Republicans See Kavanaugh and the Court as Worth the Risk
Posted September 28, 2018 1:03 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — The confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh moved into its bitter end game Friday, and it was Kavanaugh himself who may have best summed up the reason he was on the verge of joining the Supreme Court despite a toxic struggle over his nomination.
“As we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around,” Kavanaugh declared Thursday in one of several biting references to the brute force politics he is quite familiar with from his own time in the White House and the partisan arena.
That knowing observation points to one reason Republicans are so intent on advancing Kavanaugh that they will stay in session this weekend despite furious Democratic objections that Republicans are rushing, and brushing aside credible accusations of sexual assault against him.
Republicans know this may be their last, best opportunity to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation. They are determined to seize it despite evident political risk.
“Frankly we have a reached a point where it is time to end this circus,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, demanded Friday at a meeting of the divided Judiciary Committee. “It’s time to vote.”
Republicans are painfully aware that should Kavanaugh stall and Democrats somehow take back the Senate in an election just six weeks away, Republicans could lose a historic opportunity to remake the high court because Democrats could block any nomination by President Donald Trump. Democrats know they could block any Trump nominee for months or even years because Republicans did so to Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee in 2016, and appeared to pay little political price for it. In fact, it worked to their benefit.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who rocked Thursday’s hearing and shifted the course of the Kavanaugh nomination with a scorching assault on Democrats, acknowledged Republican concern about the Democratic intentions.
“What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020,” Graham charged, referring to the next presidential election. “You want this seat? I hope you never get it.”
The 2016 fight over Obama’s nominee is unanimously seen as benefiting Republicans in that year’s elections. By holding open the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, provided a strong election-year motivation for conservative voters who ended up supporting Trump so he could fill the seat instead of Hillary Clinton. Trump won and Republicans held the Senate majority despite their own concerns that they might lose it.
But the political implications of moving ahead on Kavanaugh with such charged questions swirling around him could play out differently in the midterm elections in November. Republicans are already facing a significant gender gap in public polling, and a decision to confirm Kavanaugh despite the compelling testimony of Christine Blasey Ford that he assaulted her at a teenage gathering could exacerbate their struggle with women voters.
Despite a significant disadvantage in the Senate electoral map, Democrats could capitalize on that advantage to put control of the Senate within reach while also helping the party in its more likely push to gain control of the House.
Republicans are aware of this possibility. But they — and particularly their leader McConnell — see the court as the main prize, one worth a political gamble. McConnell has proudly proclaimed the decision to hold open the Scalia seat as one of his greatest accomplishments, and he has been devoted to working hand-in-hand with the White House to fill scores of federal court vacancies.
With federal courts having the last word on so many politically charged issues such as health care, immigration, the environment and executive branch power, Republicans are eager to place conservative-minded judges on the bench while they are certain they can.
At the same time, Senate Republicans are also worried that a failure to get Kavanaugh on the court could spur a backlash among conservative voters, leading them to stay home in November and put the Republican majority at risk from its own supporters. Kavanaugh is well versed in the power politics surrounding federal judgeships. He was part of the team in the administration of President George W. Bush who selected and worked with judicial nominees during years of intense clashes with Democrats who sought to block many candidates for the federal appeals courts.
In one of his many political references Thursday, Kavanaugh said he had been subjected to a “good old-fashioned attempt at Borking” — referring to the failed 1987 Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork that is still seared in the minds of conservatives who feel their champion was unfairly attacked by Democrats.
Democrats on Friday said that Kavanaugh’s fiery rebuttal of the accusations against him gave them even greater concern that he would be an ideologue on the bench.
“His partisan screed yesterday was telling,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the senior Democrat on the panel, said Kavanaugh had been belligerent and did not exhibit the impartiality, fairness or even-handedness typically expected in a nominee for the high court.
“Judge Kavanaugh used as much political rhetoric as my Republican colleagues, and what’s more, he went on the attack,” she said.
Republicans said he had a right to do so given what he has endured. They are not slowing down in advancing the nomination. The door is open to a clear conservative majority on the high court, and they intend to walk through it before what goes around comes around again.