Clarence Thomas for President Revisited

UCLA law professor Adam Winkler has an op ed arguing that the Republicans should nominate Clarence Thomas for president. Back in 2010, I explained why this is a bad idea, in response to a similar proposal by Kashmir Hill and David Lat. My reasons apply with equal force to Winkler’s argument:

I see a few positives in a Thomas candidacy. As Hill and Lat point out, Thomas is smart, eloquent, and has significant libertarian leanings. A black Republican presidential nominee might also have great symbolic value, even despite (or perhaps because of) Obama’s historic breakthrough.

Nonetheless, there are very strong arguments against a Thomas run that easily outweigh the positives. First, it would surely reopen the whole issue of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment charges. Whether you think that Hill was telling the truth or not, there is no doubt that the press and public opinion would focus on this issue. It would quickly become an immense distraction, and greatly reduce Thomas’ chances of winning….

The second argument against a Thomas run is even more important: he would have to resign from the Supreme Court and Barack Obama would get to pick his successor. I have been very critical of Thomas’ positions on several issues…. On balance, however, he has been one of the most libertarian and originalist justices, and I would be sorry to lose him.

Right now, the Court has a narrow 5-4 conservative majority. If Obama replaces Thomas with a liberal, the balance would flip….

There are other aspects of Thomas’ record and personality that might impede his candidacy. For example, he does not seem to be a person comfortable with the constant glare of media attention that surrounds a presidential campaign. Quotations from his many forceful Supreme Court opinions would probably provide good fodder for clever attack ads (especially if taken out of context).

In sum, a Thomas presidential candidacy strikes me as a bad idea. The only people likely to benefit are liberals who would welcome the opportunity to replace Thomas with an Obama nominee, and anyone who would enjoy relitigating the Thomas-Hill controversy.

Winkler suggests that the GOP could avoid having Thomas replaced by an Obama nominee if they filibuster in the Senate until the election is over, arguing that Thomas’ replacement should be picked by whoever wins the election. Even if the Republicans could sustain such a filibuster, however, this argument ignores the possibility that Thomas would lose to Obama. Given an improving economy and Thomas’ weaknesses as a candidate, such an outcome is quite likely.

My bet is that both GOP leaders and Thomas himself understand the above. Therefore neither will be tempted to push for a Thomas presidential run, despite understandable dissatisfaction with the current set of GOP candidates.