The sudden death of Justice Anton Scalia has dropped an already bizarre and surreal presidential election season into warp speed into the Twilight Zone. Whereas the Supreme Court has always been a peripheral issue in presidential politics, it’s always been one step removed and too abstract for the average voter. But that is no longer the case because suddenly the politics of the court for the next generation is on the line. Like it or not, the American electorate is about to get a Civics lesson.
The most important dynamic for both parties is now the status of their leading outsiders. With Trump soaring and Hillary floundering, the prospect of a Trump versus Sanders November showdown is becoming closer and closer to reality- helped along by a gleeful press corps that can already taste the ratings boon it would be. No one can possibly predict the outcome of a Trump versus Sanders final- so much relies how either of them would win and on the wildcards of what happens around the world. With Trump looking increasingly likely to emerge from the Republican circus of losers, the real question for Democrats is what do to about Hillary. Scalia’s death should give many Democrats ready to roll the dice and jump on the Bernie Revolution Bandwagon pause. What if he turned out to be like another Democratic candidate that rode to the nomination of his party on the backs of enthusiastic young people- George McGovern- who got historically crushed once the general election season came? The very thought of Donald Trump in the Oval Office reviewing Supreme Court candidates- let alone anywhere near any sort of nuclear trigger- is the stuff of night sweats and Pepto-Bismal. It would trigger a flood of passport applications.
But the sobering question for Democrats also has to be- would Hillary really be a better, safer or stronger candidate than Sanders? It might seem absurd to Democrats over 40, but it is a real and valid question. Just weeks into the primary season, Bill Clinton is again grinding his teeth and his wife’s campaign is- once again- embroiled in discord and sending out mayday signals. Her attempt to replay the ’08 campaign is yielding the same results- “inevitability” dissipating to reveal a deeply flawed candidate. Perhaps even a hopeless one. To make matters worse, there is the additional investigations of her private email server- another showing of inexplicably bad judgement on her part- compounded by her Nixonian responses which illustrate nakedly exactly why so many people do not trust her, and even detest her. Her like/don’t like and trust/don’t trust- always essential readings into a presidential candidate’s viability- are horrendous. Could she put all of this behind her, and could the party activists move over to her camp from their Democratic Socialist dream? Could the Democratic party, with a smiling and supportive Sanders, stage a Hillary Love Fest at their convention, complete with Fleetwood Mac and go into November unified and formidable? As unlikely as that sounds, is this even the party’s best- and only- real hope to keep the presidency in Democratic hands to be able replace not only Scalia, but also Ginsburg’s seat which will sadly undoubtedly become vacant in the next few years?
The reality of 2016 for even the most partisan Democrat is that the party does not have a solid and reliable nominee available. That is the stark reality. What it is is a party now torn in half by two opposite candidates and camps- and increasingly bitterly so. Sanders has the radical politics- and his detractors are right that no one has even begun to unload the heavy, negative “crazy communist” artillery on him yet. But he has personal integrity and even those opposed to his politics, and even who dislike his cranky old man “get off my lawn” demeanor, concede that he is an honest man who believes what he says. Ms. Clinton is the diametric opposite, a tested poll watcher who guards a zealously vague and middling political course that reveals as little as is possible to maximize her potential support- and more importantly to minimize vulnerabilities. She is the quintessential stuff of the opaque, big money driven presidential politics of the past- but startlingly few people trust her personally or believe she has integrity. That’s a problem. Sure, one could argue, no one “trusts politicians,” and even so oily and repellent a figure as Richard Nixon won the White House, so she’s not that bad.
The answer for Democrats will become apparent in the next few weeks- and the question will not be about Sanders or Clinton- it will about about where the American electorate is. Have those who supported Barack Obama had their appetites whetted for real reforms by his mixed result presidency? Are they now ready to push forward boldly with Bernie Sanders? And are Republican voters so alienated from the establishment of both the government and their own party that they are also ready to get behind a more radical candidate- even if it’s a goon like Trump? And will the Supreme Court really matter all that much to these voters? With every passing day, the answer looks more certainly to be a bipartisan shunning of everything establishment and the impulse of both party establishments to try to engineer a safer, more traditional presidential candidate to have the chance to reshape the Supreme Court for a generation- or it could well be the real path to defeat in November in an America they no longer recognize.