Obama’s First Supreme Court Nomination

The news that Supreme Court Justice David Souter is planning to retire as early as next month is likely to set off a massive campaign-style fight over the man or woman that President Obama nominates to fill the vacant slot on the bench, and could well sidetrack other legislative priorities of the administration.

By Chris Cillizza
The Washington Post

The Souter vacancy lands amid one of the most crowded political environments in modern history with Obama seeking to stimulate the economy out of recession, restructure the American auto industry, draw down American troops in Iraq while ramping up in Afghanistan, reshape how the United States is viewed by the international community and begin preparations for coming congressional debates over health care and the capping of carbon emissions in the fall.

Add a Supreme Court opening to that mix and it”s easy to see why even the Obama administration’s vaunted ability to deal with a number of major challenges all at once will be severely tested.

“The White House team may feel burned out after two years on the campaign trail and then a grueling transition and first 100 days, but it is exactly that type of campaign metabolism that’s required to execute a successful Supreme Court confirmation effort,” said Kevin Madden, a senior aide to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney‘s (R) presidential campaign and now a Republican consultant. “It has all of the elements of a campaign: message coordination, rapid response, research, coalition building and grassroots organizing.”

The two most recent Supreme Court vacancies, both of which occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush, provide a blueprint and a cautionary tale for Obama.

The first nomination — of John Roberts to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — was a model of efficiency. Bush deputized Steve Schmidt and Ed Gillespie, veterans of the 2004 reelection campaign, to run Roberts’s confirmation, and tasked former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson to serve as Roberts’s “sherpa” — helping to facilitate meetings with senators and ensure those meetings went smoothly.

The resultant public relations campaign cast Roberts as an uber-qualified achiever who had spent his entire life preparing for the post to which he had been nominated. Roberts was confirmed — ultimately as the Court’s chief justice following William Rehnquist‘s death — with a solid 78 votes.

Perhaps lulled into a sense of false security by the ease of Roberts’s confirmation — always a dangerous emotional state in campaigns — the Bush administration faltered badly when it nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to the bench to fill a second opening. Roughly three weeks after she was nominated, Miers had withdrawn — brought low by doubts among grassroots conservatives and commentators regarding her conservative bona fides.

Which path will Obama’s eventual nominee take?

It’s hard to know but the massive grassroots army built by Obama during the campaign — 13 million email addresses! — and carefully maintained by Organizing for America since then is a huge advantage for the president as he prepares to sell the country on his nominee.

Obama and his political team have –literally at their fingertips — a list of (mostly) willing footsoldiers, the sort of intact organization that can be directly overlaid onto a Supreme Court fight. While it’s unlikely that all 13 million people on the Obama email list will volunteer to help in the nomination fight, even 10 percent participation would give the White House a major leg up over the groups who will undoubtedly oppose the pick.

Obama will also likely benefit from the current morass in which the Republican party finds itself — without an obvious leader to build the sort of campaign machine needed to counter the Obama message efforts. “If you view this news about Souter as the official start of the fight, we technically have to consider ourselves a day behind schedule already,” said Madden.

The Souter retirement sets the table for what could be one of the most anticipated — and important — fall congressional sessions in recent memory. Much hangs in the balance.




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