Peas in a pod?

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McCain Vows GOP Dysfunction Will Continue

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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We've heard hopeful claims lately that the Republican Party could be a normal, healthy, functional political party if it hadn't accidentally nominated Donald Trump. But John McCain has reminded us that this is not the case.  

McCain, speaking in support of Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, said: “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up.”

The Arizona senator's office tried to walk back the comment on Monday afternoon, saying that he will vote for or against the individuals Clinton might nominate "based on their qualifications as he has done throughout his career.” The "throughout his career” part ignores McCain's support of the current blockade against Barack Obama’s attempt to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy, based on the Republicans' recently invented principle that presidents aren’t allowed to put anyone on the court in election years.

McCain was making way for a newer principle that Democratic presidents aren’t allowed to nominate anyone to the Supreme Court if they attained the White House by beating a Republican. Or whatever works to thwart functional government. 

Whether this was a case of a politician revealing his true intentions, or -- maybe more likely -- a Republican playing to what he knew his partisan audiences wanted to hear, it’s a disaster for democracy and constitutional government.

First of all, there’s no good excuse for blockading “any” judicial nominee of a president. This isn't how the constitutional provision for “advice and consent” is supposed to work, nor how it ever did work until January 2009.

Don't get me wrong. I’m all for senators from the opposition or from the president’s own party voting against judicial nominees whom they deem incapable of doing the job or too extreme. But traditionally the senators opposed to someone they find to be outside the mainstream would settle for a more moderate choice representing the president’s basic approach.

Thus, when most Democrats and some Republicans voted down Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork in 1987, they were perfectly willing to support Reagan’s more moderate but still conservative Supreme Court replacement, Anthony Kennedy.

Contrast that with the current situation. Republicans have refused to consider any Obama-named replacement at all. And now McCain said this attitude could continue through a Clinton presidency.

Even if the senator didn't mean what he said, voters form their expectations from what party leaders say. If Republican senators claim they will block Clinton nominations, then Republican voters will quite reasonably expect them to keep their promises.

So if Republicans retain their Senate majority, they will either have to behave irresponsibly by blocking any Clinton nominations (assuming she becomes president, of course), or they’ll let down their supporters.

If Democrats gain the majority, which looks somewhat more likely as of now, it means Republicans will be expected to filibuster every nominee. If they do so, Democrats will have no choice but to impose a rule leaving the decision up to the majority and eliminate Supreme Court filibusters (as they already did with lower-court and executive-branch nominees after Republicans blockaded appointments to several of those positions).

This would remove the Republicans' ability to sway the president into naming a moderately liberal justice instead of a more liberal one. It would also will push the Senate further along the road to strict majority-party rule, which would weaken the influence of individual senators, especially those from the minority party.

It would also be bad for the ability of the Senate as a whole to be a constructive part of the political system -- in other words, it would be another step toward Congress being nothing but a rubber stamp for the president during times of united government, and nothing more than an obstacle to work around during periods of divided government. 

That's not the energetic government the Constitution created. But that's where the Republicans' obstruction is taking us.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net