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Did Sotomayor Doom Health Care?

Counterintuition of the day: Did the White House inadvertently hurt itself on health care by not picking a more controversial Supreme Court nominee?

I couldn't help wondering this when I read Chris Cillizza's item on the looming August air-war between groups on either side of the health care fight:

"With final votes now pushed back to at least September, this means every pro and con group is drawing up new media plans," said Larry McCarthy, a Republican media consultant who is doing work for the conservative Americans for Prosperity. "Two week media plans just extended to eight week media plans. Targets will expand -- not only national cable and swing Senators, but more congressional districts will be added." ...

American for Prosperity is spending better than $1 million on a national cable television buy this week that castigates the Canadian-style health care the president's plan would allegedly institute.

And, Rick Scott, the chairman of Conservatives for Patients' Rights, promised in a memo to supporters on Thursday that "liberal, pro-government health care advocates are intensifying their campaigns" and that "we must meet them head on and continue with ads, news events (particularly in the grassroots), media appearances, etc, to finish off the public option."

My thinking is as follows: There's only so much money and enthusiasm out there for what's clearly a demoralized Republican Party/conservative movement. Had Obama nominated a more controversial figure to the Court, a lot of that money might have been funneled into that fight, starving the party/movement of resources to fight on health care. Even better, given the resource and enthusiasm asymmetries favoring Democrats (and basic Senate math), the White House would still almost certainly have won that fight, dealing the other side not only a financial blow, but a tough psychological blow. It's hard to get motivated for another big fight (health care) after you've thrown everything you've got into an earlier one (Supreme Court) and still come up short.

Instead, the Sotomayor nomination was executed so flawlessly that the right folded early on, allowing it to marshal resources for health care, where it looks like they may be more effective.

Now, obviously, we're not talking about the exact same pool of resources here. The right has a set of legal-activist groups, and a set of domestic-policy activist groups, and they often have separate budgets. But, equally obviously, money is fungible, and a lot of these groups raise money from the same donor-base. (And there are some conservative groups that wade into pretty much any big political fight...)

I'm not suggesting Obama should have deliberately invited controversy with his Supreme Court nominee. But it is ironic that a tougher fight on health care may be one of the consequences of defusing it so masterfully on that front.

--Noam Scheiber