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Analysis: A political bargain that’s working out for social conservatives

In the president's appointment of two Texans to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, conservatives are seeing the fruits of a bargain made in the 2016 elections: Donald Trump might not be their favorite, but they're getting judges they want.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals building in New Orleans.

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Here are a couple of important statistics: Don Willett is 51 and Jim Ho is 44.

If and when they are confirmed to sit on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — the two Texans were appointed by President Donald Trump on Thursday — they’ll be taking positions they will probably hold long after Trump himself leaves Washington, D.C.

This is the part of the Trump phenomenon that attracted otherwise very conservative Republicans who probably wouldn’t sit next to the president at a movie: They’re getting judges — young judges, by the looks of things — that they certainly wouldn’t be getting had Hillary Clinton won the election.

On stage with fellow U.S. Sen. John Cornyn last month at The Texas Tribune Festival, Ted Cruz pointed at the  appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court when asked for examples of the president’s accomplishments.

This is in the same ballpark. Ho held the same job in the Texas attorney general’s office that Cruz did, acting as solicitor general — the lawyer leading the state’s arguments in appellate courts. Willett also came through the filter of the Texas AG’s office before working his way onto the Texas Supreme Court.

Both are the sorts of lawyers you’d expect to see on lists compiled by resolute Republicans of either the chamber of commerce or the social conservative variety. The prospect of judicial appointments like these quelled conservative misgivings about Trump going into last year’s general election.

Arguments that Trump was not really a conservative peppered that race. Here’s a golden oldie from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then a presidential candidate himself, in the summer of 2015: “Let no one be mistaken – Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded. ... He offers a barking carnival act that can be best described as 'Trumpism' — a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.”

Perry, as you know, got over it. He is now a member of Trump’s Cabinet — the president’s energy secretary.

Cruz ran against Trump, ripped him as a “pathological liar” in an emotional and excoriating speech in mid-2016 and, in the end, endorsed him. He explained that he was relying in large part on Trump’s promise to nominate Supreme Court justices acceptable to conservatives.

“We are only one justice away from losing our most basic rights, and the next president will appoint as many as four new justices,” Cruz said in a statement at the time. Ho and Willett aren’t up for that court — though Willett was on Trump’s list of candidates for the high court — but the federal courts of appeals are only one step removed.

Most presidents serve for only four or eight years. Judges, on the other hand, outlast the people who appoint them and most of the people who vote to confirm them, too. The Texas redistricting case, for instance, has been handled by three federal judges appointed by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Willett and Ho and other appointees named this week still have to run a confirmation gauntlet. For Ho, that will mean reliving everything the Bush Justice Department did while he was in the civil rights division. Willett is known for his social media presence; it’s not as batty as the president’s, but it probably is fodder for foes looking to knock him around in the coming months. Another Trump judicial appointee from Texas, Jeff Mateer, has run into trouble over controversial speeches on transgender children and same-sex marriage. Cruz is sticking with him; Cornyn is reconsidering his support.

Both Ho and Willett have political angels in those two senators; both men have been in Cornyn and Cruz's orbits for years and came highly recommended from their home state legislators. If they win confirmation, they’ll be judges for years — through the tenure of this president and of one or two or three of his successors. It’s a prospect tantalizing enough to make a social conservative ignore Trump’s many lesser moments.

Some of the movement Republicans who signed off on Trump are getting what they hoped for and what they expected — a run of conservative judicial appointments amid the president’s regular barrage of tweets.

Tweets don’t last long. The judges probably will. 

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Don Willett John Cornyn Judiciary of Texas Ted Cruz