Americans want a hearing

Polls show Americans want the Senate to consider an Obama Supreme Court nominee so what happens if they won't?

Apparently concerned that some people might not find them unreasonable enough, Senate Republican leaders doubled down this week on their refusal to even consider a Supreme Court nominee from President Barack Obama no matter what. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others said there wouldn't be a courtesy meeting, let alone confirmation hearings — a remarkable level of incivility even for sitting U.S. senators.

Their apparent assumption is that their core political supporters on the far right would be so upset if senators were to simply question any Obama nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia, let alone hold an up or down vote, that it would cost them dearly. Senate leaders have come under fire from the tea party wing before for being a bit "wobbly" on issues like defunding Planned Parenthood or Obamacare because they weren't willing to shut down the government.

So that begs the question: Just how do Americans feel about the Senate potentially blocking Mr. Obama's unnamed nominee? Turns out, not so great. A poll conducted Feb. 18-21 by the non-partisan Pew Research Center found a majority of Americans believe the Senate should conduct hearings to consider the president's choice to replace Justice Scalia, 56-to-38 percent with 6 percent undecided.

As one might expect, there's quite a split along party lines. Most Republicans, particularly those who describe themselves as conservative, oppose hearings while an even bigger majority of Democrats favor them. Self-described liberal Democrats support hearings 85-15 percent while conservative Republicans oppose 71-26. Independents hew to the national majority, favoring hearings by a 56-37 percent margin.

Generally, the more educated the voter, the more likely to favor conducting hearings. The Pew poll found that most of those with "some college," a bachelor's degree or higher favored hearings while only among those with a high school diploma or less does a majority oppose them. Blacks favored hearings 82-15, but then so did whites, 50-44.

Those results strongly suggest that Republican senators are significantly out of step with average Americans and there might be a price to be paid for that in swing states. As it happens, a recently released poll conducted by the Democratic-leaning firm of Public Policy Polling found the issue may damage the reelection campaigns of at least two Republican senators, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey, in the "purple" states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Not only do healthy majorities in both those states want to see a new justice appointed this year, but 52 percent of voters said they'd be less likely to re-elect their current senator if the senator refuses to confirm any replacement no matter who is nominated.

And those aren't the only states where incumbent Republican senators may be at risk. There are also GOP senators running for re-election in Illinois, New Hampshire and Wisconsin whose seats weren't regarded as safe prior to this controversy. A potential rejection of those incumbents could easily put the Senate back in Democratic hands — not to mention help the party's presidential nominee in those all-important swing states.

No wonder Mr. McConnell is scrambling to find instances of Democrats saying boneheaded things about judicial nominees in years past, reaching all the way back to the June 1992 archive to document then-Sen. Joe Biden suggesting the Senate shouldn't hold confirmation hearings for any court nominee from George H.W. Bush — if a vacancy presented itself, that is. Of course, none did, and Democrats have never blocked a Supreme Court nomination in this manner. Even if we brand Mr. Biden a hypocrite on this point, it doesn't change what's right or what the American people expect.

Even conservatives must wonder if this is a smart strategy. President Obama may now offer some centrist who will bring greater diversity to the court, someone who Republican senators have approved for the federal bench before. Does snubbing such a person accomplish anything but define the party as obstructionist or potentially racist or sexist? And then what happens if a Democrat wins the White House in November? Surely, there won't be any motivation for a President Hillary Clinton or a President Bernie Sanders to fill the vacancy with anyone but a dyed-in-the-wool progressive.

Still, the more immediate problem for Mr. McConnell's majority is that they appear to be doing the bidding of their presidential candidates who are trying to win over angry primary voters. It's a trap, of course: Allow the process to move forward, and Donald Trump, the party's increasingly likely nominee, will label them as old-guard compromisers; stonewall and they put their swing state incumbents in peril and potentially help move the nation's highest court further left. Either way, Mr. Obama and the Democrats stand to benefit politically.

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