White House Cheat Sheet: Souter Retirement (Further) Roils Political Landscape
The news that Supreme Court Justice David Souter is planning to retire as early as next month is likely to set off a massive campaign-style fight over the man or woman that President Obama nominates to fill the vacant slot on the bench, and could well sidetrack other legislative priorities of the administration.
The Souter vacancy lands amid one of the most crowded political environments in modern history with Obama seeking to stimulate the economy out of recession, restructure the American auto industry, draw down American troops in Iraq while ramping up in Afghanistan, reshape how the United States is viewed by the international community and begin preparations for coming congressional debates over health care and the capping of carbon emissions in the fall.
Add a Supreme Court opening to that mix and it''s easy to see why even the Obama administration's vaunted ability to deal with a number of major challenges all at once will be severely tested.
"The White House team may feel burned out after two years on the campaign trail and then a grueling transition and first 100 days, but it is exactly that type of campaign metabolism that's required to execute a successful Supreme Court confirmation effort," said Kevin Madden, a senior aide to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's (R) presidential campaign and now a Republican consultant. "It has all of the elements of a campaign: message coordination, rapid response, research, coalition building and grassroots organizing."
The two most recent Supreme Court vacancies, both of which occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush, provide a blueprint and a cautionary tale for Obama.
The first nomination -- of John Roberts to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- was a model of efficiency. Bush deputized Steve Schmidt and Ed Gillespie, veterans of the 2004 reelection campaign, to run Roberts's confirmation, and tasked former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson to serve as Roberts's "sherpa" -- helping to facilitate meetings with senators and ensure those meetings went smoothly.
The resultant public relations campaign cast Roberts as an uber-qualified achiever who had spent his entire life preparing for the post to which he had been nominated. Roberts was confirmed -- ultimately as the Court's chief justice following William Rehnquist's death -- with a solid 78 votes.
Perhaps lulled into a sense of false security by the ease of Roberts's confirmation -- always a dangerous emotional state in campaigns -- the Bush administration faltered badly when it nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to the bench to fill a second opening. Roughly three weeks after she was nominated, Miers had withdrawn -- brought low by doubts among grassroots conservatives and commentators regarding her conservative bona fides.
Which path will Obama's eventual nominee take?
It's hard to know but the massive grassroots army built by Obama during the campaign -- 13 million email addresses! -- and carefully maintained by Organizing for America since then is a huge advantage for the president as he prepares to sell the country on his nominee.
Obama and his political team have --literally at their fingertips -- a list of (mostly) willing footsoldiers, the sort of intact organization that can be directly overlaid onto a Supreme Court fight. While it's unlikely that all 13 million people on the Obama email list will volunteer to help in the nomination fight, even 10 percent participation would give the White House a major leg up over the groups who will undoubtedly oppose the pick.
Obama will also likely benefit from the current morass in which the Republican party finds itself -- without an obvious leader to build the sort of campaign machine needed to counter the Obama message efforts. "If you view this news about Souter as the official start of the fight, we technically have to consider ourselves a day behind schedule already," said Madden.
The Souter retirement sets the table for what could be one of the most anticipated -- and important -- fall congressional sessions in recent memory. Much hangs in the balance.
What to Watch For:
Friday's Fix Picks: Clear Eyes, Full Hearts...
1. Chrysler files for bankruptcy, merges with Fiat.
2. The 2008 electorate was the most diverse in history.
3. Rep. Joe Sestak isn't backing down (yet) from a primary challenge to new Democrat Arlen Specter.
4. Bill Richardson's polls lag.
5. Barbie now comes with lower back tattoo. The world is officially ending.
Bunning -- Out?: The news that Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) has formed an exploratory committee to begin raising money for a Senate race in 2010 is the clearest sign yet that Sen. Jim Bunning (R) is headed to retirement. It was not entirely clear whether Bunning had formally blessed Grayson's move but, regardless, the decision by a prominent elected GOP official to step into the Senate race likely ends any thought of Bunning seeking reelection next November. "I don't see how he can continue," said one close confidante of the senator. Bunning has publicly feuded with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) -- both of whom have privately urged him to retire -- and struggled to raise the kind of money necessary to run a top-tier race. Two prominent Democrats -- Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo and state Attorney General Jack Conway -- are running and, despite Bunning's retirement, this race is likely to remain a target for national Democrats. Make no mistake, however: This race was unwinnable with Bunning as the GOP nominee. Now Republicans may have a shot.
Democrats Go After Crist: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has launched an ad in Florida that hits Gov. Charlie Crist (R) on his alleged lack of commitment to his current office as he mulls a likely Senate campaign. The ad accuses Crist of "wanting to quit to go to Washington" in the face of a difficult budget situation in Florida. The ad is only running in the Tallahassee media market and, in truth, has a target audience of exactly one: Crist. The ad is clearly designed to stoke doubt in Crist's mind about what sort of campaign (a rough and tumble one) he would be in for if he decides to run for seat being vacated by Sen. Mel Martinez (R). The DSCC also moved around an Associated Press analysis on Thursday that argued, rightly, that Crist isn't a lock to be the next senator from Florida if he runs. Still, polling suggests Crist would start as a clear frontrunner in the GOP primary and the general election. And, for a politician who has an eye on challenging President Obama in 2012, the Senate might be the best place to get started on that campaign.
Tammy Haddad's Newest Venture: Longtime television producer -- and Fix friend -- Tammy Haddad is launching a new website designed to bring average Americans into the innermost of reporter sanctums: the White House briefing room. The website, known as the White House Correspondents Insider, will "get you as close as possible to the axis of the White House and the media," said Haddad in a release announcing the new site. Haddad and BizBash CEO David Adler are the co-founders of the venture and Bill Triplett, a former Variety reporter, will edit the site. Haddad plans full-court coverage of the activities surrounding next weekend's White House Correspondents Association Dinner including -- we assume -- her annual Saturday brunch.
Squeezing T-Paw: Americans United for Change, a liberal interest group, is funding a new ad in Minnesota that seeks to build public pressure on Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) to bring the contested Senate election to a close once the state Supreme Court rules. The ad is running in the Minneapolis-St. Paul and Rochester media market and will be a "five figure buy" according to an Americans United spokesman. The ad's narrator notes that a majority of Minnesotans believe Coleman should concede the race but adds that "Republican donors" don't want Democrat Al Franken to be seated. "Governor Pawlenty has a choice," says the ad's narrator. "Will he act in the best interest Minnesota or his own national political ambitions?" As we have written before, Pawlenty's role as the middle man (of sorts) in the Senate election presents him with opportunity and peril -- depending on how he handles it and whether he is angling to run for a third gubernatorial term in 2010 or for president in 2012. This ad frames that choice starkly.
Say What?: "I think he said something on TV differently than what he meant to say." --White House press secretary Robert Gibbs seeking to explain Vice President Joe Biden's comment on the "Today" show Thursday morning.
May 1, 2009; 12:04 AM ET
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