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Editorial: Republican leaders bow to extremists on Court pick

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (center), on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, says there will be no Senate hearings for President Barack Obama's still undetermined nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, AP.

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Mitch McConnell should have learned from John Boehner: Let the extremists of your party have their way and before long they’ll own you.

But maybe they already own McConnell. The Senate majority leader’s indefensible declaration this week that the Senate will not even hold hearings to consider any Supreme Court nominee put forth by President Barack Obama is not the action of a principled leader, but of a cowed follower. McConnell will be recorded in the history books as a partisan hack for this one, and the Republican Party will continue a flight toward irrelevancy.

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In 2013, then-House Speaker John Boehner gave into the extremists in his caucus, allowing hard-right conservatives to force a shutdown of the government for 16 days rather than approve a resolution that included funding for Obamacare. Was Boehner received as a tea party hero for that? On the contrary, he was seen as weak and vulnerable, and the extremists kept up their demands — compromise on nothing. Boehner finally felt compelled to resign, late last year, rather than preside over another government shutdown.

McConnell can expect much the same. In saying there will be no confirmation hearings — not even a cordial meet-and-greet between Republican senators and any nominee — he has abdicated his responsibility to the Constitution and to his vaunted position. He is ceding power to the likes of Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz.

It boggles the mind that McConnell and other Senate Republican leaders say there will be no hearings and no vote, even before Obama has made a nomination. They’re throwing out the window their constitutional obligation to “advise and consent” until the next president is elected and puts forth a nominee, the better part of a year from now. And it doesn’t matter a whit to them whether Obama nominates a left-wing firebrand or a centrist of impeccable credentials. Anybody this president names, they will scorn.

As a political strategy, this may play well to the ultra-conservative Republican base, but it will appall moderate Republicans and independents, whose support will be crucial to the party’s presidential candidate in November. The obstructionists are overreaching badly. To consider a nominee’s credentials — or at least put on a show of doing so — and find those credentials wanting would be one thing. To refuse even to engage in the process is quite another.

Reasonable Americans — and that would be most Americans — will excoriate Senate Republicans from now until Nov. 8 for not doing their job.

It does not matter, we should add, that Vice President Joe Biden advocated pretty much the same obstructionist strategy back in 1992 when he was a senator and George Bush was the president. Biden was wrong and playing politics, too.

In an op-ed in Tuesday’s Sun-Times, Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, laid out the only right Republican response — hold “fair and thorough” confirmations hearings and take a vote. It is a matter, he wrote, of fulfilling an oath of office.

“That oath is to our constitution, not to a party or any one individual, but to the ideals that bind our nation,” Kirk wrote. “In that role, I recognize the right of the president, be it Republican or Democrat, to place before the Senate a nominee for the Supreme Court and I fully expect and look forward to President Barack Obama advancing a nominee for the Senate to consider.”

At the same time, Kirk urged the president to nominate somebody who is neither “partisan or extreme,” but who rather “can bridge differences,” find “common grounds” and not act or speak in the extreme.

To so many people in Kirk’s own party, those are fighting words. Bridge differences? Common ground? But Kirk is getting to the heart of what’s wrong in American politics today, a dangerous polarization that make productive compromise, and even civility, ever harder to come by. It is driven by the likes of Fox News. It is exploited by the likes of Donald Trump. It is set in stone across the country by state legislative leaders such as Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, who have perfected the art of drawing district boundaries to eliminate healthy competition.

Most Americans are not ideologues. But in our politics we are rolling right over the stabilizing political middle.

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