When Republicans refused to hold hearings for Merrick Garland—the judge nominated by then-President Obama to fill the vacancy left behind by Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted that the American people deserved a voice in choosing Scalia’s successor, and that Congress should therefore hold off on confirming a new justice until after the 2016 election. He was supported by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham. Graham even challenged his Democratic colleagues to use his own words against him if, in 2020, a Republican president was presented with an opportunity to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court.
Four years later, both McConnell and Graham, along with a number of other Republican members of Congress, abruptly changed their positions on this issue after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away less than two months before the 2020 election and President Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to take Ginsburg’s place. Democrats are furious about that, and they have every right to be.
This past Monday, Barrett was hauled before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a three-day hearing that promised to be gloriously theatrical given the unusual circumstances surrounding her nomination. But the expected theatrics never transpired. In fact, the entire affair proved to be one of the most boring and uneventful political episodes of the entire year, and Republicans should be absolutely elated about that.
Barrett made it clear during this week’s proceedings that she’s no damsel in distress. She’s perfectly capable of defending herself against criticisms she deems unfair or unfounded, yet she does so without behaving in a way that could be construed as inappropriately dramatic or invite false accusations of hysteria. I imagine that, as a woman, she was forced to learn that skill very early in her career. It’s not right or fair that the world has imposed that burden on her and the many other women in her profession. But throughout this week’s hearings, she handled that burden with as much grace as anyone could have.
At no point did she lose her cool or appear frazzled during her exchanges with her congressional interrogators. When she was asked to respond to disparaging comments about her adoption of Haitian children, her response was powerful, but her tone was steady and calm. When Democrats posed questions to her that they knew she would not or could not answer, she handled them in the same dignified manner one would expect from a savvy veteran diplomat. She was a consummate professional throughout the process, depriving the media of any truly damaging soundbites or video clips that could be used to tarnish her public image.
All things considered, this week’s confirmation hearings turned out to be refreshingly unremarkable, and it’s almost all thanks to Judge Barrett herself. Her performance reminded Americans what normal politics is supposed to look like—orderly, respectful, and sedated—at a time when normalcy is in very short supply.
A Morning Consult poll conducted last week already showed that 48% of registered voters supported Barrett’s confirmation, while just 31% opposed it. Her performance during this week’s hearings could widen that gap even further and win her the support of a majority of voters. The worst-case scenario is that the needle doesn’t move much at all over the next few days, but that would still leave Barrett in a much better position than the one she was in just last month when only 37% of voters believed she should be confirmed. Either way, the path leading to her confirmation should be smooth sailing for both her and her Republican supporters in Congress.
Republicans can now breathe a collective sigh of relief. Barrett’s performance in no way absolves them of the rank hypocrisy they’ve exhibited by ignoring the precedent they set in 2016 when they refused to hold hearings for Judge Garland. What it might do, however, is hinder the efforts of activists who have been pressuring Joe Biden to “pack the court” with progressive-minded justices if Democrats manage to take back the Senate and White House in November.
The pro-pack-the-court argument has rested largely on the notion that Barrett’s eventual confirmation will radically alter the court’s ideological makeup to a degree that America cannot tolerate. To neutralize that imbalance, the theory goes, Democrats have no choice but to expand the size of the court and fill the newly created vacancies with justices of their choosing. But that move could spark a much bigger crisis of legitimacy than Barrett’s confirmation ever will, which is why Biden has been so hesitant to commit to it. The principal theme of his entire campaign has been a return to political normalcy, and court-packing is anything but normal.
If Barrett had bombed during this week’s hearings—if she had failed to allay concerns that she’s a loony religious zealot who is totally unqualified to serve on the Supreme Court—Democrats would have had a much easier time selling Americans on their court-packing plan. Instead, Barrett acquitted herself exceedingly well and dispelled most of the doubts regarding her character and qualifications. Going forward, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to convince a majority of Americans that her confirmation necessitates a response as drastic and risky as packing the court. For that, Republicans should be thanking their lucky stars—and, of course, soon-to-be Justice Amy Coney Barrett.