When news broke of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's unexpected death at a West Texas ranch on Saturday, nobody processed the news and moved on to the question of who will get to name the esteemed conservative justice's successor as rapidly as Sen. Ted Cruz.
On Saturday afternoon, the GOP presidential hopeful made it clear on Twitter that he feels that it should be up to the next president to pick Scalia's replacement. Then Cruz, the purported constitutional scholar, claimed that President Barack Obama would be breaking some kind of presidents-don't-do-anything-or-nominate-anyone-for-anything-important tradition if the president were to try and, you know, actually fill the high court's vacancy.
Cruz first made the claim that night during the CBS-moderated Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, according to the Washington Post. “We have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court Justices in an election year,” Cruz said.
CBS moderator John Dickerson didn't let the claim pass, pointing out that Justice Anthony Kennedy was nominated by President Ronald Reagan and confirmed by the Senate in 1988.
“No, Kennedy was confirmed in ’87,” Cruz swiftly claimed.
Dickerson wasn't having it. “He was appointed in ’87, confirmed in ’88. Is it appointing or confirming?” Dickerson asked.
Cruz was for once momentarily silent. It was a satisfying few seconds of television.
By Sunday Cruz had cleaned up his wording enough to be a little less, well, wrong.
"It has been 80 years since a Supreme Court vacancy was nominated and confirmed in an election year," Cruz said on NBC's Meet the Press. "There is a long tradition that you don't do this in an election year."
“This should be a decision for the people,” Cruz said on ABC’s This Week, also on Sunday. “Let the election decide. If the Democrats want to replace him, they need to win the election. But I don’t think the American people want a court that will strip our religious liberties. I don’t think the American people want a court that will mandate unlimited abortions on demand, partial-birth abortion with taxpayer funding and no parental notification, and I don’t think the American people want a court that will write the Second Amendment out of the Constitution.”
Of course, these statements still weren't entirely correct about the actual facts. While Cruz was right that it is incredibly rare for a Supreme Court nominee to be named during an election year, since 1900, the Senate has voted on eight Supreme Court nominees, confirming six, as The New York Times beautifully illustrated in a graphic. Justice Anthony Kennedy is the most recent nominee to get Senate confirmation. (There have been 16 others.) President Ronald Reagan picked Kennedy after his first choice, Robert Bork, was rejected, and Kennedy was confirmed in 1988, Reagan's last year in office.
And it didn't stop there. By Monday morning, the Cruz team had even found a way to use Scalia's death and the unexpected vacancy as a tactic for taking a swipe at fellow Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.
"Life, marriage, religious liberty, the Second Amendment. We’re just one Supreme Court Justice away from losing them all," an announcer stated while solemn footage of the Supreme Court building showed on the screen. Then the ad used a 1999 interview clip of the much-beloved and long-deceased former Meet the Press host Tim Russert questioning Trump about abortion.
(Trump was once pro-choice. Gasp.)
The ad, and Cruz's rhetoric surrounding the consequences of Scalia's death, is telling. It's not just that Cruz started playing politics the day of the High Court justice's death; to be fair, all of the Republican candidates did that, and Sen. Marco Rubio even made the same 80-year-tradition mistake that Cruz did. But Cruz has been shouting the loudest, showing not only the type of politician he is, but also what kind of person.
He's the kind of person who "befriends" Trump on the campaign trail, only to turn around and burn that bridge as soon as it stops being a useful tool. (On Monday, Cruz also took shots at Trump's sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Texas Tribune reported.) The Cruz approach to the high court's vacancy reveals a similar misdirection and strategic mincing of words that led the Cruz campaign to claim that fellow candidate Ben Carson had dropped out of the race in Iowa (when he clearly hadn't). We saw it again in the eye-roll-inducing mailer he sent out that pretended to look like official government business, "check enclosed," that turns out to be a request to donate to the Cruz campaign. It's a crass way of doing things that goes beyond the pragmatically unscrupulous nature of politics, tactics that come across as transparently opportunistic and divisive.
So far Cruz has sucked every ounce of political use he can out of Scalia's death and the Supreme Court vacancy, no matter how tacky it has gotten. And the thing is, he's going to keep right on doing it until the election is over. Evidently, that's just the kind of person he is.
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