On Tuesday, Senate Republicans took the unprecedented step of officially refusing to consider President Obama’s nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The 11 GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee declined to hold hearings for potential successors, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed not to hold a vote. Several went so far as to say they wouldn’t even meet with whomever the president puts forward. In a political atmosphere already fraught with tension, this was an extraordinary moment.
Republicans may try to stop Obama from appointing the next Supreme Court justice, but their delay tactics won’t work in the long run. The next justice will be appointed by a Democratic president, either before or after the next election, so the Senate should just get on with filling the vacancy left by Scalia’s death. The Senate’s job is to hold hearings, vet a new nominee, and hold a vote to either approve or reject that nominee. But the notion that delaying the process will improve the chances that a genuine conservative of – or anything like – Scalia’s caliber is pure fantasy.
The changing demographics of this country – and the Republican party’s insistence on practicing the politics of exclusion – mean that the Democrats will occupy the White House for the foreseeable future, perhaps for the next generation. This is a point I made almost two years ago in May of 2014 while the Democrats in the House were pleading with Republicans to allow a vote on immigration reform. The Senate had passed a bipartisan bill the year before, and the Republican-controlled House had so far refused to take action or come up with its own more conservative approach to immigration reform. Nothing was happening.
On May 20, I went to the House floor to outline the consequences of failing to act on immigration for the upcoming presidential race and beyond. I said that we may have seen the last Republican president for a very long time. «If you do nothing on immigration, I guess you can take comfort in knowing that from Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush, you had a good run. Freeing the slaves, winning the Civil War, the interstate highway system, those all go in the highlight column.»
My point was this: By refusing to be meaningful partners on immigration reform, the GOP was angering a growing – and very potent – portion of the electorate. House Republicans were all but guaranteeing that their party would not be competitive for the White House in 2016. They were building a big fence on immigration, but it was around the White House, and it had the effect of keeping themselves out.
Digging in their heels would do far greater damage to Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans than to the president.
The fact is that most Americans support immigration reform and think mass deportation is unrealistic and undesirable. In the most recent Pew Research Center poll, 74 percent favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay legally if they meet certain criteria. The voters most attuned to the immigration issue tend to come from the Latino, Asian, and other communities, which remain close to their immigrant roots and are sensitive to attacks on immigrants.
Latinos in particular are growing as both a share of the population and as a share of the electorate. Roughly 800,000 American-born Latinos turn 18 every year. Mobilization campaigns are turning these eligible Latinos into voters. The demographics are simply working against the Republican Party, which has chosen a strategy that relies not only on opposing legal immigration but also on demonizing people who come to this country to work hard and seek a better life for themselves and their families.
I was not alone in making this point. That month, Thomas Donohue, the president of the US Chamber of Commerce, urged his close allies in the Republican Party to act on immigration reform, saying, somewhat jokingly, «If the Republicans don’t do it, they shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016.» Fox News personality Juan Williams was not joking at all when he predicted what would happen if Republicans were obstructionists on immigration: «Such an outcome would cement political loyalty between the growing Latino vote and Democrats.»
The «autopsy» the Republican National Committee conducted in 2012 after Mitt Romney’s defeat was clear and accurate: The Republican approach to immigration was doing lasting and possibly irreparable damage to the GOP’s chances of ever occupying the White House.
Since then, it has only gotten worse. Donald Trump has leapt into the vacuum and dragged the party’s candidates farther and farther over an electoral cliff with his barbaric attacks on Latinos, Muslims, and immigrants. Egged on by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and other opponents of legal immigration – and proponents of mass deportation – most of Trump’s opponents have cowered or followed suit with equally bombastic and far-fetched proposals.
The Republicans have to face the fact that there is no overlap between a GOP candidate who wins the South Carolina primary and a GOP candidate who is viable in the general election. The coalition of Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, young and progressive whites, labor, gay, and environmental voters is one that’s too large, too rapidly growing, and too repulsed by Republican policies to give the GOP a viable path to the White House.
Even their delaying and stonewalling is a sun-setting strategy. Instead of coming up with real solutions, Republicans have relied on gridlock in Congress to push their agenda. Or, they champion bills so far to the right that they fail in the Senate or get vetoed when they reach the president’s desk. The backstop for this strategy has been a closely divided Supreme Court that often tilts towards the conservatives.
But the makeup of our highest court is destined to change – and soon, thanks to Republican intransigence on immigration reform. The tragic death of Antonin Scalia will only accelerate the process of making the court more liberal. Republicans are no longer a party capable of mounting a successful White House bid, and elections have consequences.
Whether it’s President Obama or his successor making the nominations, Justice Scalia is just the first of many Supreme Court vacancies that will be filled by a Democrat. If Republicans want a more conservative choice, they might want to act now rather than wait until after election day. Certainly the nation will be better off if the legislature does its job of giving advice and consent so that the judicial branch’s highest court can function at full strength.
US Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez represents the Fourth District of Illinois. He can be reached at Douglas.Rivlin@mail.house.gov.