WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 04: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol August 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. 
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

On Supreme Court politics, Mitch McConnell gives away the game

Once in a while, a prominent political leader drops the pretense and lets everyone know he’s exactly who we thought he was.

If a Supreme Court vacancy emerges next year, Mitch McConnell will fill it, the Senate majority leader said Tuesday.

The comment, however, diverges from his decision in 2016 to not consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier that year.

At a chamber luncheon in Paducah, Kentucky, on Tuesday, McConnell was asked by a member of the audience, “Should a Supreme Court justice die next year, what will your position be on filling that spot?”

“I would fill it,” he responded, smirking, which drew loud laughter.

For those who may have forgotten some of the events from three years ago, let’s quickly circle back to our earlier coverage. After then-Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016 – nine months before the next Election Day and 11 months before the next Inauguration Day – President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a center-left, compromise jurist, who was recommended by Senate Republicans, to fill the vacancy. It opened the door to a historic opportunity, unseen in recent decades: the Supreme Court could finally stop drifting to the far-right.

McConnell instead decided to impose an unprecedented high-court blockade, gambling that Americans would ignore his maximalist partisan scheme, and elect a Republican president and Republican Congress.

The GOP leader insisted his position was rooted in principle. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell said at the time. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” He even invented a rule that did not exist – the manufactured “Biden Rule” – to serve as an official pretext for the scheme.

It was all a lie. As of yesterday, McConnell doesn’t even feel the need to pretend otherwise.

To be sure, for the right, his gamble paid historic dividends. Instead of a center-left justice working alongside a conservative minority on the court, Americans are dealing with the opposite of what they voted for. The “heist of the century” – to some, a move that was effectively a political crime – worked like a charm.

And now the ringleader is flaunting his misdeeds, proud of his handiwork. The senator who effectively “broke” American politics, unburdened by shame, recently made the theft of a Supreme Court seat the centerpiece of his re-election campaign kickoff. Yesterday, McConnell smirked as he admitted that everything he said in 2016 was a sham.

It’s probably best not to call his latest remarks a “flip” or a “reversal,” because those descriptions are predicated on the idea that McConnell’s positions and principles in 2016 were sincere and that he’s since changed his mind. Alas, that’s not what happened.

The Senate majority leader concocted nonsensical arguments in bad faith, peddled claims he knew to be false, and asked the political world to play along with his transparent scam.

McConnell’s comments yesterday were extraordinary, not because he’s changed direction, but because he acknowledged his shameless and brazen cynicism in public.

The Kentuckian no doubt knew that his latest comments would expose his cravenness. He understood when he spoke that he was removing any doubt about his lack of principles. But in the process, the GOP leader also reminded us of an important truth: Mitch McConnell, convinced that he and his party will suffer no consequences, simply does not care.

Mitch McConnell and Supreme Court

On Supreme Court politics, Mitch McConnell gives away the game