Even by the lofty standards of the Trump era, the past week in Washington has been chaotic. Just a few days after FBI Director James B. Comey stepped back into the political spotlight by publicly confirming the bureau’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, the president’s bid to rush his health-care bill through the House failed in spectacular fashion. As a result, the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch received much less attention than they would have under ordinary circumstances.
In light of Comey’s revelation, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for delaying a vote on Gorsuch until the investigation is resolved. Some progressives went a step further. For example, MoveOn started a petition demanding a halt to all “legislation and appointments . . . until the American people learn the full truth about Trump and Russia,” a position that Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) echoed on Twitter.
The impulse to hype the FBI investigation is natural. But it’s worth remembering that, even before Comey’s announcement, there were plenty of reasons for Democrats to do everything in their power to stop Gorsuch’s nomination from coming to the floor — starting with the fact that he was nominated to fill a stolen seat. After Senate Republicans refused to even hold a hearing on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for about 300 days, an unprecedented level of obstruction, there is no reason for Democrats to acquiesce to an up-or-down vote on Gorsuch now. They are right to fight back.
This is especially true considering Gorsuch’s record of right-wing judicial activism. Since his appointment by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in 2006, Gorsuch has consistently sided with corporations over workers and consumers. He has also demonstrated a pattern of hostility toward the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as women and minorities, which may help explain why he was a top choice of the conservative ideologues at the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society to replace the far-right Justice Antonin Scalia.
During his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, several Democrats aggressively questioned Gorsuch over his clear history of corporate favoritism, the most prominent example of which is probably his dissenting opinion in the so-called frozen trucker case. In that case, Gorsuch defended the right of the TransAm Trucking corporation to fire a driver who, fearing for his safety, abandoned a broken trailer after waiting several hours in subzero temperatures without heat for help. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) lambasted the opinion, calling it “absurd” that an employee would have to choose between keeping his job and possibly freezing to death. “I had a career in identifying absurdity,” he said. “And I know it when I see it.”
Noting that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s court has served as a rubber stamp for corporations, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) argued that Gorsuch’s confirmation would exacerbate the problem, raising concerns about the influence of dark money in particular. “Your record on corporate versus human litigants comes in, by one count, at 21-2 for corporations,” he told Gorsuch. “Tellingly, big special interests and their front groups are spending millions of dollars in a dark-money campaign to push your confirmation.”
And it’s not just Gorsuch’s pro-corporate ideology that is cause for alarm. As Ari Berman writes at the Nation, Gorsuch “has praised one of the GOP’s most notorious voter-suppression advocates. He’s criticized liberals for challenging gay marriage bans in the courts. During the George W. Bush administration, he praised the Guantanamo Bay prison and defended harsh anti-terror policies. As a judge, he joined the Hobby Lobby decision restricting a woman’s right to choose.”
Taken together, Gorsuch’s record makes him more conservative than 87 percent of federal judges, according to one study. Another study found that, if confirmed, he’d be the most conservative member of the court with the exception of Clarence Thomas.
At the conclusion of last week’s hearings, Schumer announced that Democrats intend to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination, meaning that he will not be confirmed unless Republicans can muster 60 votes or decide to invoke the “nuclear option” and get rid of the filibuster. Given the stakes, a filibuster is clearly warranted. But progressives would be wise to avoid linking this fight, or any major policy fight, to a Russia investigation whose outcome is totally uncertain — especially when they have the ability to win those fights on the merits. As the collapse of the health-care bill demonstrated, President Trump’s greatest political weakness isn’t his alleged ties to Russia. It’s a cruel policy agenda that the American people overwhelmingly reject.
Indeed, while a fair and independent investigation into the Trump campaign is appropriate, there is scant evidence at this point that Russia-related issues will sway voters any more in the midterms than they did in November. The 2018 elections will very likely be determined by voters who care more about their economic security. And with the president’s empty promises being exposed more every day, Democratic leaders and progressives’ main priority should be crafting and fighting for a real progressive alternative to Trump’s faux-populist brand.