Why Republicans Are Fighting so Hard for Brett Kavanaugh


AP Photo/Alex Brandon

President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, listens to a question as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill.

In an alternate universe, the White House, with the strong support of Republicans on Capitol Hill and everywhere else, has said to Brett Kavanaugh, "We're sorry, Brett, but the accusation that you attempted to rape Christine Blasey Ford when you were both teenagers has made it impossible to proceed with your nomination to the Supreme Court. You're going to have to step aside in favor of another candidate."

That's not what happening in this universe, however. And why not?

We sometimes believe that people who work in politics are infinitely cynical, that there's nothing they won't do for political advantage and no goal that takes precedence over winning. While that may be true of a figure here or there (Mitch McConnell comes to mind), both parties regularly do politically questionable or even foolhardy things, because they think they're in the right. Of course they'll try to minimize the political damage, but even in the face of danger they will forge headlong into near-certain defeat if what's at stake is important enough to them.

For instance, in every election Democrats charge Republicans with caring only about the welfare of the rich, an attack that seldom fails to be effective, and yet whenever Republicans gain power the first thing they do is cut taxes on the rich. They know it comes with political risk, but it's so desperately important to them that they do it anyway.  

So why is the GOP so hell-bent on getting Brett Kavanaugh on the court? Is he a jurist of such unique brilliance, of such stunning insight, of such great persuasive power that he and only he can bring about the legal revolution they crave?

No, he is not. He satisfies their key criteria—a doctrinaire conservative with unquestioned loyalty to the GOP, guaranteed to rule in favor of the party's agenda, and young enough to stay on the court for decades—but so do dozens of others who could take his place.

So why not replace him? Part of it is certainly that pulling Kavanaugh's nomination would be a "win" for the other side, and in an era of negative partisanship when conservatives will burn their own sneakers to own the libs, anything that would make Democrats pleased is horrifying to them. They imagine a bunch of liberals celebrating the end of Kavanaugh's nomination and recoil in disgust. To a degree you might think of that as a practical consideration, since for the last decade the GOP has lived in terror of its own base, which demands maximal aggression toward Democrats at all times. But as I argued here, the real problem Republicans face this November isn't that their own voters may grow apathetic and stay home, it's that Democratic voters will become more and more angry and engaged.

But more than that, to defend Kavanaugh is to defend a certain order to the world. It's one where a man like him—wealthy parents, prep school education, on to Yale, working for Ken Starr and George W. Bush, then on to a judgeship in preparation for his ascent to the high court—is the rightful wielder of power and influence. It's one where women know how they're supposed to act and to whom they're supposed to defer. And if they're sexually assaulted, they're supposed to just deal with it. As evangelical leader Franklin Graham said, "Well, there wasn't a crime that was committed. These are two teenagers, and it's obvious that she said no and he respected it and walked away."

OK, so maybe that's not actually what she says happened. But what's the alternative to dismissing Ford? To harm the career of so deserving a man as Brett Kavanaugh? What has the world come to?

That fear is why, for instance, Representative Steve King lamented that squadrons of vengeful women armed with false accusations will now be ready to shoot down any Supreme Court nominee unfortunate enough to carry a Y chromosome. "How can you disprove something like that?" King asked plaintively. "Which means, if that's the new standard, no man will ever qualify for the Supreme Court again." Indeed, things have already gotten out of hand—of the 113 Supreme Court justices we've had since 1789, a mere 109 have been men!

Or why this group of Republican women told CNN that Ford is probably a liar, and even if she isn't, so what? "We're talking about a 17-year-old boy in high school with testosterone running high," said one. "Tell me, what boy hasn't done this in high school?" That's a sentiment we've found everywhere: Boys will be boys. Who didn't attempt to rape someone when they were a teenager, amirite? As one GOP lawyer with ties to the White House told Politico, "If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried." I can certainly think of one man who should be worried, though the fact that a dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct and he is on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women didn't prevent him from becoming president of the United States.

But we are now called to give sensitive consideration to men's fear that the women they thought they were free to use as they wished might now have the power to point a finger of accusation toward the top of the ladder, and be taken seriously. This must be stopped before things really get out of hand.

So Republicans are making their stand with Brett Kavanaugh, even in the face of grave political danger. That danger is not that the hearings this week to hear Christine Ford's charges will prove that Kavanaugh is the kind of man, or at least was the kind of teenager, who covers women's mouths to muffle their screams while he attempts to remove their clothes. Definitive proof, at this late date, will not be possible to obtain, no matter how credible Ford's testimony. There will always be enough ambiguity for Republicans to say that they believe him, or at the very least that since we can't know for sure he must be elevated to the Supreme Court.

No, the danger lies in women's anger and what it will do to the GOP, not just in this November's election but beyond. Let's not forget that even before Kavanaugh was nominated to the court, record numbers of women, mostly Democrats, were running for office this year. The gender gap is becoming a chasm; in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, Democrats led on the question of whether respondents planned to vote for a Democrat or Republican for Congress by one point among men, but by 25 points among women. Let's also not forget that when Brett Kavanaugh (or whoever replaces him) gets to the Supreme Court, one of the first orders of business for the newly empowered conservative majority will be to take away women's reproductive rights, either by overturning Roe v. Wade outright or gutting it to the point where it continues to exist in name only.

At the heart of it all, of course, lies Donald Trump, whose misogyny knows no bounds. "The antipathy to Trump from women—college-educated, white, suburban women—transcends anything I've ever seen in politics," said veteran GOP consultant Alex Castellanos recently.

As Republicans defend Brett Kavanaugh, they only make their political problem more acute. Every new attack on Ford and defense of the nominee only pours gasoline on the fire of women's rage at this president and this party. Republicans aren't blind to the problem, which is why they suggested they might bring in a female outside counsel to conduct the questioning so as to avoid the spectacle of 11 men interrogating her.

Even if they do that, something tells me that women, and the men who think the patriarchal system could use some updating, won't be fooled either way. But Republicans will fight this battle for Kavanaugh's sake, and for the sake of all he represents. No matter the cost.

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