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White House Cheat Sheet: Confirmation Politics 101

President Barack Obama must navigate tricky political waters as he picks his Supreme Court nominee. AP Photo by Ron Edmonds

The search for the man (or woman) who will replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter began in earnest Monday as President Barack Obama placed calls to Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to sound them out on the process.

"[President Obama] vowed to consult regularly with Senators in both parties to ensure an orderly confirmation process that will allow Justice Souter's replacement to be confirmed by the beginning of the Court's next session," according to a readout on the calls released by the White House.

The outreach to Senators to gauge their thoughts on the critical traits present in any picks is one of any number of spoken and unspoken rules that must be followed to ensure that the eventual nominee has the best chance at confirmation possible.

What transpires between yesterday, the day the nominee is announced and the day he or she is either confirmed or rejected is Washington at its best (or worst, depending on your perspective) -- a confluence of Senate prerogatives, interest group politics and spin wars with the highest possible stakes: a lifetime appointment to the most powerful bench in the country.

"From a political perspective it is a very unique process," said Steve Schmidt, who oversaw the confirmation fights for Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. "It is one of the very few occasions when the three branches of government come together."

The process can strengthen or weaken a president's hand depending on how it is handled. President George W. Bush drew kudos for his pick of Roberts and the roll-out was flawless -- painting the now-Chief Justice as a squeaky clean legal genius. Bush was widely castigated months later, however, for nominating Harriet Miers, his White House counsel, for the second vacancy. Bush badly misjudged the opinion of grassroots conservatives to the pick and watched as even Republican Senator bucked the pick. Miers withdrew roughly three weeks after she was nominated.

What are the essential steps that must be followed to navigate the treacherous politics of a Supreme Court pick? We consulted with a few people -- including Schmidt -- who have been deep in the trenches of such fights. Here are their recommendations:

* Attention Must Be Paid: The Senate -- especially those members who sit on the Judiciary Committee -- expects to be consulted directly by the president in advance of the pick being made. That's not to say they want their particular favorite to be the pick but rather that they want to feel as though they understand the way the president is thinking about the selection. (It's all very high minded stuff.) Ed Gillespie, who along with Schmidt managed the Roberts and Alito confirmations, said that "understanding that the Senate is a full partner in this process...is really helpful." Obama, who spent several years in the Senate before being elected president, already appears to be doing his due diligence: he spoke with Judiciary Committee Chair Pat Leahy (Vt.) last Friday and then, as noted above, with Specter and Hatch on Monday. The more conversations like these the better, according to the experts.

* Read Up, Prepare for the Worst: Any person who will be considered for a Supreme Court vacancy is certain to have said and written any number of things over their career in law. Find those writings -- and read them as carefully as possible. If the person did any government work, find any emails he or she sent. Read them. Assume that everything the nominee has EVER written, even in private correspondence, will be made public somehow and someway. Expect "thoroughly misleading attacks about the intent of a single sentence written in one out of hundreds of thousands of emails," said Schmidt.

* Understand the (Interest Group) Universe: The Senate may be the final arbiter on whether the nominee will be confirmed or not but the various interest groups that gear up every time there is an Supreme Court opening have a tremendous say over the landscape on which the hearings are conducted. People for the American Way, Judicial Confirmation Network, NARAL Pro-Choice America and American Center for Law & Justice are among the regular players who are certain to play a role -- how big or small depends on whom Obama picks -- in the confirmation process. (Remember back to NARAL's controversial ad, which they pulled down, that accused Roberts of defending abortion clinic bombers. That had the effect of making Roberts into a more sympathetic figure during his confirmation hearings.) The x-factor of course is new groups that pop up to defend or damage the nominee with little ability to check where the money comes from and who is behind the efforts.

* A Date Certain Set: Politics abhors a vacuum and that is exactly what is created from the moment the nominee is formally introduced to the time he or she goes before the Judiciary Committee to answer questions. The longer the time between those two events, the more danger the nominee is in as his or her detractors work to sway public opinion by a combing through of their public and private statements and writings to paint them as badly out of the mainstream. "The longer there is a person who is unable to defend themselves and there are questions that can be raised about that person's fitness, there accumulates a weight of public opinion that maybe there is something wrong with this person," said Schmidt. To avoid that twisting in the wind phenomenon, work as quickly as possible to secure support from the chairman and ranking member on Judiciary for a date certain that the hearings will start. Obama and his team are already seeking to speed up the timing of the process; in his daily briefing on Monday, press secretary Robert Gibbs said that "this is something the president believes must be done before the Court starts its work again in October."

