Perhaps you have heard that The Honorable Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently died, leaving a vacancy on the Supreme Court with the potential to ideologically “swing” the Court’s votes for the next generation. Perhaps you’ve also heard that within hours of Justice Scalia’s death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pre-emptively announced that the Senate would refuse to consider any nominee of President Obama’s. The exact quote which rocked the political world was:
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” McConnell said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
In the weeks since, memes and counter-memes have been flying through your facebook and twitter feeds like winds through tropical islands. Senator McConnell contradicted himself in 2005. Barack Obama contradicted himself in 2006. Senator Chuck Grassley, who heads the current Judiciary Committee, contradicted himself in 1988. Joe Biden contradicted himself in 1992. Et cetera et cetera et cetera. (And elites wonder why America is so sick of partisan warfare as to consider electing Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump to the Presidency.)
More fascinating to me have been articles trying to understand McConnell’s motivations – mostly because I suspect they’re all wrong. Ever heard of Occam’s Razor? It means that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. And I suspect there’s a very simple explanation for why Sen. McConnell looks like a guy with a poker hand of 5-2 who’s playing like he’s sitting on a straight flush. But since no one has bothered to offer it, I feel like I should.
First, though, let me step back and set the scene. Many, many, many feature articles by well-paid journalists have concluded with some variation on “what was he thinking?” for example in the Huffington Post, Politico, the Chicago Tribune, and at least two from the New York Times. The thrust of the thinkpieces is: Sen. McConnell doesn’t need to look like a person who’s subverting the Constitution, in apparent violation of everything Justice Scalia ever fought for. Mitch McConnell could have simply waited for Obama to present a nominee and then refused to hold hearings, or even held hearings and then corralled his majority to vote no. When you can vote down any nominee, why pre-emptively announce that no matter what, you’re going to enforce a Supreme Court vacancy approximately three times longer than any such vacancy ever? (The old record was 125 days; Scalia died with 341 days left in Obama’s Presidency.) Why, when the Democrats’ fund-raising is hell-bent on describing Republicans as obstructionists, give them a rhetorical club to use as bludgeon?
The mainstream, or lamestream, media has been mystified to the point of misinformation. John Mark Hansen at The Chicago Tribune, the leading daily of the country’s third-largest city, started: “What is Sen. Mitch McConnell thinking? Or, better, is Sen. McConnell thinking?” Right, like you get to be Majority Leader without thinking. Alec MacGillis at The New York Times wrote: “The likeliest explanation is that the insurgency that Mr. McConnell helped engender has gotten so strong, embodied in the rise of Donald J. Trump and Ted Cruz, that it has caused him to lose his bearings. He felt compelled to get out in front of the base’s ire over the Scalia replacement to avoid a later challenge to his leadership perch.” Lose his bearings? Am I to understand that the one and only Old Gray Lady, the Times, paid someone to write a thousand words on the highly educated Senate Majority Leader’s decision-making process and conclude with “I guess he went crazy”? This is what my subscription is paying for? How often did these writers watch Jon Stewart do that “turtle” voice while imitating Sen. McConnell, and how much did that affect their underestimation of him?
To be fair, some scribes were less dismissive of Sen. McConnell’s sanity. Over at Vox, John Patty and Tom Clark used “game theory” to explain how McConnell’s categorical obstructionism frees up the 24 GOP senators running for re-election in 2016 to appear moderate or conservative, depending on the particulars of their races. Also, such gauntlet-throwing might improve voter-base turnout in November (I would add: “in a year where Donald Trump threatens to confuse the base,” but that’s quibbling). Michelle Cottle at the Atlantic agreed with Vox and added that blanket opposition to any nominee now insulates the GOP from charges of racism/sexism/whateverism after the POC/woman/whatever is nominated. And Ross Douthat at the Times pointed out that conservatives have “lost” Justices they appeared to have won, e.g. John Roberts on Obamacare, and thus “given the plausible hope of replacing the court’s most important conservative with another conservative, accepting a supposedly-moderate liberal without an electoral fight would be remembered forever as the G.O.P.’s greatest betrayal of social conservatives, its final surrender in the culture wars.”
That’s all reasonable for as far as it goes. Yet it’s both too much and not enough. Too much, because “game theory” and all these convoluted explanations were enabled by, and simultaneously threaten to obscure, what was probably a much simpler calculation. Not enough, because…well, I’m about to tell you.
One last thing before I do. Two days ago, the Associated Press reported a doubling down: “McConnell, the architect and face of the GOP strategy to block Obama’s upcoming pick, appears entirely comfortable, even as he upends Senate precedent by denying even a hearing to a nominee.” Look at that smile. Does that look like a man who thinks he’s about to lose his high-stakes poker game? I don’t think so.
Occam’s Razor, a.k.a. the simplest possible explanation, dictates that Senator McConnell must have a good reason for thinking that a Republican will win the White House in November. And I suspect that unlike the writers I’m citing, I know what that reason is. And when I turn out to be right in November, you all better come back here and retweet this very blog post. After all, the linked writers could have and should have at least mentioned this reason as a possibility.
Let’s end the suspense and just state it flat out: Senator McConnell has seen the emails. If you don’t know which emails I mean, you don’t really follow politics. Right now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is gathering information on the many classified, top-secret emails that Hillary Clinton sent from her private, unsecured server. Eventually, many of those are going to be released to the public.
What if “eventually” becomes October? And what if that’s because somehow, Mitch McConnell has seen them, and he’s waiting to inflict the maximum damage? Were he to release them now, the Democrats would still have time to find another nominee; if he waits until October, and people see what national secrets Hillary has been emailing, then bam, President Trump (or whatever GOP nominee), and McConnell’s the greatest political genius of his generation.
Sounds paranoid, right? Tinfoil hat? Does that mean “game theory” and those thousands of convoluted words of Michelle Cottle’s and Ross Douthat’s somehow made more sense?
Prepare yourself for Occam’s Razor to cut the country deeply.