Brett Kavanaugh may have been accused of sexual assault, but Republicans care more about politics than decency

The onus is now on Republicans to make the hard choice that may upset their base, which they are so much more loath than Democrats to do

Jordan Zakarin
Monday 17 September 2018 16:57 BST
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh delivers opening statement

When Donald Trump chose Brett Kavanaugh to be his second Supreme Court nominee, it seemed a foregone conclusion that despite bitter Democratic protests, he would be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Now Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual assault, and even though he has denied the claim, his ascension to the United States’ highest court looks a little bit less certain – that is, if you’re willing to believe that this time, finally, a few GOP “moderates” are actually willing to buck the party.

Kavanaugh’s nomination hearings were rife with acrimony, protestors, and loud dissent from Democrats. They were the most contentious hearings since Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, and now Kavanaugh’s nomination has become all the more reminiscent of the 1991 brawl, which was rocked by Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Thomas. On Sunday, the woman who first anonymously accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault in high school came forward, adding detail where there was once just innuendo. In an interview published in the Washington Post on Sunday, Christine Blasey Ford accuses a then drunken 17-year-old Kavanaugh of trapping her in a room with one of his friends, groping her body and trying to forcibly remove her bathing suit. When she screamed, she said he allegedly covered her mouth with his hands and she feared for her life.

When senators were made aware last week of a letter Ford wrote this summer to her congressional representative, the GOP largely waved it off. Kavanaugh "categorically and unequivocally" denied the allegations, and Republicans suggested it was a last-ditch attempt to delay the inevitable appointment. And besides, it went without saying that the Republican Party is controlled by Donald Trump, who himself has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault and harassment – which he has denied – as well as saying on those infamous Access Hollywood tapes that he was allowed as a “star” to grab women by their genitals.

Before Ford came forward, the senate judiciary committee chair, senator Charles Grassley, gathered a whopping 65 women that Kavanaugh knew during his teenage years to sign a letter saying that he was a good, clean-cut kid back then. But Ford’s public accusations — backed by polygraph tests and old psychiatrist notes — renders that letter less powerful.

As a widely published professor at Palo Alto University in consortium with Stanford, Ford lived a successful, comfortable life. Now, she steps into the middle of a heated partisan civil war, opening herself up to a unique kind of hell. Ford immediately became a proxy battle for an America still grappling with the ongoing fallout of the #MeToo movement, which has both emboldened women and turned some men more defensive and nasty than ever.

Since last fall, seven members of Congress have been forced out of office over accusations by women. Roy Moore, the hardline conservative who put up gigantic 10 Commandment tablets on the lawn of the Alabama Supreme Court, lost his Senate race after a number of women accused him of having more-than-inappropriate relationships with them as minors. Moore denied these claims. So there has now been somewhat of a precedent set in Washington. The question becomes whether Republicans, who have dreamed of a permanently conservative Supreme Court for so long, will be willing to ignore the increasing cost of following that dream in this high stakes situation.

Republicans still have the majority and, if they stick together, can confirm Kavanaugh by the slimmest of margins. Maine Senator Susan Collins, the focus of many progressive activists, had seemed likely to vote to confirm Kavanaugh after he gave her some lip service about federal abortion law Roe v Wade being “established precedent.” But now, it should in theory be harder for her and her fellow “moderate,” Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, to vote for Kavanaugh, at least without some extra scrutiny — after all, they did call for Minnesota Senator Al Franken’s resignation after some sleazy photos of him surfaced last year.

When Ford came forward, Grassley tried to head off any public hearings with some conference call opportunities for Judiciary Committee members, but Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein shot that down. And retiring Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who has racked up retweets by speaking out against Trump while still largely voting with him, has said he’s not comfortable voting for Kavanaugh out of committee until he hears more from Ford. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, another largely limp anti-Trump Republican voice retiring this year, also wants to hear more. And Ford, according to her lawyer on Good Morning America, is willing to testify for the Senate.

Republicans tried to rush through Kavanaugh’s confirmation without allowing Democrats access to over 90 per cent of his extensive paper trail, accumulated largely during his time working high up in the George W Bush administration. They were perhaps afraid of what might be found; just the release of a few documents suggested that Kavanaugh was lying under oath about his Bush-era activities back during federal court confirmation hearings in 2006. If the confirmation does get delayed, a whole lot more compromising material could come out as the National Archives begins to finally release his papers.

Further complicating matters are the November midterm elections. Before this, it was suggested that several endangered red state Democrats up for re-election could vote to confirm Kavanaugh; now the onus is on Republicans to make the hard choice that may upset their base, which Republicans are so much more loath than Democrats to do.

All these pain points depend on whether Republicans are willing to take a stand against a president they have largely only symbolically opposed. They’ve gone this far with Trump, and with the GOP’s future up in the air, why not seal the Supreme Court majority?

For Republicans, it’s as much a tactical question as a moral one — and thus far, pure politics has trounced decency. With 52 potential votes, they can lose two votes and still confirm Kavanaugh. The chances that three Republicans in this era work up the moral courage to take a stand against their rabid base, financiers and the massive machinery of conservative opinion, right now feels like a long shot.

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