The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

How the Kavanaugh Fight Will Shape Our Politics

A demonstrator against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh protests outside the U.S. Supreme Court building. September 17, 2018. (REUTERS/Mike Segar )

You no doubt recall that during the 2012 presidential campaign, then-Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid accused Mitt Romney of having not paid any taxes over the past decade. It wasn’t true; Romney released tax returns showing that it wasn’t true. In 2015, CNN’s Dana Bash pressed him about telling a blatant lie, Reid responded,“Romney didn’t win, did he?”

That is the only lesson anyone in politics is going to take from everything surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation.

Did the last-minute leak of Christine Blasey Ford’s name and accusation help Kavanaugh opponents win?

Did the New Yorker article that began with a lurid accusation, but that halfway through admitted could not confirm Kavanaugh’s attendance at the party at the center of the accusation, help Kavanaugh opponents win?

Did the implausible claims of Julie Swetnick, released and publicized by Michael Avenatti, help Kavanaugh opponents win?

Did fundraising off of the Kavanaugh accusations help Kavanaugh opponents win?

Did a U.S. senator telling all men in America to “shut up and step up” help Kavanaugh opponents win?

This is binary. Either these efforts derailed the nomination, or they didn’t.

There is no circumstance where everyone involved with those norm-breaking steps suddenly wakes up, has a crisis of conscience, and realizes that they were morally wrong. The only way they decide not to take similar steps in the future is if they conclude that those steps are not effective.

If these sorts of tactics work, we will get more of them. Right now, Kavanaugh could be a squish who wimps out on Roe vs. Wade and I’d still want him on that court, because this isn’t really about him anymore. This is about what kind of proof is needed before you believe a man is a monster. This is about whether decades of respected public and private life can be wiped away by an allegation without supporting witnesses. This is about whether anyone who ever knew you at any chapter of your life can suddenly come forward and paint you as a malevolent deviant of every kind . . . or whether people who never knew you at any chapter of your life can suddenly come forward and paint you as a malevolent deviant of every kind.

Make no mistake, this whole public discussion would be completely different if P. J. Smyth had said, “Well, I remember the party, but I don’t know what happened when the three of them were upstairs.” Or if Leland Keyser had said, “Yes, I remember the party, but I had no idea what happened in that room after they turned up the music.” If Ford remembered the date and the house, and we could go back and check property records and see whose parents owned the house, and whether her description of the house matches the floor plan . . . this would be a different conversation.

But as it is, we have a denial — and three named witnesses who do not corroborate that the party ever occurred, much less an assault. Ford’s claim is just lacking in specifics enough that no alibi can ever be created. For example, if Ford said this occurred on, say, any of the last three weekends in 1982, we would be able to go back and see Kavanaugh’s calendar and attempt to verify the listed weekend trips to St. Michael’s in Maryland or Connecticut to visit his grandmother.

I think the pro-Kavanaugh side is indeed winning the public argument. A weekend Harvard CAPS/Harris poll of 1,330 registered voters found that “once the voters are told that the named witnesses deny any knowledge of the allegation, this shifts to 57 percent who favor confirmation — and that goes up to 60 percent, if the FBI agrees there is no corroboration.” Almost everyone in America has been wrongfully accused of something sometime, and they’re rightfully terrified and outraged at the suggestion that the new standard should be presumed guilty until proven innocent.

But we’ve got at least three GOP senators who seem nervous. They’re used to being considered the “nice” Republicans, who are used to being praised in contrast to their colleagues, heralded as reasonable, and sensible, and centrist. They’re not used to being demonized in the press, and they’re certainly not used to activists yelling at them that they support rape.

Senators, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there is never going to be enough political cover to stop activists from yelling at you. The only thing that will stop the Left from hating you is total capitulation. There is another option of course, which is to teach them the hard lesson that everything they tried against you did not work in its intended goal, which is to get you to vote against Kavanaugh. All of this is to sway you, frighten you, intimidate you, and bend you to their will.

The future of American politics depends upon Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, Mazie Hirono, Richard Blumenthal, Jane Mayer, Emily Bazelon, Michael Avenatti, Brian Fallon, and all the rest saying after the confirmation vote and the 2018 midterms, “Wow, that didn’t work.”

Brett Kavanaugh, Scapegoat for Washington’s Sins

Why have Washington’s political and media classes responded to the allegations against Kavanaugh in the way that they have?

