Liberals have been warning President Obama for weeks that Republicans and conservative activists would fight and seek to delay confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee no matter whom he picked. Turns out they were right.
In an April 22 conference call with RNC members, which was recorded and passed my way by a source, activist Curt Levey, director of the conservative Committee for Justice, offered Republican operatives candid strategic advice, pressing them to put up a fight against even the most moderate of judges, and providing a glimpse of the GOP’s playbook for obstructing Obama nominees.
The crux of the GOP’s strategy is to use Obama’s nominee to wedge vulnerable Democratic senators away from the party, and drag the confirmation fight out until the August congressional recess, to eat up precious time Democrats need to round out their agenda.
“[I]t wouldn’t take much GOP resistance to push a final vote into early August,” Levey advised. “And, look, the closer we could get it to the election, frankly, the better. It would be great if we could push it past the August recess because that forces the red and purple state Democrats to have to go home and face their constituents.”
Levey acknowledged that a filibuster likely won’t last—that Obama’s nominee, now known to be Solicitor General Elena Kagan, will almost certainly be confirmed. But he hammered home the point to Republicans that there’s value in mischaracterizing any nominee, and dragging the fight out as long as possible, whether or not Obama’s choice is particularly liberal.
“We wouldn’t have a lot to object to if it was [Interior Secretary Ken] Salazar. He’s quite moderate as Democrats come,” Levey admitted. “We’re not necessarily going to say that if he’s nominated, but I think that’s the truth.” Emphasis mine. This advice was met with laughter by one of the listeners on the call. (Salazar was cited in early reports as a long-shot candidate on Obama’s short list.)
“Even if it’s a nominee that we can’t seriously stop, we can accomplish several things, and so a hard fight is worthwhile,” Levey implored. “Certainly it can be to the political advantage of Republicans…. There’s everything to be gained from making the Supreme Court vacancy a campaign issue in 2010.”
“There’s broader goals such as just distracting Obama from other items on his agenda,” Levey added. “The tougher the fight the less capital and time and resources and floor time in the Senate there is to spend on immigration and climate change, etc.”
It’s likely, though, that some Republicans, particularly moderates, will ultimately want to support Obama’s choice. Levey urged those senators to go along with the delay.
“For those people who do want to support the nominee, and do want to get points for bipartisanship or for supporting the first Hispanic or first gay nominee or whatever it might turn out to be you’ll get just as much credit if you support the nominee in August, as if you support them now,” Levey said “I urge everyone not to say that the confirmation of the nominee is inevitable, even if we think it is.”
So what can you expect the main points of contention—real, or manufactured—to be as the fight drags on? Levey offered a sneak peak.
“When [Kagan] was Dean of Harvard Law School she kicked the military off campus because she felt that the don’t ask don’t tell policy was discriminatory to gay folks,” Levey instructed. That episode will likely become the central focus of Republican opposition to Kagan
“I also think one issue that’s going to be closely connected this summer to the Supreme Court vacancy is the Constitutionality of Obamacare, specifically the individual mandate,” Levey predicted. “Senators are going to ask about it. The media’s going to speculate about how the nominee would vote on it. I certainly plan to raise it.”
Don’t be surprised, either, if Republicans figure out new and inventive ways to use Kagan to highlight what they view as Obama’s political vulnerabilities. For instance, Levey recommended that if Obama’s nominee is not a military veteran, Republicans should cite that fact as evidence that Obama is weak on national security.
You can listen to the audio of the call below. Levey did not return a request for comment before press time. An RNC spokesman declined to comment, referring me instead to Chairman Michael Steele’s official statement: “you can expect Senate Republicans to respectfully raise serious and tough questions to ensure the American people can thoroughly and thoughtfully examine Kagan’s qualifications and legal philosophy before she is confirmed to a lifetime appointment.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.