Gorsuch’s confirmation was a terrible spot for Democrats to pick a fight on the filibuster, for two reasons. He was, as Michael Bennet says in the clip, a conservative replacing a conservative, a relatively low-stakes confirmation. And there wasn’t a drop of useful oppo on him to make Republican squishes like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski squeamish about taking a step as dramatic as ending the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in order to confirm him. The “moral” case for filibustering him was weaker than Democrats thought too. They did it to protest McConnell’s decision the year before to block Merrick Garland, signaling their belief that no one but Garland himself should be rightly confirmed to replace Scalia, but all legitimacy ultimately flows from the electorate. Voters chose Trump over Clinton knowing what that would mean to the Scalia vacancy. Schumer’s filibuster of Gorsuch’s confirmation was to some degree a protest of the electorate’s verdict, which is why it gained Democrats nothing politically.
Strategically, everything comes back to Collins, Murkowski, and other Republican centrists in the Senate like the now departed Jeff Flake and Bob Corker. Had Schumer passed on filibustering Gorsuch, the 60-vote rule for nominees would have been intact when Kavanaughgeddon struck the Senate in 2018. Collins and the other RINOs were willing to cast a gut-check confirmation vote for him in the belief that Christine Blasey Ford’s unsubstantiated rape allegation wasn’t enough to presume him guilty. But I can’t believe they’d have taken the momentous additional step of ending the Senate’s filibuster rules for SCOTUS nominees to confirm him under those circumstances, particularly knowing that Kavanaugh might be the fifth vote to overturn Roe. It would have been the perfect fig leaf for them to oppose Kavanaugh without really opposing him: “Although I believe Judge Kavanaugh’s professions of innocence and regard him as well qualified for the position, the filibuster is a crucial check on majority power in a deliberative body and I oppose eliminating it.” McConnell would have been stuck needing 60 votes to confirm, Kav would have fallen short, and Trump would have been forced to come back with a more moderate replacement nominee. As it is, with the filibuster already gone thanks to Gorsuch, Collins and the rest had to face the GOP base and cast an up-or-down vote on confirmation.
The punchline: Schumer spent part of the pre-Gorsuch confirmation process openly lamenting his party’s short-sightedness in 2013, when Harry Reid and the Senate Democratic majority ended the filibuster for cabinet nominees. I told them that would come back to haunt us, Schumer claimed. And then he turned around and made another terrible short-sighted strategic decision by wasting the big filibuster fight for SCOTUS nominees on Gorsuch instead of the next nominee. The next time someone tells you how much Washington Republicans are terrified of their base, remind them that Schumer was so terrified of his own that he wasted the chance to block Brett Kavanaugh on a dopey, pandering “but Garland!” protest in 2017 instead.