Donald Trump’s release of a list of his possible Supreme Court choices raises a question. Why don’t most presidential candidates let voters know whom they will appoint to the court or the Cabinet or other high offices if they are elected?
The main reason is that it’s a high-risk, low-reward maneuver.
Trump has named 11 people he would put on the Supreme Court (although he’s already backed off to some extent). He isn’t going to help himself with swing voters, few of whom have ever heard of those listed.
Now he’s on the hook for what the Democrats’ opposition research can dig up on the various names, whether it is an extreme position on policy (one judge is already being attacked for anti-gay and anti-transgender positions) or personal misdeeds that might turn up. “This,” a general-election attack ad could ask, “is what Trump believes is appropriate for a lifetime appointment to our highest court?”
Candidates are also reluctant to commit themselves because every presidential personnel choice is what political scientist Richard Neustadt called a “vantage point.” A candidate who identifies who he or she would name to every Cabinet or high court post would be losing the ability to use those nominations as bargaining chits while in office to promote other presidential goals.
The risks extend to the campaign too. Those who want high-level jobs in the next administration might not work as hard for a candidate who has already committed to fill them with other people. That even applies to a list like Trump’s for the Supreme Court. Presumably, all 11 people on his list already knew they were potential court candidates. But quite a few high-profile Republican lawyers surely thought they were also in this pool. They now have a lot less at stake if they break with the Trump campaign.
Trump, of course, is not a typical presidential candidate: What matters here is how much of a party outsider he is. Most Republican politicians and many party-aligned interest groups don’t trust him at all. Publishing his list is a way to assure them he will behave like a mainstream conservative in the Oval Office. While some conservatives may not trust him anyway, Trump presumably believes that what he gains in party unity is worth the risk he’s taking on the other counts.
He might not even have considered the downside of such a list. Perhaps that’s why he quickly backed off on treating it as authoritative. What is certain is the pressure he is feeling from Republican-aligned groups, and this episode demonstrates why this could be a general-election liability for him — and a governing liability if he does win in November.