In the wake of the deal that (at least temporarily) derailed the Nuclear Option on judicial nominations, the most striking thing about the reaction has been the general satisfaction of Democrats and even much of the blogospheric Left, and the glumness of Republicans, along with angry hysterics among the leadership of the Cultural Right. Sure, there’s a heap o’ spinning going on all around, but the fury of guys like Dobson and Bauer appears genuine, and there is a general agreement across the ideological spectrum that the whole incident represents a big body blow to the presidential aspirations of Bill Frist, and perhaps to his future viability as Boss of the Senate.But in terms of unhappiness on the Right, the question remains: whose idea, exactly, was it to make this issue so central to the GOP/Religious Conservative alliance? My general assumption has been that the Nuclear Strategy was forced onto the White House and the Republican Party by a Cultural Right that’s finally demanding results from their partners on an agenda–overturning abortion rights, reversing gay rights advances, and stopping all this church-state separation crap–that depends on reshaping the Supreme Court. But in an interesting essay today, the estimable Mark Schmitt, citing an exceptionally articulate post on the conservative site redstate.org, suggests that maybe it’s the other way around: the Nuclear Option is just another cynical effort by the GOP to get the Cultural Right fully invested in their D.C. power games.So, with apologies to Aretha Franklin, the question is: Who’s zoomin’ who here?Not being privy to the internal councils of the Republican Party or the Cultural Right, I talked to a couple of smart conservatives of my acquaintance, and came away convinced that there is truth to both perspectives. The general strategy of focusing obsessively on judges was forced on the GOP by the Cultural Right. But the specific tactic of the Nuclear Option was developed by legal beagles on the Hill and in the cells of the Federalist Society as a way to placate the Cultural Right without entering into an immediate and explosive national debate on the shape of the Supreme Court, and issues like abortion, gay rights, and church-state separation.Here’s pretty much, I gather, how the thing was put together. Cultural Right leaders, growing angrier for years about the excuses being made by D.C. Republicans for failure to make progress on their agenda, finally started getting fed up after the 2004 elections created the great judicial opportunity of a second Bush term, and the largest GOP majority in the Senate since 1930. Tired of hearing that Republicans couldn’t do anything about the godless judges without 60 votes, they basically said, “Figure something out.” And that’s where the Nuclear Option came in.As fate would have it, the Schiavo fiasco occurred during the run-up to the judicial confrontation, vastly increasing the investment of the Cultural Right in this issue. And then Bill Frist decided this was his ticket to the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.So everybody rolled the dice and then crapped out. And the irony of the incident (unless, as is entirely possible, the Nuclear Option is revived and deployed later this year) is that while this may not have begun as a cynical beltway scam designed to frustrate the foot soldiers of the Right, that may be how it’s being interpreted by said foot soldiers at the moment.After all, some of them must be aware that the segment of Senate Republicans who are relieved about The Deal is not confined to the seven GOPers who formally signed it (dubbed “the Satanic Seven” by some angry talk show callers today, according to water-cooler intel from my semi-omniscient colleague The Moose). Arlen Specter and Trent Lott didn’t sign The Deal, and everybody thinks they were involved in cooking it up. How confident can the Cultural Right be that when push comes to shove in a future Supreme Court nomination fight, the White House can be trusted to send up a sure vote to overturn Roe. v. Wade, or that these slippery Senate Republicans will get that sure vote confirmed, through either conventional or nuclear weapons?In other words, this incident is going to vastly raise the stakes, and the penalty for failure, in future judicial fights, with the whole elaborately constructed, and politically and spiritually hazardous, relationship of the Cultural Right and the GOP hanging in the balance.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Like most California political junkies, I’m already looking forward to a vibrant 2024 Senate race. I wrote up the latest development at New York:
In the conservative imagination, California is sort of an evil empire of leftism. It’s where white people have been relegated to a minority for decades; where tree-hugging hippies still frolic; where Hollywood and Big Tech work 24/7 to undermine sturdy American-folk virtues; where rampaging unions and arrogant bureaucrats make it too expensive for regular people to live.
