With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say more firmly that Barack Obama blew it by picking Merrick Garland last year. The former president naively tried to make Republicans an offer they couldn’t refuse by picking a milquetoast, pro-business, moderate, middle-aged white guy who he thought they’d accept, rather than risk Hillary Clinton choosing someone far more progressive. Clinton, to her detriment, was always cagey and evasive about whether or not she’d re-nominate Garland. That helped Republicans defang the issue.There are two problems with this line of argument:
While Obama was playing checkers, McConnell was playing chess. Liberal groups couldn’t get their followers ginned up for someone as bland as Garland. Conservative groups -- which tend to be more strategic and better financed than their counterparts -- mobilized more effectively. In stark contrast to the Republican convention, where SCOTUS was a buzzword, no Democrat mentioned Garland during the Democratic National Convention.
McConnell’s move was risky. It might have backfired had Obama chosen a minority candidate from a swing state like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, helping reactivate the coalition that allowed the former president to win in 2008 and 2012. On the other hand, if McConnell had acceded, Democrats would today have a 5-4 working majority.
* The Democrats.First, the Democrats. The assertion "Liberal groups couldn’t get their followers ginned up for someone as bland as Garland" has the ring of truth, but the fact is that liberals weren't likely to be "ginned up" by any nominee, however inspiring. No one would have taken to the streets even for some beloved figure on the left. There'd be nothing like what we're seeing now -- marches and protests every day, masses of people at congressional offices, energized crowds at town halls. With the exception of the brief autumn of Occupy Wall Street, progressives simply stopped doing all that after Barack Obama's election in 2008, and didn't start up again until the weekend of January 20 this year.
* The Republicans.
Progressive groups within the Beltway might have done Beltway things with more vigor, but what good would that have done?
I say that because the greater problem is the Republicans. Faced with a left-centrist nominee many of them had praised, they simply made up a norm, claiming that it's un-American to approve an eighth-year president's Supreme Court pick under any circumstances. Given a nominee who was clearly inspiring to progressives, they'd have denounced the pick as "radical" and "extreme" -- and they might have combined that with the "no eighth year approvals" argument they used against Garland.
This would have happened regardless of how hard interest groups or ordinary citizens fought for the nominee, because, really, what kind of pressure ever compels Republicans to stop doing what they want? Sure, Republicans eventually ended the 2013 government shutdown, but only after polls showed widespread (i.e., not merely Democratic) disapproval of the GOP. But that anti-GOP anger dissipated almost instantly, and Republicans went on to clean Democrats' clocks in the 2014 midterms, which reinforced the sense that they can do whatever they please with no negative consequences.
What Hohmann describes is pressure from the left only. I find it unimaginable that Republicans would have responded to it. And I find it equally unimaginable that our side would have seen the urgency of applying that degree of pressure in those pre-11/8/16 days, when the current horrors were unimaginable to most lefties.
I know a lot of people disagree with this. But I don't see anything that would have persuaded Mitch McConnell not to apply brute force against Obama. That wasn't chess. That was war. Republicans had superior firepower and they used it, mercilessly.