Do assertions, white lies actually hurt politicians?
February 18, 2016 11:06 PM
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has been called out by political opponents, editorial writers and newspaper fact-checkers for his statement Monday about U.S. Supreme Court nominations.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – Rhetoric and semantics are everything in an election year. Just ask U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who has been called out by political opponents, editorial writers and newspaper fact-checkers for his statement Monday about U.S. Supreme Court nominations.
Wading into a partisan debate over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia, Mr. Toomey said this on Monday: “In the final year of a presidency, it is common for vacancies that arise on the Supreme Court to await the outcome of the next election.”
Other Republicans have made similar assertions since the death Saturday of a reliable conservative on the highest court.
The trouble for them is there’s no evidence that any lame-duck president has passed up the chance to make a Supreme Court nomination.
Mr. Toomey hasn’t backed down from his assertion – an approach that carries little political risk, experts say.
Instead, his office pointed out that it has been 80 years since the Senate filled a Supreme Court vacancy that arose during the last year of a presidency.
That much is true. Since George Washington’s days, only 11 Supreme Court justices have been both nominated and confirmed during an election year. (Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed during an election year but President Reagan had nominated him the previous year.)
But no lame-duck president has ever declined to offer a nominee for a Supreme Court vacancy arising during his last year in office, and that’s what Republicans say President Obama should do.
Republicans want hold the nomination for the new president — a Republican, they hope, who would appoint a conservative strict constructionist like Mr. Scalia.
They say Mr. Obama has a double standard when it comes to judicial nominees. While the president now insists on “a fair hearing and a timely vote,” as a senator in 2006 he joined a filibuster of Samuel Alito’s nomination to the high court.
“Obama set the precedent that an impeccably qualified nominee to the Supreme Court is not entitled to a vote of the Senate,” Toomey spokeswoman Melissa Ferdinand said in an e-mail Wednesday.
Mr. Toomey told the Associated Press on Thursday that a hearing would be pointless because it’s unlikely that a majority of the Republican-controlled Senate would support any Obama nominee no matter how qualified. That’s because, he said, Republicans would consider whether confirmation would chance the court’s leanings.
“The president intends to change the balance of the court, and I am not going to support him changing the balance of the court with nine months before an election. I’m not going to do that,” Mr. Toomey told the wire service.
Political rivals pounced.
“Sen. Pat Toomey’s justification to not fill the vacant Supreme Court seat is stunning,” said Sabrina Singh, spokeswoman for Katie McGinty, the former Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection, who is running in a four-way Democratic primary for Mr. Toomey’s seat.
“He boldly admits that this is a political calculation by Senate Republicans and that their ultimate goal is to appoint a justice that aligns with their radical ideology,” Ms. Singh said in a written statement.
Also Thursday, the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group, launched a million-dollar advertising campaign thanking Mr. Toomey and other Senate Republicans with similar positions on filling the Scalia vacancy.
“The Supreme Court has a vacancy and your vote in November is your only voice. Pat Toomey agrees,” says the narrator of the version airing in Pennsylvania. “You choose the next president; the next president chooses the next justice.”
Democrats including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts say the people already had a voice when they elected Mr. Obama. It is his job to nominate Mr. Scalia’s successor and the Senate’s job to confirm, Democrats say.
“I can’t find a clause in the Constitution that says ‘… except when there’s a year left in the term of a Democratic president,’” Ms. Warren said Sunday in a post on Twitter.
Republicans say that’s disingenuous in light of statements by Sen. Chuck Schumer nine years ago after confirmation of President George W. Bush’s nominees: Mr. Alito and John Roberts.
“I will do everything in my power to prevent one more ideological ally from joining Roberts and Alito on the court,” the New York Democrat said in speech before the American Constitution Society. “We should not confirm any Bush nominee to the Supreme Court except in extraordinary circumstances.”
No more vacancies occurred during the administration so, Mr. Schumer never had a chance to make good on his promise.
Mr. Toomey’s office highlighted Mr. Schumer’s words to justify the senator’s position now.
But the Schumer speech occurred 17 months before the end of Mr. Bush’s presidency and seemed to have nothing to do with the timing of nominations. Rather, Mr. Schumer had been lamenting that Justices Roberts and Alito “hoodwinked” the Senate by presenting themselves as mainstream jurists rather than “ideologues.”
Academics say candidates have little to risk politically by putting forth misleading statements, so long as they steer clear of boldfaced lies.
“It does pay to throw out half-truths because of confirmation bias, which means your true believers will accept statements that reinforce their existing beliefs, so there’s no downside in firing up your base” particularly around partisan issues, said Craig Barkacs, a professor of business law at the University of San Diego and an expert on politics and power.
“Because we’re more polarized now than we used to be, semantics and rhetoric matter more and are more effective,” he said. “People are looking for like-minded messages and are resistant to nuances and middle ground.”
Fordham University political scientist Costas Panagopoulos said voters disregard statements that don’t match their political views.
“There’s a price to pay for being blatantly untrue, but for claims that have some semblance of truth to them, politicians may not pay a price … unless opponents make the public aware of misleading claims, and that’s not easy to do,” Mr. Panagopoulos said.
Mr. Toomey’s rivals are trying.
Former congressman Joe Sestak, who also is running in the Democratic primary, said misstatements such Mr. Toomey’s lead to the kind of “truth deficit” that inspired him to seek office.
“He’s saying something that he knows isn’t true … and presenting it as a hard fact to justify his feeling on a partisan position. That’s not what you’re supposed to do as a senator,” Mr. Sestak said Thursday. “This is a statement that is bold in terms of it being untrue and he won’t retract it when it’s obviously wrong. That’s why people lose trust.”
Mr. Toomey isn’t alone, he said.
“This happens in both parties, and it’s disturbing,” Mr. Sestak said. “That’s why the United States of America is searching for somebody who would actually be trustworthy.”
It doesn’t surprise political scientists that Mr. Toomey hasn’t backed down.
“Politicians take calculated risks,” Mr. Panagopoulos said. “If there’s some risk to making a statement that’s somewhat misleading but potentially of some benefit that outweighs the risk, the politician might be willing to make it.”
In a political climate where Donald Trump leads national presidential polls, it seems that candidates’ pugnacity is more important than their honesty, said Mark Caleb Smith, professor of political science at Cedarville College in Ohio.
“People don’t feel represented. They don’t feel like their voice is part of the political conversation, so when they see a candidate being passionate it makes them feel like that person would fight for them,” Mr. Smith said. “Voters are more interested in a candidate that fights than a candidate that tells the truth.”
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: 703-996-9292. firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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