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The Washington Post, October 6 at 7:01 PM
‘Rock bottom’: Supreme Court fight reveals a country on the brink
Trump: Women ‘extremely happy’ about Kavanaugh confirmation
President Trump on Oct. 6 said he is “100 percent” certain that
Christine Blasey Ford named the wrong person in accusing Brett M.
Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
By Michael Scherer and Robert Costa
When Christine Blasey Ford accused Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual
assault last month, she did more than open herself up to unwanted
scrutiny. She held up a mirror to a country in crisis, revealing its
political players and embattled institutions not for what they claimed
to be but for what they really are.
The painful 20-day passion play that followed — staged in committee
rooms, Senate floor debates, hallway protests and millions of private
conversations — did little to alter the future makeup of the Supreme
Court. Now-Justice Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed Saturday by the
Senate, 50-48, in a vote that tracked expectations from the summer, with
only one Democrat and one Republican defecting from the party line.
But few of the players emerged from the process unchanged or
unblemished, underscoring the uncharted territory of deepening distrust
and polarization that now defines the American system. The events
further distanced the Senate Judiciary Committee from its nearly
forgotten bipartisan traditions and raised new questions about the
potential for the Supreme Court to maintain an independent authority
outside the maelstrom of politics.
Public denunciations of the continuing slide were frequent and
bipartisan, while political strategists and lawmakers raised new alarms
about the ominous implications. Even top Republicans were downbeat on
Saturday afternoon as the vote neared, cognizant of the cost of the
political and cultural reckoning that had been sparked alongside the
“There is a split culturally, spiritually and socially,” said Sen. John
Neely Kennedy (R-La.), who served on the Judiciary Committee and
supported Kavanaugh. “It has to do with the pace of change more than
anything else. There are some Americans who would like to see our
country change quickly.”
Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the second ranking Republican, attributed the
divisions in Washington to wounds inflicted by Trump’s election in 2016,
which he said “half the population can’t seem to get over.”
Should Democrats win the House majority, as now appears likely, there
will be a major push among some members to impeach both Kavanaugh from
the high court and Trump from the presidency, all as special counsel
Robert S. Mueller III is expected to finish parts of his work on the
federal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
That whirlwind on the horizon has leaders in both parties anxious about
how bitter national fights could escalate as Trump lashes out at his
opponents and the 2020 presidential race heats up later this year.
“The scar tissue will be thicker, the poison stronger, and the well of
distrust deeper,” said Republican strategist Michael Steel, a former
adviser to Speaker John A. Boehner.
Other Republicans see more fundamental cracks with historic connotations.
“This is the second most divided time in our history, and I’m worried
about the legitimacy of the court,” conservative commentator William J.
Bennett said, comparing the current moment to the breakdowns that
preceded the Civil War.
Protestors chant ‘chug!’ outside McConnell’s home
Protesters gathered outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s
home with cans of beer, chanting, “Chug!” to protest Supreme Court
nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (Blair Guild, Rhonda Colvin/The Washington Post)
“You have a growing number of liberal critics saying that Kavanaugh
would give the court two people credibly accused of sexual harassment,”
he continued, “and they’re now making noise to the effect that maybe the
court’s decisions will lack legitimacy.”
Democrats are beleaguered by Trump’s relentless combat, the White
House’s tight grip over the FBI’s probe of Ford’s allegations, and fear
that the institutional seams of the nation are fraying by the day as
they try to rally their voters ahead of November.
“There is a real question of whether we can all move forward amid these
cultural and human challenges and the raw partisanship,” Sen. Richard
Blumenthal (D-Conn.), said in an interview. “The damage will be enduring
to the court and the country.”
Under the pressure of these divisions, no public official has been able
to rise above the fray to chart a path forward toward greater national
unity and mutual understanding. Moral outrage has been accepted as the
basic currency of political debate, opponents regularly attack each
others’ motives along with their positions, and honest reflection, when
it cuts through the maw, is often dismissed as a sign of weakness or
Kavanaugh himself publicly dropped his own carefully constructed facade
as a nonpartisan and independent jurist, with an angry display in
prepared remarks on Sept. 27 that impugned the motives of Democratic
senators and included an unsubstantiated claim that his opponents were
seeking revenge against him “on behalf of the Clintons.” He later
backtracked from the outburst, as legal scholars warned the statements
could imperil his ability to rule on cases with partisan implications.
“I said a few things I should not have said,” Kavanaugh wrote in the
Wall Street Journal, though he did not say exactly which things he
President Trump similarly gave up on his initial effort to provide a
respectful platform for Ford’s story to be heard, reverting in the final
week to familiar — and false — personal attacks on her and her
supporters coupled with refrains about the danger the #MeToo movement
poses to men. “It’s a very scary time for young men in America when you
can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of,” he said.
