In the face of historically bull-headed Republican opposition, President Obama had one of two ways he could go: one was choosing the furthest, wackadoodle leftist judge you could ever imagine since he has no hope of getting any justice confirmed. It would be a triumphiant bone thrown to the restless base, but would really not get Obama any support he doesn’t already have nor would it make the overall Democratic Party seem more reasonable to that increasingly sheepish, elusive, and perhaps shrinking moderate “swing” voter.
Or he could nominate the best judge a Republican congress could ever hope for from a liberal President. And that’s exactly what Obama did, and that’s exactly the right thing to do for this moment.
Because right now Obama’s goals can’t just be to nominate a Supreme Court Justice replacement for Antonin Scalia, chief conservative among the court and long-time denier of people’s basic rights. No, the very election year that allows Republicans to say Obama shouldn’t appoint a replacement at all (which would create an unpredecented 11-month vacancy on the Supreme Court) means that he has to think about Hillary’s election chances, helping congressional Democratic, and properly exposing the Republican’s opposition for exactly what it is: nakedly political. By nominating a guy like Garland, he’s able to do all three of those things.
Sure, it might have been nice if Obama had nominated another woman or an Asian-American or Paul Watford or my personal favorite of Kentaji Brown Jackson (Paul Ryan’s black sister-in-law) just to really create an awkward moment for Ryan and also because the court has never had a black woman on it. But for Obama’s overall political goals Garland is a much better choice. He’s the exact kind of judge—“tough on crime,” more conservative than most liberal judges, older than any judge nominee in recent history, and only to the slightly to the left of Anthony Kennedy—that Obama would likely never nominate during a normal time period. That he’s willing to go so far outside his preferred zone only highlights the fact that this is not a normal time period. It’s worth repeating that this is the best possible SCOTUS replacement the GOP could ever hope for and they’re not even willing to hold hearings on the man.
Yet we’re already beginning to see GOP opposition weaken, and we’re seeing hairline fractures in the party like never before as senators in tough elections (like Illinois’ Mark Kirk, who really needs to go) are saying they’ll meet with Garland while GOP leadership not up for election (like senate majority leader and occasional cartoon turtle impressario Mitch McConnell) are steadfastly saying they won’t even hold hearings. Republicans are already worried over the near-inevitability of Trump being their nominee, and are possibly thinking “Isn’t Garland a better nominee than we could ever hope for under Clinton or even Trump?” And right now they should also be thinking about how bad they’re going to look if they refuse to even consider this moderate judge in an election year that will only grow worse for them the longer they keep stonewalling. Yet again, it makes Obama look like the only adult in the room. And yet again, it does nothing but help the overall Democratic Party brand and in particular Hillary Clinton.