As my colleagues David Savage and Del Quentin Wilber put it, Garland "can claim to be the American jurist most qualified to move up to the Supreme Court."
But as Republicans and conservative groups made abundantly clear within minutes of the announcement, the issue isn't who got nominated. It's who did the nominating.
"Nominee Makes No Difference," as the Concerned Women for America put it succinctly in the headline of its news release Wednesday morning. "This nomination will upset the balance of the Supreme Court to the radical left for many decades. Such a seismic shift in the highest court of the land must be presented to the people," said Penny Nance, the group's president.
Granted, when you're standing where Nance is standing, anyone to the left of
The seat is open because one of the most conservative jurists on the bench, Antonin Scalia, died unexpectedly last month. That leaves the court equally split between conservatives named by Republican presidents and liberals named by Democratic ones. The fear is that anyone Obama names will be more likely to side with the liberals on such issues as abortion and governmental power.
That's an entirely reasonable assumption, even though jurists have been known to shift right or left after rising to the bench (see, for example, Anthony M. Kennedy on gay rights). Ever since Ronald Reagan nominated
So if Republicans allow Garland to be confirmed, their core constituencies are likely to feel betrayed regardless of what anyone says about how reasonable and non-ideological the judge may be. And with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, and Republicans having more incumbents facing reelection than Democrats do, the last thing the Senate GOP can afford to do is to discourage its political base.
That will be even more true if both parties' tickets are led by baggage-laden presidential nominees, as appears all but guaranteed. Republican conservatives and Democratic liberals may all be tempted to stay home in November rather than vote for
Yet there's a risk on the other side too, which is why this appears to be a no-win situation for the GOP. If Garland winds up looking like a stellar jurist and an eminently reasonable choice, voters in the political center -- yes, they exist -- could see the Senate GOP as stubbornly obstructionist. That's certainly the picture Democrats will be painting. And unless conservatives find a way to alter that picture, the refusal to act on Garland could spell trouble for swing-state Republicans up for reelection, whose fate will determine which party controls the Senate in 2017.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasted little time announcing that Garland wouldn't even get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. As a consequence, Republicans will have to rely on the media to make the case that Garland isn't the decent, modest, even-handed and excellent judge that Obama says (and will continue to say on a near daily basis) he is.
Of course, the politics are completely scrambled this year. Trump has benefited most among Republicans from voter anger at Washington's dysfunction, and he's on the record as opposing Senate action on Garland.
It can't be fun to be Garland in this situation, knowing that you're going to become a target even though there's zero chance your nomination will get a vote before the election. At least he can hold onto the hope that a Democrat will win the presidency in November, at which point Republicans may rush to confirm him before the next president nominates someone who really is radical.
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