, it would be hard for Democrats to portray Thomas as unqualified for the presidency. He’s worked at the highest levels of government for over two decades, far longer  the single-term junior senator from Illinois who currently occupies the White House. With considerably less experience than Thomas, Justice Charles Evans Hughes came just a handful of electoral votes away from being elected president in 1916. Despite Thomas’s long service on the Supreme Court, he could also reasonably cast himself as an outsider to Washington  politics unsullied by the partisan taint that comes from raising money and legislative logrolling.

Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect candidate. The media would surely bring up Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment. Voters who looked past Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s youthful drug use, however, might be similarly inclined to forgive Thomas for an indiscretion that occurred 30 years ago. It’s also hard to imagine the Democrats, who still embrace Bill Clinton, gaining much traction with Hill’s old accusations.

Democrats will find plenty of potentially controversial things in Thomas’s judicial opinions, but even here Thomas has a trump card. Those were not statements of his personal political positions, he can say, but merely interpretations of the law. As a judge, he was obligated to reach certain decisions. As president, he can more freely pursue his own policy agenda.

The idea of Thomas running for president was floated two years ago by two legal bloggers, David Lat and Kashmir Hill. They noted that when Thomas was first nominated to the bench, he expressed hesitation about the solitary, sedate environment that comes with the black robe. “I can’t see myself spending the rest of my life as a judge,” Thomas said.

Thomas has worked at the highest levels of government for over two decades, far longer than the single-term senator from Illinois who currently occupies the White House.

Yet one of the biggest downsides of Lat and Hill’s proposal–that Thomas would have to resign from the Court to run, thereby permitting President Obama to replace him with a more liberal justice–no longer applies with the same force. If drafted at the convention at the end of August, Thomas would still have to resign. Nevertheless, Republicans in the Senate could plausibly justify a filibuster of any Obama nominee on the ground that the seat should be filled by whoever wins the White House in November, two months later. And then they’d keep their fingers crossed that Thomas would be that person.

Yes, it is hard to believe that Clarence Thomas would ever be the Republican nominee. Then again, most people thought an inexperienced African-American often mistaken for a Muslim could never defeat presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, much less be elected president.