Prof. Jeffrey Selinger Comments on US Presidential Race, Obama’s SCOTUS Pick

election_graphic_2016_squareThe 2016 US election process continues Tuesday, March 22, with three more states, including Arizona and Utah, holding contests to try to choose a presidential nominee. This comes seven days after what the media are calling “Super Tuesday Two,” when Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump took big leads in some key contests.

Meanwhile, in a separate but related development, speculation continues regarding President Barack Obama’s pick for the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) vacancy —judge Merrick Garland, who Republican leaders insist they will oppose on the grounds that he was chosen by a Democratic president in his final year.

College Writer and Multimedia Producer Tom Porter spoke with Assistant Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger for his reaction to the latest political developments. He was interviewed March 18, 2016, on WBOR Radio’s Bowdoin and Beyond, which airs Fridays at 3 p.m. Listen to the interview (audio may take a few seconds to load):

The Nomination Battle

Tom Porter: Following the latest “Super Tuesday Two” round of primaries, Hillary Clinton really seems to be consolidating her lead over Bernie Sanders, wouldn’t you agree?
Jeffrey Selinger: Yes, definitely. This last “Super Tuesday” has clarified the race to a certain extent and created the space for (Hillary Clinton) to pivot towards the general election, and that’s what she seems to be doing in at least some of her rhetoric, which is addressed more towards Trump than towards Sanders. She’s hoping Sanders will be in the rear view mirror pretty soon, and she has good reasons to think he will be.

TP: He’s still going for her, though.
JS: Oh yeah, he has nowhere else to go except to drop out, which the president was gently encouraging him to do just the other day in a room full of donors. The New York Times reported that Obama, after trying to hold back and maintain a hands off approach, is now speaking up a little and trying to encourage those who shape the race to start focusing on the end of the tunnel, the general election.

TP: Does Bernie Sanders have his head in the clouds (in staying in the race)? Does he still have a prayer?
JS: Mathematically he has a prayer and maybe there are a number of primaries in smaller states that he might do well in because they’re overwhelmingly white. At least in the short run there’s reason to imagine that maybe he notches a few modest primary victories in small states where has has an advantage, and maybe he can get a media narrative going that might change the momentum in the race.

Jeff Selinger

Jeffrey Selinger

TP: Assuming Bernie Sanders doesn’t get the nod, can his support for Hillary Clinton be counted on? He wouldn’t back out and say, “I’m an independent again”?JS: Oh, absolutely not, but it is a good question after this agonizing nomination battle, which got pretty personal – but not as personal as the Obama/Hillary battle eight years ago.. (but then you didn’t have the “Trump factor,” which is uniting the liberal and other opposition.)

TP: Talking of Donald Trump, he needs 1,237 delegates to secure the nomination. Where is he now roughly?JS: He’s well on the path but there’s a fair chance that his opponents  could ultimately deny him a majority of the delegates, especially if Rubio holds onto his delegates. He has some delegates to his name that he can choose not to release. And if that’s the case, if Donald Trump enters the GOP convention without a clean majority then there’s an open question: is there going to be a battle on the second ballot, or third or fourth?

That was how party conventions used to nominate candidates. It’s only been since the 1970s that major political parties have effectively handed over the power of nominating presidential candidates to the rank and file members in the electorate. But back in the day–before the 70s–it was commonplace for party leaders to decide at the convention, so conventions were not these running multi-day political advertisements that were choreographed, which is what we’ve come to expect. But that’s not why conventions were created, they were created to decide on nominees. Now we decide them well in advance under normal circumstances.

TP: There’s been talk of having a brokered convention if Trump doesn’t have the number he needs. Could you explain what a brokered convention is and what it means?
JS: It means a lot of deal-making. I could be wrong but the last time I checked on this, the dirty secret about brokered conventions, or about party conventions, is that there are no rules. The rules that exist can be changed at the convention, particularly when the chairman of the convention is selected. There’s a great deal of discretion when it comes to rule-making and identifying the credentials of delegates. This is an area of law that hasn’t been explored in some time because we haven’t needed it.

