Two years ago, just days before the 2016 election, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., made an important threat toward Republicans during an interview with the Huffington Post. In the full expectation that he would soon preside as vice president over a Democratic-majority Senate, Kaine warned Republicans that any effort to obstruct President Hillary Clinton's Supreme Court nominations would be met by the nuclear option part two — that is, the total abolition of the judicial filibuster.
Let Kaine's ill-considered promise serve as a reminder: Never threaten to abuse power until you actually possess it.
Of course, Republicans won the presidency and the Senate in that election, something Kaine hadn't counted on. And in light of Kaine's promise, their decision on judicial filibusters became an especially easy one. It had only entered the realm of the possible because in 2013, nearly every Senate Democrat had voted to abolish filibusters of judges except in the case of Supreme Court nominations, succumbing to a temptation that Republicans had resisted a decade earlier in the Bush era. Kaine's idle threats helped, however, by collapsing whatever moral high ground the Democrats might have taken.
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Still, there was one tactical question left for the Dems: The filibuster was doomed, but when to make the last stand? When Neil Gorsuch was nominated in 2017 to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Democrats had to decide whether to force the issue right away or to wait and use that last judicial filibuster to delegitimize the next nominee — the one that might actually change the composition of the court.
They chose to fire their last bullet right away, in a nomination fight so tame that one can hardly remember it now. They did it in an effort to keep their left-wing base happy. Republicans overrode them as expected on the floor, setting the precedent that will apply to the anticipated floor vote on Judge Brett Kavanaugh's nomination this week.
Now, just look at how badly Kavanaugh's nomination has been mired by the accusations against him, even if those accusations are completely uncorroborated. Wouldn't it be that much more dramatic if Democrats still had that filibuster bullet in their gun to use as part of this wholesale Borking? Wouldn't they love to say that Republicans are not only rushing through a nominee of dubious character, but also changing the precedent of the U.S. Senate in order to ram him through?
That's what they would say this week — if they had made better decisions before. It's a small thing, perhaps, but it would have been useful to them.