I haven't seen much talk yet of Supreme Court nominations as an issue in the presidential campaign. But it ought to be an issue, at least in the general election.
It will be a very different situation for the two parties.
Stevens, at age 87, is by far the oldest of the justices; Ginsberg is 74; Kennedy and Scalia 71; Breyer 69 and Souter 68 (I'll spare you the ages of Thomas, Alito and Roberts; let's just say we're stuck with them for a good while).
It's not unreasonable to assume that Stevens - by retirement or by death - will be the first to go. A Democratic president could replace Stevens with another liberal, and Kennedy would still be the swing vote. Status quo. If there's a Republican president, he could replace Stevens with a conservative, and then there'd be 5 conservatives on the court. I don't know if there'd even be someone to label a 'swing vote' at that point. Really, it's sort of scary.
So it's the Dems who could have a lot to lose. In the general election, they ought to make a big issue of this to turn out voters. The Republicans, meanwhile, can make the case to the conservative base that they have the chance to make a huge rightward shift in the court if their candidate wins.
I don't know the social psych research on this, but from what I see in politics, it's more popular to try to get people to vote based on fear of a bad outcome than getting them to vote for the possibility of a good outcome. If that's the case, the Supreme Court issue would be an advantage for the Dems, who can rally the base on the need to not let the court move even further rightward.
William Kristol, for one, seems to subscribe to the theory of scaring people about the possibility of a bad outcome. In his first column
in the NYT earlier this month, he said that he wants a Republican president over a Democratic president because, among other reasons, "we don't want to undo the good done by the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito..."
That's absurd; there's no danger for conservatives that the court could move to the left
any time soon. Yet there he goes.
In the general election, I wonder if we'll see more of this, or if the Republicans will motivate their base with the truth on the court -- that a Democratic president could not shift the court to the left one bit, but that a Republican president could shift it far to the right.