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Obama explains the real reason filling Justice Scalia's Supreme Court seat is so hard

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

President Obama used his press conference Tuesday to reiterate his intention to name a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his frustration with Republican declarations that they will block the nominee, sight unseen.

But how he expressed that frustration was interesting. There was the customary scolding of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans, but overall Obama emphasized that the problem isn't individual senators. It's political polarization:

I understand the stakes. I understand the pressure that Republican senators are undoubtedly under. I mean, the fact of the matter is that what the issue here is that the court is now divided on many issues this would be a deciding vote. And there are a lot of Republican senators who are going to be under a lot of pressure from various special interests and various constituencies and many of their voters to not let any nominee go through. No matter who I nominate. But that's not how the system is supposed to work. That's not how our democracy is supposed to work.

He's not saying this is inevitable. There'd be little reason for him to do so: If there's even a sliver of a chance that the Senate will approve a nominee, he wants to leave that possibility open. But tellingly, while he argues that Republicans are violating political precedent, he also argues it makes sense for them to do so. They're not being irrational. They're responding to the demands of an increasingly right-wing voter base, an aftereffect of a broader trend toward political polarization.

And he also implicitly acknowledges that Supreme Court appointments are ideological. He doesn't outright say that the Court is evenly divided on partisan lines, but it is, and that's clearly what he means. And given that, of course it makes sense for the party set to lose its leg up to fight extremely hard to prevent its opponents from filling the seat.

Obama was even more explicit about this when questioned about his own participation in an effort to filibuster the nomination of Samuel Alito in 2006:

I think what's fair to say is that how judicial nominations have evolved over time is not historically the fault of any single party. This has become just one more extension of politics. And there are times where folks are in the Senate and they're thinking, as I just described, primarily, about, is this going to cause me problems in a primary? Is this going to cause me problems with supporters of mine? And so people take strategic decisions. I understand that.

This isn't a problem of a certain set of Republicans acting dastardly, in other words. Even Obama himself was thinking in these terms. In content, he's implicitly conceding that he opposed Alito in part because of the impending 2008 presidential primary. Of course, he followed this up by pleading for this norm erosion to stop. "Now, this will be a test, he said. "One more test, of whether or not norms, rules, basic fair play can function at all in Washington these days."

But he's also clear that what's happening is a broader historical phenomenon, in which he himself has participated. America's longstanding presidential system is a historical aberration, one that has only endured because of the country's relatively unpolarized party system. Now the parties are becoming more polarized, and the system is buckling under the pressure that creates. It's not that Mitch McConnell is personally evil. It's that the system itself is fundamentally broken, and it's no one individual's fault.

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