WASHINGTON — Even before the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday night, November’s presidential election was shaping up to be the most consequential in modern American history. President Trump said so himself, as did his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. A procession of crises — the coronavirus pandemic, protests and urban unrest, rampant wildfires — only heightened the sense that, come Nov. 3, voters would choose not merely a president but a direction for the country.
Then, on Friday, came the announcement that Bader Ginsburg had died at the age of 87 of pancreatic cancer. It was her fourth battle with cancer, one she had only recently been optimistic she would win. Aware, as she was dying, that her passing would almost certainly become a political fight, Ginsburg told her granddaughter, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
But only someone utterly unfamiliar with how Washington works could believe that wish would be heeded.
“I think a 6-3 court is worth the White House and Senate,” one communications director for a Republican member of the Senate told Yahoo News. “The pro-life community has been waiting on this forever. There has to be a vote.”
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, tributes filled social media and cable news. These invariably noted that Ginsburg was a supremely gifted jurist. And as only the second woman to ever don the robes of a Supreme Court justice, she inspired a generation of female jurists. There are now more women than men attending law school, thanks in part to Ginsburg and pioneering women like her.
But those tributes obscure intense maneuvering by both Democrats and Republicans seeking to gain advantage on a narrowly divided court. Now in control of both the White House and Senate, Republicans want badly to nominate and confirm a justice within a matter of weeks. That justice, the third appointed by President Trump, would tip the court decisively to the right, softening conservatives’ disappointment with Chief Justice John Roberts, who has generally driven in the center lane.
Democrats have one goal, and one goal only: to honor Ginsburg’s dying wish and keep her seat open until January 20, 2021. On that day, they believe, Biden will be sworn in as the next president of the United States. But even getting to Election Day without a new Supreme Court nominee will be a challenge. Then will come the “lame duck” congressional session of November, December and January, with its own weird political calculus. And the entire battle will take place in the middle of a pandemic, as Congress also fiercely debates a new coronavirus relief package.
“This will be a campaign of relentless organizing until the next president is in office,” Ben Jealous, president of the progressive group People for the American Way told Yahoo News. “We are building a coalition like never before.”
In other words, a heated election has been doused