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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: The Sandoval stunt

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval sits in his office at the Capitol in Carson City, Nev. The Obama administration is reportedly considering him for the Supreme Court.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval sits in his office at the Capitol in Carson City, Nev. The Obama administration is reportedly considering him for the Supreme Court. Associated Press file/2015

If President Barack Obama were as good at leading as he is at playing political games and getting the best of hapless Republicans, the country would be in much better shape. And he would be remembered as a much better president.

Obama is constantly in campaign mode, even now that he can’t run for office again. He is a master at reading his opponents, manipulating their actions and making them look like fools.

Of course, when we’re talking about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his merry band of do-nothing Republican senators, this isn’t exactly a heavy lift. They do a fine job of making themselves look foolish. They certainly don’t need help from the White House.

Now Obama has outmaneuvered the Republicans once again, by toying with the vacancy on the Supreme Court due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Obama has said that he intends to send forth a nominee, but Senate Republicans have vowed not to hold hearings until a new president is sworn in.

So we have a standoff, which gives Obama the opportunity to have a little fun at Republicans’ expense. Last Wednesday, The Washington Post, relying on a couple of unnamed sources who appeared to have knowledge of the president’s deliberation process, reported that Obama was considering filling the vacancy on the high court with a Republican. And not just any Republican, but a Republican superstar with what seemed like the perfect résumé for the job.

Brian Sandoval isn’t just the wildly popular, second-term Hispanic governor of Nevada who won re-election with 70 percent of the vote. He is also – get this – a former federal judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada. So he has both executive and judicial experience.

Just when I thought this extraordinary election year couldn’t get any more maddening, something comes along that reshuffles the deck. And, happily, I stand corrected.

Then there is the age factor. At 52, Sandoval is young enough to be on the Supreme Court for a while, and give whomever nominates him a chance to leave a strong and enduring imprint on the judiciary.

The governor is a moderate who is thought to be on his way up the political ladder. He could have run for Senate this year, given that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring. Yet he hasn’t shown any interest in going to Washington to legislate.

Sandoval also has a lot of substance. He is pro-choice on abortion, pro-sensible on water policy in a drought-stricken Western state, and pro-comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status for the undocumented. Fiercely independent, he isn’t shy about calling out Republican Party leaders and prominent GOP officials when they say something dumb.

The governor did that in 2012, when he said Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s plan to encourage millions of undocumented immigrants to “self-deport” was loco. This is how they play the game out West, which benefits tremendously from being so far from Washington and its hyper-partisan climate.

Nominating Sandoval would be a brilliant choice for Obama, and it would make sense on a lot of levels. Yet it will never happen. Why? Because late last week, Sandoval put out a statement indicating that he was not interested. While saying that he was “incredibly grateful to have been mentioned,” the governor took himself out of the running.

It’s just as well. I think this whole story was a mirage, a carnival game and a cynical stunt intended to reveal Senate Republicans for what they are on the subject of confirming a high court nominee: petty, irrational and guided by politics.

It’s telling that, according to Sandoval’s office, no one from the White House had even called to discuss the vacancy. The governor was being played with, and we were being hustled.

Obama and his advisers must have known that – Sandoval or no Sandoval – Republicans would hold fast to their threat not to call for hearings on any nominee until after the presidential election. Right on cue, Senate Republicans did just that, taking to conservative talk radio and other media to reassure their flock that, their respect for Sandoval notwithstanding, nothing had changed.

Oh, but it has. A trap was set and then sprung. Obama won the round. And the country lost out on someone who would have been a great candidate for the Supreme Court.

If we needed more evidence that Washington is broken, and that the dysfunction now extends to all three branches of government, there it is.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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