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The real reason President Obama appointed Merrick Garland

While the official organs of progressive politics have been broadly supportive of Merrick Garland's nomination to serve on the Supreme Court, privately left-of-center Washington is full of complaints. Garland is both older and less liberal than other potential choices, and it seems very likely that Republicans will block him anyway. Hasn't Obama learned that this accommodationist strategy didn't work for him in 2010 and 2011, while a harder-line turn in his second term produced results?

But the best explanation for picking Garland, as far I can tell, is actually pretty simple: Obama would like to get a Supreme Court nominee confirmed by the United States Senate.

Just start with the assumption that the reason Obama picked Garland is that he wants to fill the seat with a nominee he chose, and then run back through all the liberal objections to Garland.

A relatively moderate, relatively old nominee is the best Republicans are going to get from Obama. Rather than take the political heat for blocking him and then very possibly see Hillary Clinton win the election anyway, some senators are going to think maybe they should reconsider. Most likely, not enough will to put him on the Court. But then if Clinton wins in November, it seems very plausible that Republicans will be in a hurry to confirm him in the lame-duck period before they get saddled with the younger, more liberal Nina Pillard, who also runs triathlons and will probably never die.

Obama can't do any better than that if his goal is to maximize the odds that the person he picks will sit on the bench.

And you see pretty clear evidence that this is the game from the number of veterans of Obama's political operation who've come together to lead the "confirm Garland" movement. They wouldn't be doing that if Garland were just some pawn on an elaborate chessboard of political scheming. Obama wants to put him on the bench.

Now why is this such a priority for Obama? One can only speculate:

  • He may have reason to believe that Garland is much closer to the views of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan than the current public record suggests. There is always a lot of information asymmetry in these picks.
  • He may just really want that third justice on his résumé as part of his legacy.
  • He may see foiling Republican obstruction as an important goal in its own right.

But that's the game he's playing. He picked Garland because Garland is the guy who is likely to be confirmed, in the lame-duck period if not anything else.