But in truth California’s dominant Democratic Party has as many mild-mannered moderates as it does fiery progressives. One of them, Dianne Feinstein, has held a Senate seat for over 30 years. As the 89-year-old political icon moves toward an almost certain retirement in 2024 (though she now says she won’t announce her intention until next year), another ideological moderate has just announced a bid to succeed her. Los Angeles congressman Adam Schiff, though, has an asset most centrist Democrats (those not named Clinton or Biden, anyway) can’t claim: the rabid hatred of Donald Trump–loving Republicans, giving him the sort of partisan street cred even the most rigorous progressives might envy.
It’s why Schiff begins his 2024 Senate race with something of a strategic advantage. The first-announced candidate in the contest, Congresswoman Katie Porter (also from greater L.A.), is a progressive favorite and more or less Elizabeth Warren’s protégé as a vocal enemy of corporate malfeasance. Another of Schiff’s House colleagues, Oakland-based Barbara Lee, has told people she plans a Senate run as well; Lee is a lefty icon dating back to her lonely vote against the initial War on Terror authorization following September 11. And waiting in the wings is still another member of California’s House delegation, Silicon Valley–based Ro Khanna, who is closely associated with Bernie Sanders and his two presidential campaigns.
Obviously, in a Senate race featuring multiple progressives, the national-security-minded Schiff (who voted for the Iraq war authorization and the Patriot Act early in his House career) might have a distinct “lane,” particularly if he draws an endorsement from Feinstein. (Schiff is already suggesting his campaign has her “blessing.”) But he may poach some progressive votes as well by emphasizing the enemies he’s made. Indeed, his campaign’s first video is mostly a cavalcade of conservatives (especially Donald J. Trump) attacking him.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Schiff is announcing his Senate bid immediately following his expulsion from the House Intelligence Committee by Speaker Kevin McCarthy for his alleged misconduct in investigating Russia’s links with Trump and his campaign (and in making the case for Trump’s impeachment). Schiff was also a steady prosecutorial presence on the January 6 committee that McCarthy and most Republicans boycotted).
Complicating the contest immeasurably is California’s Top Two primary election system. Schiff and his Democratic rivals will not be battling for a party primary win but for a spot in the 2024 general election, given to the top two primary finishers regardless of party affiliation. The Golden State’s Republican Party is so weak that it might not be able to find a candidate able to make the top two in a Senate primary; two Democrats competed in two recent competitive Senate general elections in California (in 2016, when Kamala Harris defeated Loretta Sanchez, and in 2018, when Feinstein trounced Kevin DeLeon). If that’s the case, though, it’s unclear which Democrat might have the edge in attracting Republicans. Porter’s campaign is circulating a poll showing she’d beat Schiff in a hypothetical general election because Republicans really hate Schiff despite his more moderate voting record.
For all the uncertainties about the 2024 Senate field, it is clear that the two announced Democratic candidates will wage a close battle in one arena: campaign dollars. Both Schiff and Porter are legendary fundraisers, though Porter had to dip deeply into her stash of resources to fend off a tougher-than-expected Republican challenge last November. Big remaining questions are whether Lee can finance a viable race in this insanely expensive state with its many media markets, and whether Khanna, with his national Sanders connections and local Silicon Valley donor base, enters the contest. There are racial, gender, and geographical variables too: Until Harris became vice-president, California had long been represented by two Democratic woman from the Bay Area. With Los Angeles–based Alex Padilla now occupying Harris’s old seat, 2024 could produce a big power shift to the south and two male senators.
In any event, nobody is waiting around for Feinstein to make her retirement official before angling for her seat, which means a Senate race that won’t affect the partisan balance of the chamber at all (barring some wild Republican upset) will soak up a lot of attention and money for a long time. At this early point, Schiff’s positioning as the moderate that Republicans fear and despise looks sure to keep him in the spotlight.