Who says politicians think only about the next election? In the battle over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the outcome each party respectively wants may hurt them in November’s elections.
But the stakes are so high that neither side can afford to focus on politics alone.
They got higher still on Wednesday when a new accuser, Julie Swetnick, said Kavanaugh was abusive to girls in high school and alleged he was present at a party where she was gang-raped. Kavanaugh vigorously denied the new charges, calling them “ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone.” But all 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said President Trump should either withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination or reopen his FBI background investigation.
To this point, Republican leaders have been trying to railroad Kavanaugh through. They’ve resisted any new investigations prior to Thursday’s scheduled public hearing where both he and Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, will testify.
Yet the defeat of Kavanaugh might be the best electoral outcome for Republicans, especially in pro-Trump states where Democratic incumbents are defending Senate seats.
The religious right is trying to keep Republican senators in line by arguing that failing to get Kavanaugh on the court would dispirit the GOP base. But the opposite may be true since these same leaders would surely mobilize their supporters to take revenge on Democrats were Kavanaugh defeated.
In the meantime, women are increasingly unhappy with the Kavanaugh pick and affronted by the skewed process Republicans have put in place. A Morning Consult/Politico poll released Wednesday found that even among Republican women, support for Kavanaugh’s confirmation had dropped by 18 points.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted Sept. 16-19 found that while men favored Kavanaugh’s nomination, 41 percent to 33 percent, women opposed it by 42 percent to 28 percent. For college educated women, the figures were 49 percent against Kavanaugh’s confirmation to only 28 percent in favor.
Democratic candidates, even in states Trump won, are already making what they see as the Republicans’ shabby treatment of Ford part of their campaigns.
“I am horrified that they are denigrating this doctor who has come forward to share her story in the light of the ugliest pressure in the world,” said Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee in Michigan’s tightly contested governor’s race, last Tuesday.
Battling to hold a seat in North Dakota, a state Trump carried by nearly 36 percentage points, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp condemned her opponent, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, for belittling Ford’s claims as “absurd.”
“These are teenagers who evidently were drunk, according to her own statement,” Cramer said. “They were drunk.” Heitkamp called Cramer’s comments “disturbing,” adding: “They don’t reflect the values of North Dakota.”
If Kavanaugh were put on the court in a party-line vote, the resulting fury would likely mobilize liberals and female swing voters as well.
Yet neither party is holding back. Republicans know that both evangelical and business-oriented conservatives badly want Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court — for the very reasons those to their left want him stopped.
And if the right believes the charges against the judge were cooked up at the last minute, liberals and many moderates find it astonishing that the GOP seems ready to “plow right through,” in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s now emblematic phrase, without an earnest inquiry into whether Kavanaugh is telling the truth.
Both parties have made electoral politics secondary because they know that history will weigh heavily in the coming days. In “Republican Ascendancy,” his classic book about the 1920s and early 1930s, the historian John D. Hicks noted that President Warren Harding got to make four Supreme Court appointments in his two and a half years in office. He named conservative former President William Howard Taft as Chief Justice, while Harding’s other three appointments “fell also to men of ability, albeit in each case to an extreme conservative.”
Two of the four were still on the court when conservative justices created a judicial crisis in the 1930s by rejecting one New Deal program after another; the other two were replaced by conservatives named by President Herbert Hoover and were also broadly part of the anti-New Deal block. FDR’s court-packing fight ensued.
Conservatives now see a comparable opportunity to affect jurisprudence for decades, even as liberals are aghast at the damage an activist right-wing court could do.
But with so many questions raised about Kavanaugh’s veracity, we can’t even get to ideology now. The best course would be to delay hearings and votes and take the time to re-examine Kavanaugh’s fitness for the court.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.