Bad optics threaten Kavanaugh
Senate Republicans have a problem with optics, and it can’t be fixed with contact lenses or glasses. “Optics” is a political term that describes how the appearance of something can overwhelm the substance of it. For example, Donald Trump tossing paper towels to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico just looks tone-deaf, no matter what he intended.
With the wavering nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the optics are similarly cloudy.
We’re talking a replay of the Anita Hill confrontation, this time when the 12 white male Republicans on the Judiciary Committee face off against Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who says Kavanaugh attacked her when both were teens.
These senators stand a huge chance of looking like guys who don’t get it while a woman tries to convey the pain of sexual assault. At a time when #MeToo sensitivity is peaking everywhere else in America. Their hashtag might end up #StopBeingSoHystericalHoney
Many or all of those Republican men might grasp the way women feel about rape or sexual harassment. But the very nature of these Senate hearings leads to sharp exchanges and tough questioning.
If that happens this week, the GOP men will invariably come off as bullies. If Ford becomes distraught at any point or her testimony has a dramatic moment, the optics will be even worse for Kavanaugh and his supporters.
The one way that the Senate Republicans could avoid this looming debacle is appointing a female lawyer or staffer to present their questions to Ford. If they are silent and respectful, the focus could shift back to where it should be — the testimony of Ford and Kavanaugh, and which one sounds more believable.
That’s never been done at a committee hearing before, and Democrats on the panel are sure to raise procedural objections. But it’s the only way the Republicans can avoid a confrontation they have little chance of winning.
What’s likely is a stalemate of sorts: Ford presenting powerful testimony about what she says happened to her. And Kavanaugh forcefully denying he did any such thing.
Sorting through that will not be easy. In the end, this will come down to a few female Republican senators, like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. If Ford is unpersuasive or Kavanaugh comes off particularly well, they’ll stick with him, and his nomination can still squeeze by without any Democratic support.
Prior to Ford’s claims, Kavanaugh would have gotten a few votes from Democratic senators up for re-election in red states who couldn’t afford to look too cozy to Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi.
That won’t happen now; Ford gives credible cover to any Democrat who wants to oppose Kavanaugh.
The 51 Senate Republicans can afford one defection, but that’s it. We’ll find out next week if Kavanaugh can change the Supreme Court for a generation, or if Democrats will stave off that prospect until after the midterms, when they have a slim chance of taking the Senate and blocking Trump’s takeover.
Many words will be spoken. Many claims will be made. They will be secondary this week to the gut feeling that Ford has a compelling story — or not. Focus on the optics, because they will probably matter more than anything.
Thomas Taschinger is the editorial page editor of The Beaumont Enterprise. Follow him on Twitter at @PoliticalTom