Republicans and Democrats are jockeying to exploit the looming confirmation battle over the next Supreme Court justice for their political advantage in the upcoming midterm elections.
John Paul Stevens' announcement that he will retire this summer has touched off a flurry of speculation over how the contentious nomination process that is sure to follow will affect political outcomes in November.
Democrats say the president can use the issue to further energize a base that has found encouragement in the recent Democratic victory over healthcare. Republicans, however, express confidence that another liberal appointment will help them rouse up the GOP base just in time for November's elections.
"I would expect the president to nominate the most liberal, radical person that he can find, because he is unlikely ever to have the numerical superiority in the Senate that he has today," Fox News legal expert Andrew Napolitano told the Heritage Foundation. "Right now, I think [President Barack Obama] could get through just about anybody, no matter how radical their views might be. This is far to the left of Justice Stevens, who's no friend of a Jeffersonian view of America. But he's not a wild-eyed lefty, which is probably what we'll get."
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Tom Fitton, president of the conservative Judicial Watch organization, is among those promising political fallout in November if senators fail to reject a liberal nominee.
"With looming constitutional challenges concerning Obamacare and new rights for foreign terrorists," he tells Newsmax, "the United State Senate should ensure that only a judge who will strictly interpret the U.S. Constitution is approved. Given the stakes, every U.S. senator should know that the upcoming Supreme Court vote will be as closely watched as their votes on Obamacare.”
Some observers say a drawn out nomination fight could preoccupy the Senate, rendering it unable to advance a presidential agenda that includes immigration reform, energy cap and trade, and the card-check provisions sought by the Democratic Party's union supporters.
Author and talk show host Roland Martin disagrees. He told CNN on Friday: "What I'm hearing out of the White House is, 'Look, we're not going to treat as if everything is going to shut down, the whole focus is going to be on getting this nominee confirmed. This is one of many things that they want to be able to do."
Martin adds that progressives are pushing for the president to submit a nominee who is clearly on the left. "But clearly, this can energize the left because you've had Democrats lagging in enthusiasm after the healthcare year-long debate this is going to help them get their folks involved."
Gender politics may also come into play. Having nominated a female in Sonia Sotomayor, Obama may opt to nominate a male for his second Supreme Court nominee. If so, 57-year-old Merrick Garland, a Circuit Court Judge in Washington, D.C., would be one likely choice.
By nominating a male, Obama would then presumable feel free to nominate a female to fill a third Supreme Court vacancy that is expected. Most observers believe that will be liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Garland is so moderate, however, he could draw sharp protests from the president's left.
The other big question for the president: How will his pick influence the all-important independent voters, who tend to decide the outcome of most U.S. elections?
The president captured 52 percent of the independent vote in 2008. According to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, independents have soured on Obama and now disapprove of his job performance by a 53 to 44 percent margin.
On Friday, Obama appeared to signal that he would like to put another liberal jurist on the land's highest court.
He said he wanted a nominee with "a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people," one who won't let powerful interests "drown out the voices" of ordinary Americans.
The question is whether he can afford the political luxury of trying to shift the court's ideological balance. Pundits of all political stripes are warning that Obama must be careful to avoid the avalanche of conservative criticism that would surely follow his nomination of a strong liberal.
"The president has to pay attention to this centrist notion," Martin says. "Because remember, he's been losing independent voters who put him in the White House. So politics will play a role in who he chooses."
Democratic political consultant and pollster Doug Schoen, who has warned Democrats may lose as many as 50 seats in the House this November, tells Newsmax that Obama "Absolutely needs a moderate like Sotomayor. If he appoints a liberal activist, [it] will be red meat for his opponents."
Similarly, Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says Obama's best strategy would be to nominate a "non-polarizing liberal" who would reflect basically the same political ideology as Stevens.
"That way Obama can say, 'What's all the fuss about? Nothing will change in the court's voting balance.' Most independents and even many partisans will probably shrug and agree," Sabato tells Newsmax.
Sabato adds: "Picking a nominee well to the left of Stevens will create another big battle and a tough vote for Senate Democratic moderates who are on the ballot. It could also backfire at the polls if it motivates Republicans and independents to turn out disproportionately in November to check and balance Obama."
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