Perhaps the most haunting memory of the night will be the audience. Previous presidential debates have banned cheering and booing. Saturday night’s Republican debate in Greenville was marked by both. Permitted or not, the rowdy crowd ventilated its feelings without concern for how it looked or sounded to the viewers at home.
This unconcern for appearances was a Republican theme of the weekend. Hours before the debate opened, news broke that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died. Candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio promptly issued statements opining that any appointing any replacement should be left to the next president. It’s not unheard of for candidates to express emotive positions adopted for political advantage. But that same evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined in, with a statement ruling out any Senate action on any Supreme Court nominee, no matter who it might be.
Candidates and senators justified their stance by citing the so-called "Thurmond rule,” by which the Senate has sometimes—not always—stopped considering judicial nominations in the summer of presidential election years. The rule isn’t really a rule, more a single controversial precedent that senators sometimes invoke and as often condemn and ignore.
If they’d wanted, though, Republicans could find a newer and more relevant example of a senior constitutional official unilaterally expanding an undoubted constitutional right into a bold new claim of power. That example is President Obama’s two 2014 immigration orders, suspending all enforcement action against millions of illegal aliens—and unilaterally extending to them rights of residency and work in the United States.
Their premise? That the president has discretion to decide which illegal immigrants to act against, and in which order.
It follows that the president has discretion to decide not to act against entire classes and categories of illegal immigrants—and, more than that, to inform them so in advance, along with potential employers, landlords, and so on.
The structure of that claim is exactly parallel to that advanced by McConnell.
Premise: The Senate has discretion not to schedule hearings or votes on any particular judicial nominee.
Conclusion: The Senate can properly announce in advance that it will refuse to schedule hearings or votes on all judicial nominees.
If anything, McConnell’s claim seems far more logical and less anti-constitutional than the former.
Yet extending the so-called Thurmond rule to the full year before an election is unprecedented—and also, by the way, very dangerous, for the country and for Republicans. By assuring Obama that he need not worry that a nominee will actually serve on the Court, McConnell empowered and invited the president to play radical politics with the nomination. The big concern Democrats have (or should have) about 2016 is the decline in turnout that occurred between 2008 and 2012. Obama’s support dropped by 3.6 million votes between his election and his re-election. The Republican ticket gained only 900,000 votes over the same four years. Absenteeism was most marked among younger voters and Latinos.
What saved Obama was the loyalty and commitment of African Americans: their participation actually increased between 2008 and 2012—and it was their ballots that provided the president with his margin of victory. If they should feel uninspired in 2016, the Democratic nominee is likely doomed. Democrats will want to do everything they can to rev up African American excitement and energy.
Such as for example, nominating somebody like Eric Holder, who might welcome his nomination with a fiery statement about voting rights, affirmative action, and Black Lives Matter. Republicans would of course go wild, denying him a hearing … and Democrats would gain a bloody shirt to wave in November. Emancipated from worrying about the best candidate for the bench, they could instead use the nomination to elect their candidate to the Oval Office.
Maybe the president won’t go quite so far as that. Maybe he’ll dial down the provocation slightly. But the possibility exists, and the lesson of the past seven years is that the restraints against provocative behavior—by either party—have become more feeble, when they are not shredded outright.
If that lesson needed further dramatization, it was enacted on the South Carolina stage Saturday night. Whatever norms, whatever conventions, whatever assumptions have governed the behavior of candidates for a party nomination in the past vanished. Eugene McCarthy running against President Lyndon Johnson during the bloodiest months of the Vietnam War never called for Johnson’s impeachment. In 1988, Bob Dole may have bitterly accused George H.W. Bush of “lying about my record," but that was in an interview program, not in a prepared debate—and Dole never recovered from the outrage sparked by his intemperate words.
Yet on Saturday, all that happened! Trump accused George W. Bush of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Marco Rubio accused Ted Cruz of lying, a charge Cruz rejected as “knowingly false.” Trump refused to retreat from a long-ago television interview calling for George W. Bush’s impeachment. On Twitter, I compared the night to a horrible Thanksgiving at which one too many bottles of wine is opened, and the family members begin shouting what they really think of each other. But in retrospect the evening was too ominous for even so bitter a joke.
For a decade and a half, Republicans have stifled internal debates about the George W. Bush presidency. They have preserved a more or less common front, by the more or less agreed upon device of not looking backward, not talking candidly, and focusing all their accumulated anger on the figure of Obama. The Trump candidacy has smashed all those coping mechanisms. Everything that was suppressed has been exposed, everything that went unsaid is being shouted aloud—and all before a jeering live audience, as angry itself as any of the angry men on the platform. Is this a functional political party? Is this an organization readying itself to govern? Or is it one more—most spectacular—show of self-evisceration by a party that has been bleeding on the inside for a decade and longer?