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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had hardly been dead an hour before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a statement that said his seat “should not be filled until we have a new President” in November.
That was back in February, just a shade under nine months before this year’s presidential election and nearly 11 months until said new president will assume office. According to Politico, White House officials were “stunned” at the immediacy of McConnell’s response, which would signal the beginning of “an historic rebuke of President Obama’s authority” by refusing any nominee he put forward.
Democratic leaders denounced the power play, but presidential and Senate Republicans fell in line; though it’s nearly unprecedented to have a Supreme Court seat vacant for so long, McConnell and his party understand the impact that a presumably liberal Obama nominee replacing the ultraconservative Scalia on the bench would have in shifting the court’s agenda for the years to come.
Even when Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland, who has received “bipartisan support in the past” and even lofty praise from some Republican Senators, it came as no surprise that a hearing wasn’t scheduled, still hasn’t been, and likely won’t be–at least in the foreseeable future.
For Senate Republicans, denying Garland a hearing is perhaps the most egregious example of action by inaction during a period with such a hefty bunch to choose from. During Obama’s presidency, Republicans in Congress used their majority to filibuster and block scores of bills, including recent proposals to fund the federal response to Zika, as well as a bill introduced days after the Orlando shooting that would have barred employers from discriminating against employees due to sexual or gender orientation.
There is plenty of precedent here, of course—when one party controls the presidency and the other Congress, the Congressional majority want to shut down anything that might be harmful to their party’s causes or interests. This kind of gamesmanship has existed as long as the two major parties have dominated our political system, but according to Dr. Steve Billet of George Washington University, the divide between parties is starker than ever.
“This is a good bit different on a number of levels from previous Congresses and their combativeness with presidents,” Billet tells BTRtoday. “Part of this is driven by a hyper-partisanship that we now see in Congress, which is more partisan and locked in positions than it’s ever been. Of course, it manifests itself as a strong commitment against the president on just about everything he wants to do.”
At least part of that partisanship, Billet explains, comes from the American public, which he says is also more partisan and polarized than it’s been in a long time. Reports from the past few years validate this notion, which begs the question as to where the division originates: from the elected, the electorate, or some murky area in-between.
“People are now putting great faith in their own ideology and it’s driving the way they feel about things,” he says. “It’s become part of our identity. In fact, we’ve begun to sort ourselves out as a population. We now like to live in places where people think like we do. This manifests itself about how we address political issues and see the world.”
If Americans’ collective view of political issues can be generally described as frustrated, the Republican Party may well be experiencing the brunt of it. A Pew Research Center report published in April found that Republican favorability rating has dropped from 37 percent to 33 percent since October 2015; independents also view the Democratic Party nine percentage points more favorably, and “just 43 [percent] of Republican-leaning independents view the GOP favorably, while 50 [percent] hold a negative opinion of the party.”
In fairness, the unfavorable numbers are higher for both parties than their favorable ones. However, the report finds that 88 percent of Democrats view their own party favorably, compared to just 68 percent of Republicans.
This may come back to hurt Republicans during the November elections. Though their moves to stymie a fair amount of the president’s progressive legislation in Congress can be painted as a shrewd and calculated execution of good party politics, the American people may not necessarily see things that way.
That in-party lull has as much to do with the now-officially nominated Donald Trump leading the GOP into the November elections. Despite numerous conflicting reports and ever-changing poll numbers, Congressional Republicans are gravely concerned about the effect Trump might have on this year’s results for the party as a whole. Combine that with the staunch partisanship and unwillingness to compromise that’s become so pervasive throughout Washington—on both sides of the aisle, by the way—and it’s fair to wonder whether 2016 is the year the Republican Party will receive its comeuppance from its usually steadfast and loyal voting base.
“Trump is complicating this for lots of people,” Billet explains, “because the positions of the Republican Party have kind of been thrown into the mixing bowl here, and we’re not quite sure what a Republican’s going to be when they get done with this convention.”
By mucking up the party’s identity, Trump’s presence leaves the GOP in a tenuous spot, with its party identity rooted amongst Congressional members known famously for their coordinated inaction. That could leave the door open for traditionally red states to “go blue,” or for more radical iterations of existing party norms to swoop in and capitalize.
“The only threat to those in generally safe districts would likely come from someone who is even more radical than them,” Billet says. “Because of that, they’re afraid someone is going to pop up and challenge, so it drives them to a more radicalized position. So the center of gravity in both major political parties has moved to more extreme positions because of that.”
There’s no doubt that both parties have seen a wave of anti-establishment radicalism control the narrative of the election cycle, but in 2016, that rhetoric has Republicans more poised for a fall.