Romney and Republicans Are Doubling Down on Being Trump's Party | Opinion

Politics involves many things, but the exercising of power is at its core. Importantly, though, politics is thought to be separated from naked power by the principle that power in politics needs to be legitimate. American's might not overtly think in these terms, but our national identity is built on this idea. We celebrate the Revolution, the Constitution and democratic elections because they all relate to the ways that we legitimate power. Legitimacy and power, however, are often in tension with each other, and such tension is currently on display as the Republican Party rushes to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat on the Supreme Court.

While the fight over the Supreme Court's future is generally understood as one waged between the two political parties, this current iteration is also a struggle within the GOP. As demonstrated by Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski announcing that they will not vote on a Supreme Court nomination before the 2020 election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's ability to line up Republicans to confirm another Trump court pick was not immediately guaranteed. Republican senators in close general election contests need to appeal to moderate voters, not just party loyalists.

Beyond the pressures of the impending election, though, filling this Supreme Court seat is also about how leaders within the GOP understand their party's identity and political prospects running into the future. It is thus a fight about whether or not the Republican Party is willing to continue being Trump's party.

Republican Party officials and candidates know that they face the possibility of losing national power in both the immediate and longer term. The present threat to their hold on power is, of course, the coming election, where they could lose not only the presidency but also control of the Senate. Compounding these concerns are two longer-term threats. The first comes from demographic trends that do not favor the Republican Party. The second is the potential lingering damage that Trump's unorthodox style and unfavorable ratings will have on the Republican "brand."

With political uncertainty on the horizon for the GOP, the federal judiciary has become the place for conservatives to build a resilient, insulated fortress to defend their interests. Federal judges and justices have lifelong appointments that are not subject to elections, and so while political party power comes and goes, their appointments to the bench endure over time.

While the Trump administration has arguably failed to accomplish many clear and tangible policy goals this term, the Republican Party has been remarkably successful at reshaping the federal judiciary. As popularly illustrated in the GOP's 2016 stonewalling Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court, the party's strategic targeting of the federal judiciary predates Trump. Combined with Republican control of the Senate, however, the Trump presidency has allowed the party to reap the benefits of holding open numerous federal judicial positions during Obama's administration. It is in this greater context that one must view McConnell's reversal in interpreting a president's power to appoint Supreme Court justices in an election year.

McConnell's thin attempt to differentiate the past from the present aside, it is clear that the reasoning was about power then, and it is about power now. That includes the GOP's power today and in the years ahead. If Republicans face difficult elections for the foreseeable future, McConnell seems to believe that his duty to his party is to protect what power he can in the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary. His actions, then, can be understood as being motivated by a precarious hold on power in the present and fear of his party's weakness in the future.

Senator Mitt Romney
Senator Mitt Romney speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on September 21 in Washington, D.C. He announced on Tuesday that he would support a floor vote to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, giving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell enough votes to move ahead. Stefani Reynolds/Getty

The alternative to this view is the one ostensibly taken by Murkowski, Collins, "Never Trump" stalwarts and the newly emerged Lincoln Project. This side of the party—which was highly visible and vocal until Trump's securing of the 2016 nomination followed by the presidency—holds on to the idea that there is a more reliable road to Republican electoral power, and that the cost of rushing a Supreme Court appointment is too high.

Seeing such a road first requires accepting grim electoral prospects for Republicans this November. It then calls for not only using that rebuke to change the party's present course, but also taking affirmative steps to lay a foundation of principle on which to rebuild legitimacy and trust. Refusing to vote on a rushed nominee is a significant step in re-establishing the party's image away from Trump and the exercising of unchecked power, but it is also a gamble—a bet against one's party in the present with the goal of becoming more viable in the future. This wager, however, increasingly appears to be one that Republicans are unwilling to make as they double down on being Trump's party.

Joshua C. Wilson is a professor of political science at the University of Denver. He is the author of The New States of Abortion Politics, The Street Politics of Abortion: Speech, Violence, and America's Culture Wars and, most recently, co-author of Separate but Faithful: The Christian Right's Radical Struggle to Transform Law & Legal Culture.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.