What Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination tells us about Trump’s 2020 election strategy
The announcement came with little suspense, but it’s still setting off fireworks.
President Donald Trump nominated conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court spot once held by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The two women stand on opposite ends of the jurisprudential spectrum. Barrett even clerked for Ginsburg’s famous ideological foil, Antonin Scalia.
The Democrats are reeling as the Republicans cheer.
According to US media, Trump felt so strongly about Barrett that she was the only one he interviewed. His closest aides and allies confirmed that Barrett was the choice nearly 24 hours before the formal unveiling.
That it was a quick decision for Trump speaks to how swiftly he wants to move forward with the process.
Claiming the court’s conservative majority is both a boost for his legacy as President and a break from the darker conversation around coronavirus.
And with the Republican majority in the Senate holding strong, Barrett’s confirmation process should prove speedy.
Barrett was originally vetted by the Trump administration for Brett Kavanaugh’s seat and she is a proven warrior when it comes to the Senate confirmation process.
Her high-profile hearing for her 2017 seat on the US Court of Appeals was nothing short of ferocious, coming down to a narrow 12-vote margin.
The biggest sticking point back then is the same one Trump hopes to gain from now.
Religion plays a major role
We’ve heard it said so often during the 2020 campaign that it barely bears repeating now: Trump needs to court white evangelical voters if he wants to win this election.
The demographic, which includes roughly a quarter of all Americans if you’re using the loosest definition, has voted reliably Republican since the 1980s.
Exit polls in 2016 show Trump won support from nearly 79 per cent of white evangelical voters, making up a staggering 46 per cent of the pro-Trump coalition.
But poll after poll in 2020 show Trump’s support with white evangelicals is slipping by as much as 10 points.
With Trump trailing Biden in key swing states and counting fewer than six weeks until Election Day, even a 10-point slip among evangelical voters is not one the President can afford to lose.
Barrett is not an evangelical. She is a devout Catholic.
But her faith has become such a talking point that it’s likely to inspire appreciation among any Christian set — especially those who oppose abortion.
‘The dogma lives loudly within you’
Like her mentor Scalia, Barrett believes in a strict, literal interpretation of the constitution rather than letting the document change in a modern setting.
She has also argued that precedent should not interfere with that constitutional reading.
A justice’s highest duty “is to the constitution and that it is thus more legitimate for her to enforce her best understanding of the constitution rather than a precedent she thinks clearly in conflict with it,” she once wrote.
That means she’s a bit of a wild card on Roe v Wade, the landmark case which granted the right to an abortion but on very loose constitutional grounds.
In her 2017 confirmation hearings, Barrett weathered criticism from Democratic senators who argued she couldn’t be impartial on issues like abortion due to her strong Catholicism. Barrett has publicly said she believes life begins at conception.
When Democratic senator Diane Feinstein told Barrett, “the dogma lives loudly within you,” Republican groups printed it on T-shirts and framed Barrett as a hero.
Evangelicals believe, more than any other religious group, that religious views should have an influence on policymaking.
Barrett has hinted at similar beliefs in previous writings, once calling her legal career a means to an end “and that end is building the Kingdom of God”.
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In her prepared acceptance remarks today, she took a different approach, saying, “A judge must apply the law as written. Judges are not policymakers and they must be resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold.”
Her response in those 2017 hearings was similar. She skirted the religious question by defending herself with legal reasoning.
She said that as an appellate judge, she wouldn’t have an opportunity to vote on Roe v Wade — a case that can only be overturned by the Supreme Court.
But she didn’t say how she’d vote if she were on that Supreme Court herself.
But a strong majority, especially among evangelicals, want to see abortion restricted.
It’s quite possible that Barrett’s views — respect for the law as written but only if it doesn’t interfere with the constitution — will walk that fine legal line in seeing Roe v Wade upheld but abortion restricted.
Another way to read Trump’s pick is to consider who she isn’t
Trump’s reported second-choice pick was Judge Barbara Lagoa.
The President visited her home city of Miami this week but didn’t even meet with her.
The judge was a favourite among Florida’s donors and voters, who keep telling the President the state is at risk of swinging against him.
Born to parents who fled from Cuba, Lagoa may have appealed to voters of Hispanic descent.
She also had a long record of supporting Republican lawmakers in cases that at times contradicted her own legal stances. The most high-profile of these was a ruling that prevented over a million Florida felons from voting in the upcoming election.
Trump reportedly told donors last night he has second-term plans for Lagoa, and top Florida lawmakers vowed to back Barrett.
Not picking the jurist from Florida doesn’t necessarily mean the President will lose support in Florida.
But it could be read as a sign he felt that catering to the religious base was more important for his re-election.
Voters don’t see vacancy as a top issue
Polls suggest that the court vacancy might do more to motivate Biden’s supporters than Trump’s.
One Washington Post poll suggested 64 per cent of Biden supporters say it’s now more important to vote for Biden. Only 37 per cent of Trump supporters say the same.
That said, a majority of the voters polled still counted the vacancy as a secondary issue, ranking the economy and coronavirus as more important factors in determining their vote.
So despite all the attention on Barrett, a successful Supreme Court nomination may not be the deciding factor for Trump’s re-election.
But it sure is going to define his legacy.
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Barrett, who is 48, would be the youngest Justice ever to occupy the bench, which comes with a lifetime appointment.
Combined with Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Barrett forms a Trump-appointed trio — all under the age of 60 — who will tip the court in a 6-3 conservative favour.
The cases they decide will be difficult to reverse, shaping American life for decades and decades to come, well after Trump is gone.