The Shifting Standards of Mitch McConnell

When it came to filling a Supreme Court vacancy during the 2016 presidential election year, Senator Mitch McConnell had a constant refrain: Let the people decide. But should a high court seat become open in 2020, Mr. McConnell has already decided himself.

Oh, we’d fill it,” Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, gleefully told a friendly Chamber of Commerce audience back home in Paducah on Tuesday.

Mr. McConnell regularly celebrates his history-altering 2016 decision to thwart President Barack Obama from filling a vacancy that occurred with 11 months remaining in his term, saying the seat should be kept open until a new president could be elected and inaugurated. But he has been laying the groundwork to change course ever since Donald J. Trump was elected president. Tuesday’s remarks were only his most definitive: He would not be bound by the standard he himself set in preventing Judge Merrick B. Garland from being seated on the high court.

The comments immediately drew howls of blatant hypocrisy from Democrats and progressive allies. They said it underscored their view that Mr. McConnell was unprincipled and acted out of purely partisan motives in 2016 when he single-handedly decided to blockade Mr. Obama’s choice to replace Antonin Scalia after the court icon’s death that February.

The bad faith behind McConnell’s position on Merrick Garland was obvious to anyone who was paying attention at the time and is a major reason why the public increasingly views the court as a partisan institution,” said Brian Fallon, who heads the progressive judicial advocacy group Demand Justice.

The declaration by Mr. McConnell suggests that the makeup of the Supreme Court will again be a central issue in the 2020 campaigns for the White House and the Senate, particularly with the intensifying fight over abortion rights. The Scalia vacancy was credited with significantly aiding Mr. Trump and cementing his support on the right in 2016. Democrats, stung by the 2016 loss and the failure to seat Judge Garland, have since tried to emphasize the political import of the Supreme Court to their voters through the emergence of groups like Mr. Fallon’s.

The distinction that Mr. McConnell and his allies draw is that in 2016, the process of filling the Supreme Court vacancy was split between Democrats who controlled the White House and Republicans who controlled the Senate. Voters had rendered a split decision, handing the executive to Mr. Obama in 2012 and the Senate to Mr. McConnell two years later, the majority leader argued; therefore, the tiebreaker would go to the winner of the 2016 campaign.

This is a line Mr. McConnell emphasized in October 2018 when he first began indicating that he was more than ready to take up a Trump nominee in 2020, should the chance arise.

“The tradition going back to the 1880s has been if a vacancy occurs in a presidential election year, and there is a different party in control of the Senate than the presidency, it is not filled,” he said.