TP: Has it happened before in your memory?
JS:  Not in my memory. It hasn’t happened since the 70s to my knowledge when they introduced the system of primaries. But this was a regular occasion, a brokered convention, where the nominee is decided at the convention. There’s a lot of wheeling and dealing, it calls to mind images of smoke-filled rooms and so-on and so-forth. But that’s how parties were made. They were built on compromises that were struck at meetings that were public, at least in the sense that there were large bodies of people there if not the general public.

TP: It’s four months away yet the convention, but the talk has been that we could see a bloc uniting against Donald Trump?
JS: Certainly, and the key challenge of any bloc is who they will uniting in favor of, in support of? Who will they rally behind? Paul Ryan has said he wouldn’t be that guy, although he also said he wouldn’t be speaker, so who knows?

TP: So he’s open to persuasion?
JS: He’s open to persuasion and boy would he be the perfect candidate! But from Paul Ryan’s perspective you’re throwing him into quite a lions’ den..

TP: And so was being speaker.
JS: Right. Exactly.

TP: And I suppose politically, he wouldn’t say now if he was going to do it, would he?
JS: Yes, he has every reason to keep that to himself. But maybe someone like Marco Rubio, maybe a unity ticket, including maybe Cruz and Kasich. But I can say with confidence that it won’t be any of my former governors. I’m from New Jersey so Christie’s out for any unity  ticket and so is Paul LePage. These two would not be welcome in any anti-Trump crowd.

United States Supreme Court building

US Supreme Court building

Supreme Court Nominee

TP: Now, to a separate but kind of related story: the issue of who is to replace the late Antonin Scalia in the Supreme Court. A few weeks ago you mentioned Sri Srinivasan had a good chance, and he was seen as having a good chance. But in the end the guy Obama nominated was Merrick Garland, the only white man in the running. A 63-year circuit court judge, and former federal prosecutor. What was your reaction when you heard about Garland’s nod from the president?
JS: My reaction was: “Wow, I really like that name Merrick,” it’s an old-fashioned name that should have been held onto.

TP: It’s a solid name isn’t it?
JS: It’s a solid name, a great name. Merrick Garland’s selection effectively lowers the stakes of this choice. He’s 63, and in the last few decades nominees have tended to be younger because presidents wanted to leave a long legacy.  When your nominee is 63 it typically means they won’t be serving that long, they won’t leave that long of an imprint.

TP: But they often don’t tend to retire?
JS: But they do die.

TP: That’s a certainty.
JS: That’s pretty sure, that and taxes! It struck me that Obama was really trying to get a deal and get a candidate that would be appealing enough to Republicans such that they would consider for nomination, given that the general election is not looking too good for them. If Trump is the nominee then the calculation changes completely.

TP: Exactly. I was talking to your colleague Andy Rudalevige a few days ago about this and he said this was a calculated gamble by the Republicans, the way they’re opposing whoever Obama selects, because if they end up losing the general election, they could feasibly end up without a majority in the Senate and a Supreme Court candidate they’re even less keen on that Merrick Garland.
JS: Yes, so with that in mind I”ve seen some Republican senators have taken to the idea of maybe considering Garland after the election when the president is a lame duck. But that also assumes the president is going to keep him on the table and doesn’t withdraw the nomination. So the president still has some cards up his sleeve, and if we’re talking late November, and you have a Hillary Clinton presidency a few months away, it may be the case that Senate Republicans would want to take a look at Merrick Garland but they shouldn’t necessarily expect that he would be on offer.

TP: If might be too late. It’s now or never?
JS: Yeah.

TP: What about the so-called Biden Rule, referring to how (Vice President) Joe Biden’s words have come back to haunt him? 23 years ago when he was a Senator, he made the case for not filling the Supreme Court seat of a judge who was expected to retire in the final year of Republican president Bush senior’s term.  Do you think those words are coming back to haunt him? What’s your take on that? Is Biden a hypocrite?
JS: I don’t know if it’s as a political scientist, an observer or just as an everyday citizen, I’m always amused by those who would coin different political rules. What’s significant about the Biden rule is it’s not a rule, and the idea of the Biden rule is based upon a truncated quote, where those who are making this claim against Biden are not reading the full transcript of what he actually said: which is that he did expect that because the country’s heading towards a general election, that the president should exercise greater caution, and should err in favor of a more moderate candidate, but not that the Senate should refuse to consider the candidate that the president puts on the table.

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