Donald Trump and Neil Gorsuch Collect On Mitch McConnell’s Big Bet

Keeping Scalia’s seat open gave Republicans who weren’t sold on Trump a huge reason to vote for him in November.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Back in 2009, when President Obama was trying to pass his stimulus package, conservative Erick Erickson accused then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of “spreading a cancer of capitulation.” To help drive this point home, Erickson launched a controversial campaign to “send Mitch some balls.”

Today, as the Senate seems on track to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, Erickson is giving credit where credit is due. “Though I have my disagreements with Senator McConnell,” Erickson tells me, “it seems very clear that his refusal to entertain the (Merrick) Garland nomination incentivized continued conservative engagement in the 2016 election and probably helped President Trump’s election more than most realize.”

It is not absurd to suggest that, more than anybody else, McConnell deserves credit (or blame) for ensuring that Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat would stay in conservative hands. What is more, by keeping this seat open, McConnell made it a 2016 presidential campaign issue.

It was a gutsy gambit that paid off.

A confession: When I first heard McConnell, now the majority leader, announce that the Supreme Court vacancy created when Justice Antonin Scalia died would not be filled in 2016, I thought it was a mistake.

My concern wasn’t that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election and then appoint a more liberal judge, but that McConnell shouldn’t have telegraphed his intentions. I expected the press to have a field day with this sort of reflexive and transparent obstructionism. Wouldn’t it have been shrewder to at least feign an open mind and perpetuate the charade of at least considering a Democratic nominee? That would have bought time. Then, once President Obama nominated a liberal—and he would surely nominate a liberal—you could retroactively identify a weakness.

This is why Mitch McConnell, and not your truly, is the Senate Majority Leader.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” McConnell said last February. (The “should not” language briefly left the door open, but it quickly became apparent that McConnell meant “will not.”)

McConnell’s decisive statement, even before there was a nominee, was chivalrous and humane―yet shrewdly strategic.

When Obama then nominated an eminently qualified and decent man in Garland, it was already clear that McConnell’s opposition wasn’t at all personal. (“It’s not you, it’s me.”)

What is more, by making his announcement so swiftly and without reservation, McConnell rendered the nomination and subsequent media buzz a moot point. Amazingly, the story about a presidential nominee not even receiving a hearing was buried—overcome by other crazy things happening in the news cycle. The nomination “fight” (if you want to call it that) was barely even an election subplot—at least, in terms of negative media coverage.

Where it did matter, however, was to Republican voters who might otherwise have stayed home on Election Day. As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always heard that the Supreme Court nomination was the most important reason to vote every four years. This mantra has been drilled into the heads of every conservative for decades, and for good reason. Anyone who had reservations about voting for Donald Trump now had a transcendent cause to overcome those objections on Election Day.

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By preserving the replacement of Justice Scalia, McConnell ensured it was one of the key motivators for people to get out and vote during the 2016 presidential election. As the Washington Post’s James Hohmann wrote, “The election was very narrowly decided, and many conservatives who live in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Detroit found Trump odious but rationalized voting for him because of the court.”

It was amazing to witness how well it worked. Even U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who had publicly attacked McConnell before on the Senate floor, commended him for “holding the line.” Make no mistake, it was a bold move — and a risky one. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, Republicans might well have regretted not confirming a moderate like Garland. What is more, McConnell had no way of knowing that Donald Trump would emerge as the Republican nominee when he made his announcement. (Yes, other Republican candidates would have benefitted from higher stakes, but nobody would have benefitted more from having a big unifying issue that galvanized everyone on the right than Trump.)

In politics, sometimes the shrewdest thing you can do is to be transparent. Nobody expected McConnell to play his hand this way, which is why it was a brilliantly devious move. As Politico observed at the time, “The swiftness of McConnell’s statement — coming about an hour after Scalia’s death in Texas had been confirmed — stunned White House officials who had expected the Kentucky Republican to block their nominee with every tool at his disposal, but didn't imagine the combative GOP leader would issue an instant, categorical rejection of anyone Obama chose to nominate.”

Depending on your perspective, McConnell’s decision was brilliant, heroic, and gutsy―or it was shameless, obstructionist, and evil.

But here is the ultimate irony: On the right, it has become commonplace to suggest that McConnell is a patsy—that he always caves to liberal pressure and doesn’t fight. Yet, it is entirely plausible to suggest that McConnell gave the GOP a Republican president and singlehandedly stole a Supreme Court pick from Democrats. Even some of McConnell’s fiercest critics on the right have acknowledged this.

When Judge Gorsuch is confirmed as Justice Gorsuch (and barring some surprising turn of events, that confirmation is imminent), Mitch McConnell will deserve the credit.