In politics, the karma may not be instant — but it will get you, sooner or later. Want examples? Just check out the political headlines of the past few weeks.
Anthony Kennedy, the sometime-swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, announced his retirement. Democrats and progressives are apoplectic about what may come next. But they won’t be able to filibuster President Trump’s nominee, just as they weren’t able to filibuster now-Justice Neil Gorsuch last year. Senate Republicans nuked that power with a simple majority — observing that when the shoes were on the other feet, the Democrats then controlling the U.S. Senate had already nuked any filibusters of President Obama’s appellate judges and Cabinet secretaries in 2013.
When Harry Reid, D-Nevada, the Senate majority leader at the time, first used that nuclear option, Republicans forecast karmic consequences. “It’s another raw exercise of political power to permit the majority to do anything it wants whenever it wants to do it,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “Democrats won’t be in power in perpetuity,” warned Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. “This is a mistake — a big one for the long run.”
The long run, in this case, proved to be only a few years. But the wheel of politics can turn even faster than that. Consider the case of North Carolina judicial elections.
For the 2016 election cycle, the Republican majority in the General Assembly decided to make elections to the Court of Appeals explicitly partisan but to keep party labels off the single Supreme Court race that year, the one pitting (Republican) incumbent Bob Edmunds against (Democratic) challenger Mike Morgan.
Initially, GOP lawmakers had tried to give Edmunds no challenger at all, with a yes-or-no retention election. When that move proved unconstitutional, setting up a competitive election, Republicans decided to not to align it with the other, partisan appellate races.
By luck of the draw, Morgan’s name ended up being listed first on the ballot, the same position that Republicans held in the partisan races. Not coincidentally, Republicans won all the appeals-court seats while Morgan defeated Edmunds. If you look at the county-by-county results, you can see clearly that many Republican-leaning North Carolinians voted for Morgan because they thought he was the GOP candidate.
Democrats celebrated. Republicans fumed. But the latter only had themselves to blame.
Now, for the 2018 cycle, something similar may happen. All judicial races are now partisan, which is consistent, but Republican lawmakers decided not to hold party primaries. That meant that more than one candidate of the same party could be on the fall ballot. If there were, say, multiple Democrats but only one Republican, that might split the blue vote and boost the prospects of the red candidate.
Precisely such a scenario arose when the filing period ended a few days ago — only the partisan roles were, once again, reversed. There are two listed Republican candidates and only one listed Democrat for the Supreme Court and for one of the three appeals-court slots. If this ends up costing Republicans in the fall, whose fault will that be?
Rather than playing the “you started it” game or trying, vainly, to outrun the wheel of politics, our leaders need to exhibit foresight and prudence. If congressional majorities defer too much to a president they like — whether it be Democrats deferring to Obama’s abuse of executive authority or Republicans deferring to Trump’s abuse of trade authority — they may well come to regret it.
Similarly, to the extent that Republican legislators in Raleigh usurp the powers of Gov. Roy Cooper, they could be setting up a future situation where a Republican governor is even more powerless to check a Democratic legislature than Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin were decades ago.
The wiser course is to craft sound institutions and make sensible rules — including the rules for redrawing congressional and legislative districts, by the way — as if you don’t know which party will hold which offices in the future. Because, you know, you really don’t.