The Importance of Who Comes Up With an Idea

As Republicans get tasked with having Donald Trump as their presidential nominee for a third time, it’s worth remembering one of the better reasons for accepting that predicament in the general election: judicial nominees. In Confirmation Bias, the New York Times Chief Washington correspondent Carl Hulse has written a fine book detailing the well-oiled machine that was the appointment of conservative judges during the Trump administration.

This book contains an anecdote about how a political issue gets framed. Who comes up with the idea matters. When Antonin Scalia suddenly died in 2016, no doubt many people in the Republican Party were thinking about the possibility that the Senate might not bring an Obama appointee up for a vote, choosing to delay that appointment for the next president. The Senate Majority leader was thinking about it, but so was Ted Cruz. Hulse writes that McConnell had to get ahead of Cruz to help secure this option.

Another political factor that would propel the decision-making for McConnell and others was at work that night. The remaining six Republican presidential candidates were to meet for a nationally televised primary debate beginning at nine p.m. in Greenville, South Carolina. Scalia’s death and what it meant for the court would certainly be a main topic of discussion.

In a phone conversation with McConnell, Josh Holmes, the senator’s politically astute former chief of staff and top campaign aide, reminded McConnell of the debate. They agreed that if Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican and presidential candidate widely disliked by his fellow senators, were to use the debate to be the first to call for Senate Republicans to block Obama’s nominee, it would be a disaster for McConnell. Republican senators would not want to appear to be doing Cruz’s bidding. “I simply made mention to him that the debate was going to be that evening,” recalled Holmes, now a top Washington strategist as founder of the consulting firm Cavalry. “I was absolutely sure that Cruz was going to take the furthest position, and if that was McConnell’s view, he should get out in front of him. If it was branded as a Ted Cruz idea, he could lose half of his conference.”

McConnell might have preferred to hold off before injecting politics into the moment, but time was of the essence. So within hours of Scalia’s death, the majority leader’s office issued a statement that arrived just after six p.m. in the email in-boxes of busy reporters who were still digesting the news while wondering if it would be bad form to begin raising the obvious political issues surrounding the jurist’s passing.

The majority leader’s statement first praised Scalia as a champion of the Constitution before ending with this startling edict: “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.”

Who announces a policy position matters. The question of whose idea a proposal might originally have been impacts the framing of its reasonableness.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there