- - Tuesday, April 11, 2017


With Neil Gorsuch’s nomination for the Supreme Court, liberals accepted moral victory in exchange for strategic defeat. They forced a fight they could not win and thereby surrendered a better chance of victory later. In contrast to limited rewards from moral victories, liberals will discover that returns on strategic defeats are anything but limited.

Last Friday by a vote of 54-45, the Senate confirmed Judge Gorsuch to be an associate justice of the high court. Liberals who forced this fight can take some small comfort from their efforts. They turned a nominee with consensus support (a Quinnipiac poll released the week of the vote showed Americans favored his confirmation by 15 percent; other polls showed similar results) into a highly partisan fight. The fight was long — more than two months — increasingly bitter, and in the end, Judge Gorsuch received bare bipartisan support.

For liberals, these small trophies are a political poultice for a series of defeats. The left see Obama’s presidency as having been undercut by conservatives — his promise largely unfulfilled. They lost the House to the Tea Party in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. In 2016, they lost twice: first, when Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders; second, when Donald Trump beat Mrs. Clinton.

For those on the left, President Trump personifies eight years of mounting frustration. Consumed by their perception of the right’s lack of legitimacy in general, and Mr. Trump’s in particular, they reached the conclusion they had nothing left to lose. Such a mindset made all-out opposition appear cost-free and cathartic.

Actually, liberals did have more to lose — and may well have just lost it. Their miscalculation was serious and fundamental. Instead of facing a battle they had to fight, they faced one they could not win.

Judge Gorsuch was the perfect Supreme Court pick for Mr. Trump, conservatives and Republicans. For one thing, he united all three — something numerous other issues have shown to be difficult. The country also approved. And had they been free agents, more Democrats would have also approved.

However Democrats were not free agents. Liberals pushed them into the wrong fight over the wrong man at the wrong time.

Undoubtedly, Republican leaders were surprised that they got this win. Looking at the factors stacked against them, they likely assumed Democrats would perfunctorily filibuster the nomination then, after a symbolic stand, concede a vote on Judge Gorsuch.

Some vulnerable Democrats would support the nomination, Judge Gorsuch would be confirmed, the court would return to its earlier 5-4 conservative majority, the “nuclear option” would remain untriggered, and the need for 60 votes to break a filibuster would remain intact. Armageddon would still loom for a later pick who threatened to extend the Supreme Court’s conservative edge into conservative dominance.

Instead, Mr. Trump, conservatives and Republicans received a far bigger win than they had any right to expect. And it was a win they desperately needed. In the midst of Mr. Trump’s uneven start and the aftermath of an inability to pass a replacement of Obamacare, they needed to look able to make “something big” go right. Thanks to liberals’ obstinacy, those on the right got more than they bargained for — and more than they could have achieved on their own.

To understand how much Mr. Trump, conservatives and Republicans gained, look at how much liberals lost. Certainly, they lost on the nominee. However, that was the least of it — they were going to lose here anyway. They also lost credibility with the country, who largely did not agree with them here. More importantly, they lost crucial leverage to block any future Trump Supreme Court nomination.

While the Gorsuch confirmation simply returns the Supreme Court to its earlier 5-4 conservative split, another nomination could push the court to a 6-3 conservative advantage. The bar for such a change would likely have been much higher — both for the nominee and even more for triggering the nuclear option.

However, that is a bridge the Trump White House and Senate Republican leadership no longer have to cross. Thanks to liberals’ insistence that an all-out fight be waged over Judge Gorsuch, it will not have to waged later — despite that a later nominee could be more conservative and more significant for the court’s split.

Judge Gorsuch was not only the perfect nominee, he was the perfect nominee to trigger the nuclear option. Now triggered, the nuclear option stands, meaning it won’t be an issue with the next court nomination. Consequently, the Trump White House can make a future nominee that much more conservative. Certainly, conservatives will use this advantage to press for just such a nominee.

Spoiling for a fight, liberals spoiled their chances of winning a much more important fight later — one that they had a far better chance of winning. An unnecessary strategic defeat, it was an unacceptably high price to pay for a moral victory.

• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.

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