The American political system is designed to grind slowly and change as needed. Borrowing from evolutionary biology’s theory of punctuated equalibrium, explanations of change in American politics have long included the idea that significant change only happens rapidly in the wake of crisis. War and economic depression have clarified things for American voters more than once. The tragic and unexpected death of Justice Scalia in the midst of a presidential election cycle should provide the American people with clarity regarding the real stakes of the 2016 presidential election. Unfortunately for the GOP, clarity regarding the real stakes in 2016 means certain defeat in the fall for their ticket topper.
The death of Justice Scalia is bad news for the GOP no matter how you slice it. The only real issue here for Republicans is how they might minimize the damage. The answer is by giving Obama’s nominee a fair hearing and a vote. In so doing, the GOP would undercut the argument that will otherwise win this election for Hillary Clinton, namely that a Republican president in 2017 would put the entire federal government under the firm control of lunatics willing and able to repeal the 20th century.
Polarized politics has only increased American distrust of government and of partisan pols. Because the GOP, and not the Democratic Party, could win total control of the federal government in the 2016 elections, dishonorable partisan brinksmanship hurts them far more than it does the Democrats. Scalia’s death has exposed the real stakes of this election way ahead of schedule. The realization that the candidates matter far less than the parties would have remained obscured until the fall if Scalia’s death hadn’t intervened because the media has every incentive to cover presidential elections as if they really are about “hiring the right person for the job,” rather than about advancing the agenda of one party or the other. This media (and candidate) fueled fiction serves the interests of all the various political actors (save voters) at this point in the process. Scalia’s death has pushed partisan power to the fore, the candidates and the media can’t ignore this. They cannot continue to pretend that the ongoing contests are about character or experience or “connecting with voters on a personal level?”
The partisan balance on the Supreme Court is a general election issue that will now have much greater impact on both media coverage of the party nomination races, and presumably on the outcomes of the party nomination races. This should be good news for the candidates in both parties whose campaigns are implicitly based on general electability, namely Hillary Clinton and the Republicans competing in the so-called “establishment” lane.