Yesterday, Senator Richard Blumenthal revealed that in an interview Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch had characterized Trump’s comments about the judiciary as “demoralizing” and “disheartening”. That led to the usual Trump twitter spat as Trump cast aspersions on Mr. Blumenthal’s character. All of this was great theater. But it left the underlying question of what is really going on. Blumenthal and Gorsuch did not have to release any such statement. Did Gorsuch intend the statement as a signal to the president to “back off” on the judiciary and give it proper respect? Or was something else going on? I vote for something else.
Here’s what. For Gorsuch to gain the necessary consent of the Senate, he needs sixty votes. Republicans only have fifty-two votes. While the Republicans could change the rules to require only fifty votes – known as “going nuclear” – that sets a precedent that they are uncomfortable with. So to confirm the nomination, the proponents of Gorsuch need to position him to be acceptable to Democrats. He can’t be a Trump guy. To vote to confirm, Democrats need cover with their voters. Democrats need to know that Gorsuch is okay, that he respects the rule of law, and that he can be counted on not to embarrass them. For a Democrat to vote for Gorsuch, he needs to be able to say (a) look how qualified Gorsuch is, (b) the President has the right to appoint someone of his own ideology, (c) Gorsuch is a regular guy, and (d) Gorsuch can be counted on to be independent and rein in Trump if necessary. It makes sense that Blumenthal released that statement to position Gorsuch as an acceptable candidate that Blumental could vote for. Publicly, Blumenthal has said that he sat with Gorsuch for 40 minutes and had “reached no conclusion” about whether he would support him. His actions say something different. The only plausible reason Blumenthal had to release the Gorsuch comments was to make Gorsuch acceptable. Blumenthal is, in effect, recruiting Democrats to vote with him to confirm the nomination while publicly taking a neutral position to avoid protests. All the better that Trump attacked him for it, giving Blumenthal cover with his Democratic base.
Which leaves us the secondary question of what is going on. The Gorsuch nomination serves two purposes. The right-wing cultural ideologues like him because they consider him an ally in the culture wars: in the wars against the Civil Rights agenda of the left initiated in the Warren Court years and now playing out with findings of individual civil rights for gays. Gorsuch can be counted on as the fifth vote to push back – to finally overturn not only Roe v. Wade, but the whole spectrum of federally enforced provisions concerning criminal justice, voting rights, and minority rights. For example, in his best known appellate decision, Hobby Lobby’s, he upheld fundamentalist religious arguments that faith made it impossible to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that health insurance cover contraceptives. Assertion of religious freedoms has been a key component of the alt-right effort to dismantle federal imposition of individual civil rights. But Gorsuch also serves an important voice for corporate interests, interests that underlie the Citizens United decision that gave corporations power to buy elections. Corporate interests are pushing to dismantle the American regulatory system protecting the environment, restricting banking abuses, and monitoring corporate behavior.
In other words, Gorsuch is being put on the bench to protect the interests of big money. And what we need to understand is that as currently formulated, big money controls not only the Republican party, but a significant spectrum of Democrats as well. Consider, for example, the linked roll call vote on importing lower priced drugs from Canada, a vote which denied importation with the help of several Democrats. Let me put it another way. As progressive Democrats, we are likely to think of our Democratic representatives as being on our side. It ain’t necessarily so.
Dick Blumenthal likes to present himself as a liberal Democrat from the Northeast. Joe Lieberman, his predecessor, did the same until it met his interests in 2008 to endorse John McCain for president at the Republican National Convention. In my view, Blumenthal, who attended Ivy League schools and first interned in the Nixon White House, has an impeccable, establishment background, and is deeply embued with the values of the corporate and legal sectors. For Blumenthal, Neil Gorsuch has a similar background. He sees Gorsuch as one of his own, rather than as the threat to progressive interests that we might think he represents. The game they are playing is “get Neil on the bench.” And, in Blumenthal’s mind, Blumenthal is just doing his job. Like when he attended Trump’s inauguration when the true progressives like John Lewis properly refused to participate. Blumenthal has plenty of backbone but he’s not looking out for you and me. You shouldn’t wait to let him know where you stand. And you might ask him why he doesn’t first demand a vote on Obama nominee Merrick Garland.
As an addendum, please note the following article just released by Jim Geraghty, “Nine Senate Democrats Say Gorsuch Deserves a Vote”, in the National Review, listing Senator Blumenthal as one of nine Democrats who may ‘break the resistance’ and thwart any Democratic filibuster. His first step, I suggest, in his vote to confirm.