The latest stir is the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, aged 79, on a quail hunting trip at a luxury ranch in Texas. Scalia, appointed during the Reagan administration, was the justice with the longest tenure on the Court, and he was the intellectual leader of the extreme right-wing faction (with Alito and Thomas). He had an acerbic pen in his opinions and a sharp tongue in the oral arguments; no one needed to doubt where he stood on any subject. I will say that he was--mostly--sharp in his thinking as well, and that he did not have any significant integrity issues; some who knew him also attested to his personal qualities. He was dead certain about his interpretation of the Constitution, and, generally, dead wrong. Now, he's just dead, and, I hope, so are his mistaken, outdated ideas. We offer our condolences to his family on his sudden passing.
His departure from the Court comes at a sensitive time, near the end of a session in which critical cases have come before it and are awaiting decision. Because so many of the key cases in recent years have been decided by 5-4 decisions, until his seat is filled there could be a 4-4 vote for many of them. In that event, the lower court ruling being appealed would normally stand. Among the cases pending are ones on the legality of requiring public sector workers to contribute to unions, on the affirmative action program used by the University of Texas (that one may be resolved by a clear majority of seven voting justices, as Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself), a case testing the "one person, one vote" principle in drawing legislative districts, and a suit challenging the implementation of President Obama's executive order blocking (or better said, de-prioritizing) some deportations of undocumented immigrants.
The vacancy on the Court created by Scalia's death will provide additional intensity to the Presidential race now fully underway. President Obama could go through the exercise of considering candidates to fill the seat and even nominate someone, and it it is certainly theoretically possible that a nominee could be vetted in committee and considered by the full Senate during this session of Congress, and before Obama's administration ends. The problem is that the Senate is now controlled by the Republicans, and they would not cooperate with confirmation of someone who would substantially change the delicate balance of the Court (previously a right-leaning majority with 4 liberals, 3 extreme conservatives, and 2 less-extreme conservatives), and I know Obama would not want to nominate someone who would follow down Scalia's arch-conservative line of thought. We shall see, but I think Obama--quite properly--will choose to announce that he will leave the task of nominating Scalia's successor to his own successor. If he does try, it will provoke yet another knock-down, dragged-out war of words (with no resolution) in Washington, which would probably benefit anti-Washington candidates like Trump or Cruz.
Then There Were Six--and Two
Well, between their electoral failures in Iowa and New Hampshire, we've gotten rid of Huckabee, Santorum, Christie, Paul, and Fiorina (Stage direction: Exeunt all of them.) That's progress. The race still has one superfluous candidate--Carson, who has enough funds to stay as long as he wants, but really has no purpose, given that his principal goal at this point would be revenge against Cruz, and he's too nice to attack him directly. Though he may have a couple percent of diehard support, we can disregard him going forward.
So, it looks like it will be Trump, Cruz, and Rubio--if Marco doesn't self-destruct--as the top three candidates for the next round of primaries and caucuses, with Bush and Kasich attempting to establish some legitimacy as contenders. The hostility with which the top three are attacking each other is shocking; one can only hope that the Republican primary voters will reject them all, for their own (and the country's) sake. We can be temporarily encouraged by the revival of Kasich's candidacy in New Hampshire, until we consider that his second-place finish there was probably due only to the influence of independent voters who were permitted to vote there; his appeals for decency and compromise are likely to continue to fall on deaf Republican ears elsewhere.
The contrast presented by the respectful, sensible, content-filled debate presence of the remaining Democratic candidates, on the other hand, is inspiring. I honestly feel that the Sanders-Clinton debates (or Clinton-Sanders, if you prefer) will be remembered well and celebrated, long after the Republican party as we know it rots in the dumpster of history. If I can draw a parallel with the most famous debates in American history, in the 1858 Illinois senatorial contest between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, Lincoln had the winning arguments but Douglas won the election. I think it may be similar this year, with Sanders in the Lincoln role. This is not to say that Sanders will be President in the next election cycle, but that the inheritors of his ideas may be the leaders of our nation in the next 20 years.
The Next 30 Days (Political Drama 2016: Act II, Scene 3)
My predictions for the last scene were correct for the most part on both parties' side, but I underestimated the degree to which New Hampshire provided Bernie's Big Night. The next 30 days will not be so kind to him, I think; he may win a couple of states (besides his home state of Vermont). The next test for the Democrats is the caucuses in Nevada on the 20th (the same night the Republicans will have their primary in South Carolina, which will probably gain more attention). Clinton historically has not done so well in the caucuses, though she should have some natural advantage in the composition of the voters there; I expect another narrow victory for her there, then a whopping margin in South Carolina a week later, and a dominant share of the delegates awarded on March 1, which are centered (though not exclusively) in the South. The score is now 1-1, caucuses or primaries won; by March 15, I would predict it will be 19-5 (counting American Samoa, Northern Marianas, and Democrats Abroad), and, barring some catastrophe in the Clinton campaign, it should be clear she will be the eventual nominee.
The forecast on the Republican side is much more hazy, due to the multiple candidates, the likelihood that some of them will exit, and the fact that voters' loyalties are still very fluid. Trump leads in the polls taken so far in most of the states (though many do not yet have a reliable base of polls taken), often by large amounts, but rarely does his support exceed 40%, so that his path to a quick victory will require either continued confusion among those who oppose him or his proving an ability to go beyond the rabidly loyal base he has maintained--despite all the outrageous things he has said--thus far. The core of support he has is not likely to desert him, come what may; the risk is that his opponents combine effectively, either uniting behind a single challenger, or defeating him piecemeal by dividing up the states and ceding the challenge when theirs is not the best. For example, Ted Cruz could take Trump 1-on-1 in Texas and more or less directly in some Super Tuesday states like Arkansas or Oklahoma, Rubio could be the focus of the challenge in Georgia and Virginia, and Kasich (if he survives probable bad results in SC on the 20th and in Nevada three days later) or Bush in some Midwestern or New England states. By my count, 1149 delegates are at stake in the next 30 days, but with no winner-take-all states, Trump's share--even if he wins pluralities in most of them--is not going to exceed half of the delegates awarded. I expect that after the contests following Super Tuesday in the week of March 6-12, he will have about 500, with Cruz 100-200 behind, and Rubio--who may not win first place in any of the states--in third with about one-third Trump's total to that point, with Bush and Kasich dividing the remaining 10-15% of the delegates.
Then we will come to the main event of Act II: I expect the primaries of March 15 to identify the likely final nominee. Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio will vote that day, with Florida and Ohio being winner-take-all for the delegates, North Carolina being a very representative state for the national composition of the party, and the open primaries in Illinois and Missouri providing a test to demonstrate appeal beyond the party's base. If Trump can win Florida and Ohio his path to the nomination will be cleared, as it would appear to me that, though Cruz is a formidable debating opponent and just as unprincipled as he is, Trump can beat him head to head. Florida, in particular, will be critical, and will present Trump a chance to deliver the knockout blow to Bush and Rubio, if they are still in the race (and Ohio, to Kasich, if applicable). Right now, Trump leads in the polls in both states, but that is partly due to the crowded field.
I still find it incredible that Trump can be considered seriously as suitable Presidential material by anyone, but there is no substitute for celebrity, and his populist appeal is genuine--if disgusting.