The stakes changed after Scalia died

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. 

BY ERIC MINK

With Super Bloated Tuesday 2016 now relegated to the dustbin of history, the key presidential campaign questions confronting Republicans and Democrats are fewer and clearer.

On the Republican side, party leadership, if such a thing still exists, has to determine if it has any weaponry left with enough tonnage to stop Donald Trump. Otherwise, it seems increasingly likely that he will become the Republican Party’s nominee for president, the uninformed formulator of its principles, the unintelligible articulator of its policies and the grotesque embodiment of its brand and image. 

If these ostensible leaders discover the firepower, then they have to decide whether, how and when to unleash it. Their goal, in the eight months until the November election, would be to reduce or reverse the damage Trump is wreaking on a party already struggling with self-inflicted wounds that cloud its future.

For Republicans who are serious about party preservation, the right answers to those questions would be “yes,” “with the kitchen sink” and “yesterday.” That seems to include South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. A current U.S. senator now in his third term and, before that, a four-time U.S. congressman, Graham competed for the Republican presidential nomination last year but never got much traction and dropped out just before Christmas. 

Last Thursday afternoon, Graham told reporters at the Capitol that Trump becoming the Republican nominee would be disastrous for his party and also, in his view, for the country. “I think he’s going to lose and lose badly, and I think all the things we care about are going to be locked in place…. You can’t nominate a nut job and lose and expect it doesn’t have consequences,” he said.

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That night, as a featured speaker at the annual congressional dinner of the Washington Press Club Foundation, Graham summed it up this way: “My party has gone bats*** crazy.”

A couple of days later, karma came back around on the Republicans with a vengeance. In a Sunday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump thrice denied knowing anything about white supremacists, about the Ku Klux Klan or about the notorious David Duke. Duke, whose affiliations with the Klan and other racist, anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi groups date back 40 years, has been urging associates to support Trump. (Trump had disavowed Duke’s endorsement on Friday but failed to say anything to Tapper about it. After the CNN interview, Trump restated, via Twitter, the disavowal of Duke.)

Trump’s fumbling of Tapper’s softball invitation to separate himself from racist principles, organizations and individuals seemed fitting for the front-running Republican who has stood out for his use of ugly slurs about women, the disabled, people of certain national origins and religious beliefs and others he perceives as opponents.

But Trump’s moment actually resonated with the last half-century of Republican history, the party that elevated Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968 on the strength of a new “southern strategy.”

The approach — clearly explained in a recorded 1981 interview by the ruthless, late Republican strategist Lee Atwater — involved replacing the party’s long and principled support for civil rights with policies, disguised behind coded language, that disadvantaged African-Americans disproportionately. This effectively extended aspects of the racist status quo and appealed to racist white southerners. The long-range scheme created a virtually solid Republican voting block across the American South.

Time, education, expanding social consciousness, racial and ethnic population shifts and new communications technologies have cracked that monolith. But the still predominantly white, male, working class, aging and ideologically extreme rank-and-file Republican base seems to identify with Trump’s swaggering and entertaining performance as Fed-Up Angry Guy. They also seem untroubled by the candidate’s inconsistency, incoherence, intolerance and ignorance of issues.

Indeed, Trump’s formidable acting chops are making powerful emotional connections that are still being underestimated, and not only by Republican leaders like Lindsey Graham.

Democrats finally are starting to take seriously Trump’s potency as a candidate. But what they really need to do is finish picking their nominee and get on with the full-time task of designing and executing a detailed plan to beat Trump in November.

Hillary Clinton’s strong primary showings to date, as well as the primary schedule ahead, point to her winning the nomination. At the same time, there’s no denying the appealing directness of Bernie Sanders’ positions on economic inequality, the outsized influence on politics of wealthy individuals and the financial services sector, the desirability of a single-payer health insurance system and more. 

But as important and even crucial as these issues are, they all became essentially irrelevant on February 13. That was the day Associate Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court died unexpectedly at a resort/ranch in southwest Texas.

Scalia’s death changed everything. Instead of the nominations of federal judges being just another election-year hypothetical, the question is now hard, cold reality. Someone will take Scalia’s place on the Supreme Court, appointed for life.  

Little wonder that Senate Republicans have vowed no confirmation hearings and no full-Senate votes for anyone nominated by President Obama. They are gambling that a Republican will win the presidency in November and that even Trump would nominate a conservative who would maintain the Court’s long-standing tilt to the right on executive authority, environmental regulation, criminal and social justice, and corporate matters.

A new Democratic president, on the other hand, would nominate a liberal justice to replace the ultra-conservative Scalia, shifting the Court’s balance to the left for the first time in decades. This raises the prospect of rulings on law and the Constitution that might be more attuned to the realities of 21st-century America and could improve the lives of people and families for generations to come.

With that at stake, all the issues of the primary season for Democrats now come down to just one: electability. Which Democrat is more likely to win in November against Trump: Clinton or Sanders?

It’s not an easy call. The candidates’ personalities aside, their respective positions on most issues differ more by degree than on substance. As president, either would be hamstrung by Republican majorities in at least one house of Congress, possibly two, or by Democratic majorities that fall short of veto-proof or filibuster-proof. Clinton’s abundant record certainly includes mistakes — some of which she’s acknowledged, like initially supporting war in Iraq. Sanders’ record, after 14 years in the House and Senate, seems to consist mainly of opposition to proposed legislation, including the war in Iraq.

It pretty much boils down to this: How much are Democratic primary voters willing to risk — for themselves, their children and grandchildren — that their candidate will lose in November, giving up not only the presidency but also losing a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change the ideological balance of the Supreme Court?