Historian C. Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) wrote many serious studies but got little attention until he formulated a law and named it after himself. Inspired by Parkinson's example, after a half-century of studying political behavior I came up with "deLespinasse's Law": "In politics people often invoke principles in an unprincipled manner."
Unfortunately, this "law" may soon be getting additional validation thanks to the death, six weeks before a presidential election, of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
A good friend of Ginsburg's, Justice Antonin Scalia, died nine months before the 2016 elections. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, immediately announced he wouldn't allow any nominee of President Obama to be confirmed. The principle requiring this decision, said McConnell, was that adding someone to the court during a president's final year would prevent voters from having a say in the process. Republican senators rushed to agree.
McConnell is now singing a completely different song. Within hours of Ginsburg's death, he promised to begin confirmation hearings right away so the Senate can confirm whomever President Trump nominated.
Groucho Marx once said, "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them ... well, I have others." McConnell is a Marxist!
When accused of being inconsistent, McConnell explained that this year is different. In 2016 one party (Republicans) controlled the Senate and the White House was occupied by Barack Obama, Democrat. This year, McConnell continued, Republicans control both Senate and White House.
Why this should make any difference isn't clear. No two situations are identical, but it is the fundamental similarities that should govern the application of principles. Otherwise, would a difference in barometric pressure suffice to distinguish 2020 from 2016?
The election has two possible ultimate outcomes. Either Trump wins or he loses. If he wins, he can fill the court vacancy after the election. So why the hurry? (The court got along fine with only eight members for over a year after Scalia died.)
If Trump loses, then his right to name Ginsburg's replacement runs afoul of McConnell's principle articulated in 2016, which suggests that the new president should make the pick.
But what if Trump neither wins nor loses and the election outcome is determined by the court? Trump says he thinks this might be the case and that he thinks it ought to have all nine justices on board for that decision. But if the court just makes a partisan decision, it already has five conservatives and only three liberals. Is Trump worried about a "defection"?
To avoid any appearance that Trump is stacking the deck in his own favor, senators should ask Amy Coney Barrett to recuse herself from decisions about the election. If she won't promise to do this, senators should postpone confirmation until after the election.
If Republican senators really believe what they all maintained four years ago — that voters should have a say in Supreme Court nominees — then they shouldn't rush to confirm a Ginsburg replacement.
Trump and McConnell were not ashamed to go ahead with a nomination. History suggests that they are difficult to shame. But will there be enough Republican senators who do feel shame to delay confirmation until the results of the election are known? The outcome of the impeachment "trial" does not give much basis for hope here, either.
Perhaps I should be delighted to get additional confirmation that deLespinasse's Law is correct. But I would rather get proof that we have at least a few principled politicians.
Even so, it may be too soon to panic. Political gratitude has cynically been defined as "a lively sense of future favors." Once someone is on the Supreme Court, they are set for life and have no need for future favors. Who knows, the justices might even decide the case unanimously on the merits!
Paul F. deLespinasse of Corvallis is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. His most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. This column originally appeared in NewsMax.
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