We’ve learned over the years that high-level, white-collar Washington, D.C. — including the realms of journalism, politics, academia, and law — includes a lot of creeps. Over the past year, the city’s professional class learned that a bunch of their colleagues, mentors, role models, and industry leaders were a bunch of sexual predators or otherwise sleazy. Sure, there were the politicians such as Al Franken, and Tim Murphy, and Blake Fahrenthold, and John Conyers Jr., and Trent Franks, and Patrick Meehan.

But the media world saw one establishment, center-left to left, often self-proclaimed-feminist man after another suddenly resigning or suffering some other career consequence after horrific stories and allegations of patterns of abuse: Mark Halperin. Charlie Rose. Leon Wieseltier, formerly an editor at The New Republic. Hamilton Fish, publisher of The New Republic. Michael Oreskes, a top editor at NPR. Glenn Thrush, political reporter for the New York Times. Garrison Keillor. In each case, peers and colleagues wondered — who knew? Who witnessed something odd or weird but pretended not to notice? Who turned a blind eye to the behavior? Did anybody ever confront these guys? If not, why didn’t anybody ever confront these guys?

Even if some members of Washington’s white-collar community never encountered sexual harassment or assault, a lot of people — mostly men, but also women — look back on their teen years and their early twenties and cringe. Hopefully their youthful indiscretions never got anywhere near sexual assault. But the college scene of past decades included lots of people getting hammered, having drunken hookups, sleeping with people and then regretting it, sleeping with people whose names they don’t remember and never really learned, dumb things said, dumb reactions to things said, and macho challenges to take it outside.

In the Old Testament, they describe the tradition of the scapegoat:

By the high priest placing his hands on the head of the goat and confessing the sins of Israel, the priest symbolized the transference of the people’s sin to the goat. Together the goat sacrificed and the living scapegoat showed that the goats were substituted for the people and that they bore the penalty of the sin.

The sacrificed goat perished and the scapegoat took away the impurities and sins to the wilderness.

Whatever you think of this theologically, it’s no doubt psychologically appealing to absolve ourselves of all of our own wrongdoings and transfer the blame to one animal or figure to represent all of those bad judgments, bad deeds, and selfish motives.

Kavanaugh is turning into an old-fashioned scapegoat. And he’s perfect, because he checks so many of the boxes: White. Male. Conservative. Raised in the safe, comfortable suburbs. Prep school. Football player. Ivy League. Fraternity. Well-connected in Washington’s legal scene. One of the authors of the Starr Report. Worked on the Florida recount in 2000. Worked for George W. Bush. Openly Catholic. Oh, and he might just be the deciding vote the next time there’s a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Here’s a man that the mostly progressive, Washington, D.C., media and political elites can denounce with relish. They hate the way he’s like them (comfortable upbringing, Ivy League education), and they hate the way he’s different from them (open traditional religious faith, worked for Republicans).

What we’re witnessing is a lot of people in their thirties, forties, and fifties engaging in a public ritual of castigating the behavior they regret from decades earlier.

But don’t worry, this period of neo-McCarthyist witch-trial-style moral panic won’t last forever. Concepts like privacy, the need for forgiveness, and the need to leave the past behind will be rediscovered the moment the public learns of the first embarrassing, career-trajectory-altering story about a real 2020 Democratic presidential contender. 

The Goalposts Shift, Again

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said on Monday:

The FBI has ample resources to do this within the one-week period requested by the members of the Judiciary Committee. No one is asking it take longer than a week, but everyone is asking it be done thoroughly and completely within that week.

The news, Tuesday:

The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said she thought a Friday vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh would not give senators enough time to evaluate the FBI probe of sexual misconduct allegations against him.

“Well, I believe it is. I believe it’s too soon,” Senator Dianne Feinstein told reporters at the Capitol.

ADDENDA: We’re asking for your help. I know, you don’t like being asked, and we don’t enjoy asking. But if this newsletter or other NR works have brought you some joy, insight, comfort, humor, or news in the past year, maybe you’ll feel it’s worthwhile to chip in a bit, to ensure it keeps going.

Our Charlie Cooke notices that Rachel Mitchell probably knew that there were claims Christine Blasey Ford had some experience with polygraphs, because “during last week’s Senate hearing, because she asked Ford two extremely specific questions on the subject of polygraphs.” Isn’t there an old saying that lawyers almost never ask a question that they don’t already know the answer?

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