3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing

3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing
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From the party that brought you #DefundThePolice, enter the latest political gift to Republicans: #PackTheCourt. The proposal to expand the number of Supreme Court justices is gaining traction among Democrats as a proportional response if Republicans ram through Trump’s nominee at the eleventh hour. Last week, Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push expansion of offshore wind, block offshore drilling with ocean energy bill | Poll: Two-thirds of voters support Biden climate plan | Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes Senate Republicans offer constitutional amendment to block Supreme Court packing MORE (D-Mass.) came out with the most unequivocal endorsement of the move. If Republicans proceed with Trump’s SCOTUS nominee, he tweeted, “we must …expand the Supreme Court” the next time that Democrats hold power.  

Markey is in good company. During the recent presidential primaries, several top Democrats – including current vice presidential nominee Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisObama to campaign for Biden in Florida Biden appears on Brené Brown's podcast to discuss 'empathy, unity and courage' The Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden MORE (Calif.), as well as Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Obama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race Durbin signals he isn't interested in chairing Judiciary Committee MORE (N.J.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDurbin signals he isn't interested in chairing Judiciary Committee Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing MORE (Minn.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver Democratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Obama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race MORE (Mass.) –expressed openness to court packing. Yet it was Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE who raised eyebrows this week when he refused to deny that he’d support court packing. “It’s a legitimate question,” Biden said. “But let me tell you why I’m not going to answer that question: because it will shift all the focus.”

Biden is an institutionalist. If he wins the White House, his record suggests he’d be highly unlikely to support court packing if given the opportunity. Biden knows it would inflict serious damage on the court’s legitimacy and invite Republicans to launch a counter-strike the next time they took power. Biden’s refusal to rule out court packing has nothing to do with his own convictions and everything to do with politics. That’s hardly atypical for Washington. Yet right now, Biden is badly misreading the politics. Here are three reasons why.


1. Playing into Trump’s hand. Biden’s refusal to rule out court packing is playing into Trump’s central narrative about him: that, if elected, he would be held captive to the political left. Trump’s argument is that a Biden administration would usher in a new era of democratic socialist rule driven by policies that are anti-business, are hostile to religion, and undercut “traditional” American values. Several weeks ago, Biden made light of that possibility. “You know me. You know my heart… Ask yourself if I look like a radical socialist.”  

As one commentator has observed, however, the concern isn’t that Biden is a closet radical. It’s that he will be dragged, wittingly or unwittingly, by left-wing agenda-setters who aren’t content with policy defaults that mirror those of the Obama era. Most Democratic voters are looking for moderation, which is why they settled on Biden as their nominee. By not categorically ruling out court packing, Biden only fuels suspicions that he’d be unable to stand up to the left flank of the Democratic Party if given the keys to the Oval Office.

2. Undermining the Democrats’ case. Democrats have spent much of the last three and half years complaining that Trump has shattered democratic norms. From abusing power to obstructing justice, Trump has left few norms in the White House undisturbed. At the same time, Trump’s authoritarian tendencies have led him to make sweeping claims about his powers. Trump has stated that the Constitution grants him “the right to do whatever [he] want[s].” He insists that Article II gives the “president powers that you wouldn't believe.” 

Yet now it’s Democrats implying that nothing is sacred. Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerTrump casts doubt on hopes for quick stimulus deal after aides expressed optimism Schumer says he had 'serious talk' with Feinstein, declines to comment on Judiciary role Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (D-N.Y.) vowed that if Trump’s SCOTUS nominee is voted on, “nothing is off the table for next year.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), ostensibly reading from the same memo, tweeted, “If Republicans recklessly & reprehensibly force a SCOTUS vote before the election—nothing is off the table.” This isn’t to imply an equivalency with Trump’s record. But by failing to resist an “anything-goes” politics over court packing, Biden is in a weaker position to attack Trump for challenging democratic norms. 

3. Reinforcing an Unflattering Image. Biden’s refusal to answer the court packing question reinforces a reputation for waffling. A frequent critique against Biden is that he doesn’t take firm policy positions. Where Biden stands on crucial issues, for example, such as U.S.-China trade, immigration, health care and the like are, to a large extent, big question marks. Now, Biden is asked a straightforward question on court packing –which should have a straightforward answer – and he declines to answer. That’s neither good leadership nor good politics. 

With less than two months before the election, Biden needs to get specific. That doesn’t mean taking unnecessary risks or deliberately alienating either the moderate or progressive wings of his party. Yet trying to constantly split the difference, as on court packing, isn’t a recipe for success. The remainder of the 2020 elections will be bruising. Biden will be forced to answer enough tough questions as it is. Whether the Supreme Court should have nine justices – as it has since the Ulysses S. Grant administration – doesn’t have to be one of them. 

Thomas Gift is director of the UCL Centre on US Politics and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics US Centre.