What To Watch For:

Tuesday's Fix Picks: Whose day wouldn't be brightened by a new picture of Fix Jr.?

1. A good day on Wall Street.
2. President Obama's rollout of closing corporate tax loopholes is opposed by -- guess who? -- corporations.
3. John Edwards is in deep.
4. Can the Boston Globe survive?
5. A moving and troubling piece on the Washington Capitals enforcer Donald Brashear.

Rubio Staffs Up: Former Florida state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) has brought on Brian Seitchik, a well-regarded political operative, to guide his soon-to-be announced Senate campaign, according to a source familiar with the move. Seitchik was most recently in California, serving as political director for state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner's Senate campaign. He also worked on the unsuccessful re-election campaign of Sen. Mike Dewine (Ohio) in 2006 and did a stint on the campaign and in the congressional office of Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.). Rubio is almost certain to be joined in the race by Gov. Charlie Crist (R) who is expected to announce his candidacy as soon as the state legislature formally ends its session. Crist will be the favorite in the race but Rubio is likely to enjoy the backing -- whether public or private remains a question -- of former Gov. Jeb Bush and much of his political team. (That Crist and Bush have a rivalry -- to say the least -- is an open secret in Florida political circles.)

DGA Hits McDonnell in VA: Even as the three Virginia Democratic candidates continue to bash one another in the runup to the June 9 gubernatorial primary, the Democratic Governors Association is going up on television this morning with an ad that hammers state Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) for his opposition to $125 million in federal unemployment dollars. "If Bob McDonnell won't stand up for Virginia's unemployed...do you think he'd stand up for you?" asks the ad's narrator. The commercial, which is being paid for by Common Sense Virginia -- an organization to which the DGA transferred $740,000 last week -- and was produced by Shorr Johnson Magnus, will cost the group $500,000 for a week's worth of television. The DGA is filling a critical role -- ensuring that McDonnell isn't allowed to make a positive imprint with the state's voters while its own candidates bash each other relentlessly.

Click It!: The Post's Lois Romano sat down with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to talk Census 2010 (among other things) as part of the ongoing "Voices of Power" series.

Paterson's Plummet Continues: Just when you thought his numbers couldn't get any worse, a new Marist poll shows Gov. David Paterson (D) continues to plummet as his 2010 re-election race draws closer. State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo leads Paterson by a whopping 49 points in a hypothetical primary matchup and more than half (51 percent) of those polled say they would rather have scandal plagued Elliot Spitzer as governor rather than Paterson. (Ouch!). Should he somehow survive the primary, Paterson would begin the general election s a significant underdog against former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, according to the data. Paterson trails Giuliani by more than 20 points and only gets 51 percent of the vote among self-identified Democrats (!). Not good.

Sasha Johnson Moves On: Sasha Johnson, television producer par excellence, is leaving CNN after a decade to take a gig as press secretary at the Department of Transportation. "After ten and a half years at CNN, which included three presidential campaigns, I am ready for a new challenge and ready to fulfill another career goal -- the opportunity to work in public policy," Johnson wrote in an email announcing the move. Johnson was virtually inseparable from Candy Crowley during the 2008 election as they traveled the country to cover the presidential campaign. She is also the better half of a Washington media power couple; her husband, Mark Murray, is the deputy political editor of NBC News.

Overheard....: At an American Israel Public Affairs Committee dinner Monday night, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken was introduced as "Senator", according to a Fixista in the room. Somewhere former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) is grimacing.

Best iPhone Apps: Three is the magic number -- Constitution,
Trism and Shovebox.

Say What?: "All right. Now you can go party." -- President Barack Obama concludes his remarks at a Cinco de Mayo event at the White House on Monday.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 5, 2009; 7:24 AM ET
Categories:  Cheat Sheet Share This:  E-Mail | Technorati | Del.icio.us | Digg | Stumble Previous: Palin To Be Part of National Council
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My thoughts are that the Bush name is way too tainted to ever run again, but he may also be setting himself up to play kingmaker to Romney or Cantor. http://joshua.hkthaiboxing.com/

Posted by: sosway49 | May 7, 2009 6:17 AM | Report abuse


Nice one. Not only that, but the Nine just ruled on Janet Jackson (or at least her "wardrobe misfunction"). Sorry, CBS.

Posted by: mnteng | May 5, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Obama is like a kid at Christmas.

Posted by: newbeeboy | May 5, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

You should win a tee shirt for that one, ddawd.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | May 5, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Janet Jackson? Black, female, and without an ugly paper trail of opinions.

