A glittering ceremony on a crisp fall night at the White House carried deep political overtones that will only exacerbate the fury of Democrats who feel Republican maneuvering stole two Supreme Court seats. It will also inexorably drag the court further into toxic political combat that has already tainted its reputation for non-partisanship.
The event went ahead despite another Covid-19 hotspot in the White House, this time with Vice President Mike Pence’s staff. It framed Trump, smiling, alongside a new justice beholden to him for a lifetime appointment after the President warned he may contest an election he has already declared unfair in the Supreme Court.
The next week or so will tell whether the party at the White House was a valedictory moment of glory for a President heading into the wilderness or heralds a much bigger celebration for a second White House term next week.
The ceremony came at the end of a day in which Trump swept through Pennsylvania — the key swing state that could be the kingmaker in the event of a close election in which he is currently trailing Democrat Joe Biden on the electoral map. He only mentioned the pandemic to mislead the country about the fast worsening emergency that has killed 225,000 Americans, as hospitals fill up and many states mark their highest new caseloads. He hopes his pageantry alongside Barrett on Monday night will motivate conservatives and spark a huge base turnout, though it could also provide more moderate voters, especially women, with another reason to spurn him.
Barrett was earlier confirmed in a 52 to 48 vote in the Republican-led Senate. Her arrival on the top bench — solidifying a 6-3 conservative majority — means a huge reshaping of Washington’s power tectonics just a week before an election in which Republicans risk being shut out of power in the executive and legislative branches of the government.
A true legacy moment
Trump’s third Supreme Court appointment marked one of the most triumphant moments of his presidency but was also the culmination of a decades-long fight for a clear majority by the conservative movement that spanned multiple presidencies.
And true to form, Trump did put on a show, with huge American flags spotlighted and hanging from the South Portico of the White House.
But his gathering evoked painful memories of the previous event feting Barrett in September at the White House that turned into a Covid-19 superspreader. This time, chairs were spaced out on the lawn and most guests wore masks.
But the fact that five people in Pence’s orbit recently tested positive for Covid-19 led health experts to frown on yet another event in which Trump prioritized his own personal political aspirations over public health.
Pence, who had earlier hoped to preside over the Senate at the moment Barrett was confirmed, did not appear either in the chamber or at the White House celebration. The vice president is refusing to quarantine though, reasoning that his work — not chairing the all-but-dormant coronavirus task force but campaigning — is essential and akin to that done by front-line health workers. But the fact that even the Trump White House conceded social distancing was necessary symbolized how the chosen messaging of the endgame of the campaign has been comprehensively muffled by the deteriorating public health situation.
The new balance of power on the court brings significant implications for civil rights, racial, corporate, reproductive and voting rights law and for future Democratic presidents and lawmakers to use future election mandates to advance their progressive priorities.
But Barrett insisted after she was sworn in by the doyen of the court’s conservative bloc, Justice Clarence Thomas, that she would be politically impartial despite the highly partisan nature of Trump’s celebration.
“It is the job of a senator to pursue her policy preferences. In fact, it would be a dereliction of duty to put her policy goals aside,” Barrett said. “By contrast, it is the job of a judge to resist her policy preferences. It would be a dereliction of duty for her to give into them.”
In a political sense, the event also helps explain the Trump presidency itself. The bargain between ideological, social and Christian conservatives with a hardly pious President has paid off handsomely for both sides. Next week’s election result will decide whether the move will tighten Trump’s coalition and power his base turnout sufficiently for him to forge a come-from-behind victory over Biden. Even if Trump loses, conservatives will likely collect on years of value for standing with Trump and can thank Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for engineering the clear majority, partly by refusing to confirm then-President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland in an election year.
Barrett’s new spot on the nation’s top bench could be highly significant in the short-term as well.
In her first few weeks on the court, Barrett will hear cases on the fate of Obamacare, abortion and Trump’s taxes as well as potential disputes arising from the 2020 election. All of these cases have an intense interest to the President and his political future. Her decision therefore to take part in a highly political event after accepting a lifetime appointment just days before an election that Trump has already decreed as unfair will raise further questions about her capacity to consider cases with independence. Democratic anger is spurring calls for Biden and Senate Democrats to increase the size of the Supreme Court bench if they take power.
A battle for Pennsylvania
Both Biden and Trump hit the campaign trail in Pennsylvania on Monday underscoring how the commonwealth could end up being the decisive state in a neck-and-neck election. The President held three rallies with large, not socially distanced, crowds, despite news breaking earlier of three clusters of infections linked to rallies he held in Minnesota in September.
The President reacted sharply when asked by reporters about Biden’s claim that he had waved the white flag about the pandemic after his chief of staff Mark Meadows told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the virus cannot be contained.
“He’s waved the white flag on life. He doesn’t leave his basement, he’s a pathetic candidate,” the President said.
Biden visited Delaware County, a Democratic stronghold in the Keystone State. He reacted angrily to Trump’s claim over the weekend that doctors had been inflating the number of Covid-19 cases in order to win more funding for their hospitals.
“What in the hell is the matter with this man?” Biden asked, adding that more than 1,000 front-line health care workers have died from the coronavirus.
The travel plans of the candidates in the next few days reflect the reality of an election in which the President is defending territory all over the map and must win a long list of swing states to have a route to 270 electoral votes.
Biden’s plans include stops in Iowa and Georgia. The Peach State hasn’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since Bill Clinton in 1992. He said he will also soon visit Wisconsin, a state that Trump won four years ago and is leaning Democratic now, and the perennial swing state of Florida. Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris will this week visit Texas, a state that leans red but where Democrats have hopes of pulling off a shock.
The President will be in Michigan and Wisconsin on Tuesday, two states that formed the Midwestern bedrock of his 2016 election win but where he trails significantly in the polls to Biden. He is also heading to Nebraska to fight for the single Electoral College vote in the state’s 2nd Congressional District that Biden has a chance of winning.
Trump’s campaign on Monday insisted that polls showing the President trailing almost everywhere didn’t mean much and laid claim to a strong position in the key states that will decide the election.
Campaign manager Bill Stepien said that the President had multiple pathways to 270 electoral votes and said his ground game would swamp Democrats who have done far less door knocking amid the pandemic. Stepien said the President was “expanding his base and turning out new voters.”
A look at the electoral map however shows the tough task the President faces in repeating his narrow win over Hillary Clinton. He must collect almost all competitive states, including Florida, Georgia, Texas, Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina, before holding Pennsylvania where Biden is ahead and potentially winning one of Arizona, Michigan or Wisconsin, which are all currently leaning toward the former vice president.
In a normal election, both candidates at this point would be simply trying to drive up their base turnout with a few days to go — especially, since in 2020, polls show there are few undecided voters left.
This year, the prospect of a last-minute change in the electoral dynamics is even more problematic than usual since more than 60 million Americans have already early voted. Some 33 states have surpassed their pre-election vote totals from 2016, and the numbers suggest that a high turnout overall is likely.