WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, in nominating Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, appears to be laboring under a misapprehension that the confirmation process is on the level.
“I hope they’re fair. That’s all: I hope they are fair,” Obama said Wednesday morning in the Rose Garden, with the nominee at his side. He said he would “simply ask Republicans in the Senate to give him a fair hearing and then an up-or-down vote.”
In hopes of eliciting this elusive fairness, Obama chose an accomplished and anodyne jurist who has been hailed by conservatives and is less liberal than progressive activists wanted. This well-intentioned gesture rests on the assumption Senate Republicans will back down from their insistence that no Obama nominee will get a hearing.
But Republicans did not reciprocate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, immediately reiterated their opposition to holding hearings. In that sense, they are giving Garland, the chief judge of the second-most-powerful court in the land, exactly as much consideration they would give if Obama had nominated Michael Moore.
In his introduction of Garland, Obama quoted past praise for the nominee by Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the longest-serving Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Hatch supported Garland’s nomination to the circuit court two decades ago. He has since said that Garland would be a “consensus nominee” to the high court and that there’s “no question” he would be confirmed. Just last week, Hatch predicted Obama wouldn’t nominate Garland, because he’s too moderate.
But minutes after Obama nominated Garland, Hatch told reporters that he would continue opposing consideration of any nominee until after the election. And McConnell said Obama “made this nomination not with the intent of seeing the nominee confirmed but in order to politicize for purposes of the election.”
Obama had done just the opposite: He picked an old white guy whose centrist views do not excite the Democratic base – an olive branch to conservatives in (vain) hopes that they would relax their lock-step objections. In the process, he antagonized allies on the left, raising the possibility that Democrats won’t get a political benefit from the standoff, and that Obama still won’t get his nominee confirmed.
Charles Chamberlain, head of the liberal group Democracy for America, said in a statement that it was “deeply disappointing” that Obama “put forward a nominee seemingly designed to appease intransigent Republicans rather than inspire the grassroots he'll need to get that nominee through the Senate.”
National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill called the nomination “unfortunate,” saying “the so-called political experts ruled that the best choice for the highest court in the nation was a cipher – a real nowhere man.”
It was a perfect-like morning in the Rose Garden – the saucer magnolia trees in full bloom, and the tulips pushing up. Obama spoke righteously about how he “set aside short-term expediency and narrow politics” in hopes of getting above the “squabbling” of the news cycle.
“At a time when norms and customs of political rhetoric and courtesy and comity are so often treated like they are disposable, this is precisely the time when we should play it straight” with the court, he said.
Obama strained the thesaurus to describe Garland as reasonable, praising his “decency, modesty, integrity, evenhandedness,” agreeableness and “civic-mindedness.” He called Garland “by the book,” “thoughtful, fair-minded,” a man “who just about everyone not only respects but genuinely likes.”
Garland stood with his hands clasped in front of him. He amplified Obama’s contention that he’s no ideologue. “People must be confident that a judge’s decisions are determined by the law and only the law,” he said. A judge “must put aside his personal views or preferences and follow the law – not make it.”
That’s as it should be, and if Garland were on the court, he would no doubt be a force for consensus. But right now he, and Obama, must contend with Senate Republicans who are unmoved and liberal activists who are uninspired.
The White House assembled the usual suspects for its Garland rollout. Walking into the White House on Wednesday, I saw Democratic strategists Donna Brazile and Stephanie Cutter and liberal activist Nan Aron. On my way out, I saw Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards. In the Rose Garden were Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and several House liberals.
The crowd was quiet for most of the announcement. When Garland finished, they rose, gradually, and applauded politely. Toward the back, one invitee looked at another and gave a shrug that captured the reaction: Whatever.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.