As news of Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden and shocking death at 79 settles in, the nations' eyes are now on President Obama. Players and stakeholders on both sides of the Beltway and throughout the political spectrum are pondering his next moves while speculating about the ideological calculus he and his advisors will be making in the coming weeks.
In a news conference shortly after news of Scalia's passing hit the headlines, Obama said, "I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time." Now, congressional leaders are tripping over themselves to weigh-in.
Republicans are calling on the president to punt, insinuating that it would be the gentlemanly thing to allow the next president to make the call. "Only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president to select the next Supreme Court justice," Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley wrote.
Democrats, meanwhile, are savoring the prospect of the president swiftly nominating a liberal to the bench, using the Constitution as their defense, saying, in the words of Hillary Clinton: "The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons."
Ultimately it's the president's call, and all signs are that he will make a nomination. The most practical option Obama seems to have is to tap someone who is "safe," a palatable nominee, who is philosophically centrist, steadfast and has a long judicial record of rulings and writings that support that stance. A nominee, whose appointment will make republicans look terribly obstructionist if they continually block throughout the year. A nominee whose appointment would, under any other circumstances, sail through the confirmation process with a modicum of fuss.
If the president uses the opportunity to appoint a true liberal to the bench, it would be a risky move. First, it would be a tough fight to get such an individual confirmed and republicans would have solid grounds and strong motivation to oppose him or her. Second, if eventually confirmed, another left-leaning justice would be a lightning rod for the GOP. They would handily seize the chance to lionize Scalia and use this appointee as a means to rally the conservative base in a way that may sway elections in November.
In the end, if the president nominates a respected centrist to the high court, he would have his nominee selected and help cement a legacy of prudent appointments to the bench. He would also help his party in denying the GOP the chance at converting their righteous anger into a wave of populist action at the polls. If President Obama decides to follow this route, it may ultimately lead to an even bigger win for democrats, regardless, since studies show that most justices tend to become more ideologically liberal during their tenure on the bench, giving the Supreme Court another reliably left-leaning justice.