Posted by: DDAWD | May 5, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

That was meant to be Cillizism, after solecism.

Good, informative post, btw, CC.

Posted by: drindl | May 5, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

"Here are some ways to start a post:

1. The search for the man or woman...
2. The search for the replacement for ...
3. The search for the next Supreme Court justice...

There are others.

You chose: The search for the man (or woman)...

Why do you need to go out of your way to make a woman choice an afterthought? Particularly since the chances are quite good the next justice will be a woman?"

have to agree. Very awkward, CC. Defitenly a Cilliziam.

But your baby is cute. Also, thank you for looking like a professional today. It gives you a great deal more credibility than wearing a silly as* hat backwards.

Posted by: drindl | May 5, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

ddawd, happy cinco de mayo to you, too. Did you hear the Prez call "quatro de mayo" "cinco de quatro" yesterday? I do not know if it was a slip of the tongue or a joke. Dos Equis, por favor.

Can you think of a "Janet" aside from Napolitano [referring to parker's post, first of the morning]?

Posted by: mark_in_austin | May 5, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Obama rulez!!

Posted by: bacara | May 5, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Hi Chris,

Here are some ways to start a post:

1. The search for the man or woman...
2. The search for the replacement for ...
3. The search for the next Supreme Court justice...

There are others.

You chose: The search for the man (or woman)...

Why do you need to go out of your way to make a woman choice an afterthought? Particularly since the chances are quite good the next justice will be a woman?

Posted by: p_jones | May 5, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Patterson introduces a same sex marriage bill and look what happens.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | May 5, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse



• The case of "The People vs. the Extrajudicial Justice Network" must be fought "on the ground..."

...by Congress, local officials, the largely unaware mainstream media...

...and by the good people on the inside of "enabling" federal agencies whose officials have constructed a "bypass" of the judicial system and the rule of law.



OR (if links are corrupted / disabled):


Posted by: scrivener50 | May 5, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

hey---i did not click twice folks...

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | May 5, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

chris-you forgot
Make Sure Potential Nominees Have Paid Their Taxes.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | May 5, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

chris-you forgot
Make Sure Potential Nominees Have Paid Their Taxes.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | May 5, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Happy five of five, people. Go down a Corona or two.

Posted by: DDAWD | May 5, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Expect "thoroughly misleading attacks about the intent of a single sentence written in one out of hundreds of thousands of emails,"...truer words have never been written.

Posted by: theWVP | May 5, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Of course the Republican NO birds will flit around and try to hold things up. That's all they know how to do.

Posted by: tinyjab40 | May 5, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse


You missed a must read (it is actually on the link to the Edwards story) former Wilco bandmember Jay Bennett is suing for royalties:


Who could forget Jay's departure and whine scene in the "I am Trying to Break Your Heart" video.

Posted by: Halfaworldaway | May 5, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Why begin with "the man (or woman)"?

Posted by: IvyKen | May 5, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

parker wrote:

"Janet can be fitted for her robe..."

Who? Not Diane [Hook 'em, Horns!] Wood? Not Susan Sotomayor? Not Jennifer Granholm? Not the Solicitor General?

You think Napolitano is leaving DHLS?

Posted by: mark_in_austin | May 5, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

CC, what is the word on the street about Jeb Bush's motives with his involvement in the recent meeting with Romney and Cantor, and does his support of Rubio connected to his plans for the future at all? Basically, if he gets Rubio to beat Crist will he use that as a springboard to run against Obama in 2012?

My thoughts are that the Bush name is way too tainted to ever run again, but he may also be setting himself up to play kingmaker to Romney or Cantor.

Posted by: AndyR3 | May 5, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the primer on the selection process, Chris.

It is difficult to imagine jumping through so many hoops for so many disparate self-styled players. I have no problem with the consultation between the Prez and the SJC, of course.

The Prez's "empathy" comment was fodder for the 24/7 cable gossip mill, of course. I want to point out that any good judge, at some point in the process of an appeal before her/him, may try to imagine walking in the shoes of each party [not just one party].

Further, an appellate judge, who is asked to find error in the work of the trial judge, should also have "empathy" for the lower court - should be able to understand why the trial court ruled as [s]he did, before disposing of the trial court's work as if it were for naught.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | May 5, 2009 8:10 AM | Report abuse

So apparently the early names on the Obama list are a bluff, and the White House is more in line with the thinking of Congressional Dems than previously thought. In other words, Janet can be fitted for her robe...


Posted by: parkerfl1 | May 5, 2009 7:47 AM | Report abuse

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