Our D.C. Bureau Stakes are high in confirmation showdown
WASHINGTON — Whichever way it goes, dueling testimony from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, is likely to represent a sea change in the Supreme Court confirmation process as well as the overarching politics of it all.
The epic confrontation begins Monday with Kavanaugh’s return engagement before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He will reiterate his denial of charges leveled by Blasey Ford that as teenagers, Kavanaugh assaulted her while drunk, pinned her down on a bed and put his hand over her to mouth to stifle screaming.
Blasey Ford’s appearance was the subject of intense negotiations between her lawyers and Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. But whenever and however she appears, her testimony is likely to be graphic and detailed — undermining what had been relatively smooth sailing toward confirmation for the 53-year-old D.C. federal appeals court judge.
Whether it’s enough to derail Kavanaugh remains to be seen. But for Sen. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, and fellow Judiciary Committee Democrats, the allegations represent a path to scuttling Kavanaugh that eluded them during two days of intense Q&A during confirmation hearings.
“What we’re seeking to uncover is the truth and the facts through testimony and an investigation, without any real delay at all,” Blumenthal said.
Republicans “fear her testimony because they fear the truth,” he said.
For Republicans, the high-wire act they must perform to win Senate confirmation is full of peril. Already projected in most polls to lose control of the House, Republicans could lose the Senate as well if they appear to give Blasey Ford short shrift in order to ram Kavanaugh through.
But failure to win confirmation would alienate the Republican base of Trump-supporting conservatives and evangelicals, the foot soldiers Republicans need at the polls this November.
“It’s hard to see how Republicans end up winning either way,” said Ronald Schurin, political scientist at the University of Connecticut.
Out in the open
Given the #metoo-inspired public awakening of women to long-unaddressed abuse by powerful men, the charges against Kavanaugh could hardly have come at a worse time.
“Her allegations cannot be dismissed,” said Laura Cordes, executive director of the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, which coordinates nine crisis centers with 24/7 hotlines and counseling. “Sexual assault is a crime. It shouldn’t be diminished or minimized as some (high school) antic.”
Among the nine centers are ones located in Stamford, Milford, Torrington, Danbury and Bridgeport.
For those of a certain age and perhaps political conviction, the Kavanaugh vs. Blasey Ford confrontation evokes memories of Anita Hill in 1991 accusing then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of lewd sexually oriented statements while the two worked together. Though gripping and graphic, Hill’s testimony didn’t sink Thomas — who won confirmation on a Senate vote of 52-48.
But Thomas joined the court as a third solid conservative vote, with the remaining six justices — nominated by Republican and Democratic presidents — representing sort of a mushy mainstream of legal thinking.
The contrast to now may explain why the Kavanaugh battle is as intense as it is. With four solid conservatives and four solid liberals on the court, Kavanaugh’s confirmation likely would tip the court in a conservative direction. After his nomination, Blumenthal and other Senate liberals saw cherished precedents in jeopardy, including Roe v. Wade, which established abortion rights in 1973.
The very thought of a fifth conservative on the court mobilized Blumenthal and Sen. Chris Murphy, both of whom are feeling pressure from the Democratic base in Connecticut to deliver the goods — defeat of Kavanaugh.
Trump weighs in
On the Republican side, President Donald Trump has not been restrained in his finger-pointing.
Kavanaugh is “under assault by radical left-wing politicians who don’t want to know the answers, they just want to destroy and delay,” Trump tweeted Friday. “Facts don’t matter. I go through this with them every single day in D.C.”
In a separate tweet, Trump also suggested that if the assault was “as bad as she says,” she should bring forth copies of complaints filed with police “so that we can learn date, time, and place!”
Anti-Kavanaugh advocates counter that Blasey Ford was understandably reticent about coming forward and ultimately did so on her own.
“It’s a version of what we see every day,” said Cordes. “It is common for victims not to disclose, not to tell friends, not to report. Women are scrutinized, threatened and somehow blamed for acts of sexual violence perpetrated against them.”
Undergirding Democratic opposition is the bitter memory of Merrick Garland, nominated by then-President Barack Obama in March 2016 to fill the vacancy left by the abrupt death of the court’s leading conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia.
Had Merrick won confirmation, the court’s balance would have tipped 5-4 in a liberal direction. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., halted the nomination on a gamble that Republican victory in the 2016 presidential election would tip the high court’s balance back in a rightward direction.
McConnell’s strategy paid unexpected dividends when Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, against all odds. In the 20 months since Trump’s inauguration, the Senate confirmed one conservative, Neil Gorsuch, to the court and was on the verge of clinching a conservative majority until Blasey Ford stepped forward.
Richard Kay, law professor emeritus at UConn and a veteran observer of confirmation battles, said he doubts Democratic resistance to Kavanaugh is direct payback for what happened to Garland.
Nevertheless, “it wouldn’t be unnatural to seize on it,” he said. “It’s a human reaction.”
When the dust from this week’s cross-fire testimony settles, the fate of Kavanaugh’s confirmation will be in the hands of a few Red-state Democratic and moderate Republican senators.
The cloud surrounding Kavanaugh may give Democrats from states won in 2016 by Trump “more of an out to oppose Kavanaugh than would otherwise have been the case,” said Schurin.
In addition, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, both pro-choice and skittish about Kavanaugh on that issue, may turn against him. A combination of centrist Republicans and Democrats voting “no” likely would seal Kavanaugh’s confirmation tomb for good.