His advisers praised his initial restraint as a sign of an unrecognized
self-control, while also heralding Trump’s subsequent approach to the
crisis. Once again, he sought to foment the anger of his supporters and
direct it at his political opponents.
“The president is breaking the norms, and Kavanaugh gets it,” said a
Trump adviser who was not authorized to speak publicly. “When everything
is coming at you, you don’t cry. You’ve got to be like Trump and roar
back at opponents.”
Democratic strategists tracking polls in Republican-leaning states where
Democratic senators are running for reelection said they were surprised
by the apparently galvanizing impact Trump’s offensive had on his base.
Brian Fallon, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton who ran Demand
Justice, a group opposing Kavanaugh, said the support for the judge
increased in these states after Trump changed tactics.
As a result, Fallon said he has begun to reevaluate one of the dominant
analyses of the 2016 election, which held that Trump was elected despite
evidence of his sexual misconduct against him, not because the resulting
controversy motivated his voters to the polls.
“I feel like there was a primal scream-type reaction from the
Republicans’ overly white, overly male base,” Fallon said of the
response to the Kavanaugh controversy. It may have been a repeat of the
reaction in the fall of 2016, when a recording from “Access Hollywood”
showed Trump boasting of groping women. “Very few people were willing to
grapple with the idea that it may have had a galvanizing effect that
further polarized the country,” Fallon said.
Without direct corroboration of the claims of sexual misconduct by
Kavanaugh made by Ford and other women, Americans from the halls of
Congress to the kitchen table were forced to fill in the blanks themselves.
Public polling showed they did so by overwhelmingly falling back on
their political identities, a tribal response that tracks other evidence
of increasing polarization. An August Pew poll found 78 percent of
Americans say Democrats and Republicans disagree not only on “plans and
policies” but on “basic facts.”
After Ford and Kavanaugh had testified before the Senate about the
alleged high school assault, 86 percent of Democrats told Quinnipiac
pollsters they believed her account, compared with 84 percent of
Republicans who said they believed Kavanaugh. Women, who increasingly
identify with the Democratic Party, were more likely than men to side
“Republicans looked at it and saw two individuals whose competing
credibilities should have determined if a qualified constitutionalist
should be denied a seat on the Supreme Court,” said Alex Castellanos, a
GOP political consultant. “Democrats looked at it and saw women’s long
journey to independence and to freedom from the constraints of their
Those differences are likely to provide significant support this fall
for Democratic House candidates, who have clear opportunities to pick up
Republican seats in more moderate rural and suburban districts where
college-educated women hold sway.
Democrats privately argued that Kavanaugh’s success could provide
benefits at the ballot box. “I think anger lasts a lot longer than
satisfaction as far as a voting motivator,” said a senior Senate staff
member, who requested anonymity to discuss the politics of the nomination.
Republicans, who are hopeful the controversy could help them in
Republican-leaning Senate contests, said they also thought the effect on
Democratic turnout would be minimized by the fact that these same voters
were already far more enthusiastic to vote in the midterms than Trump’s
“Republicans should go into every red state and confront Democrats and
ask, ‘Will you commit to not impeach Kavanaugh?’” former Republican
House Speaker Newt Gingrich said. “Keep them on defense. Remind people
of how rabid these people are.”
Conservative activists, meanwhile, have celebrated the last weeks, both
as a victory in the war for direction of the high court and an effort to
reframe the #MeToo effort as an overreaching assault on men, some of
whom are wrongly accused.
“We have been winning little victories with regulation. This is the big
win,” Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said. “We are
cutting down the forest, not the trees.”
He said Kavanaugh’s position on the high court would weaken the
Democratic Party by further rolling back legal precedent that empowered
labor unions, a major source of funding for the left.
On Fox News — which is watched daily by Trump and whose former executive
Bill Shine currently serves as the president’s deputy chief of staff —
rhetoric has gone from partisan to biblical about the stakes.
“Crucifixion was an important event because it was designed to establish
a wall between justice and mob rule — Christ died so that the mob
wouldn’t survive,” Fox News anchor Greg Gutfeld said this week, adding
that with the Kavanaugh nomination, Democrats have “decided to crucify
someone once again.”
Grievances about gender and race on the network have been prevalent. A
prime time host, Laura Ingraham, tweeted that the focus on the lack of
corroborating evidence behind Ford’s accusation could herald “the
“This is the world in which we now live in, in which white men are
presumed guilty because they are white men, because they are supposedly
in a position of privilege,” writer and podcaster Ben Shapiro said on
Such rhetoric, which has been countered on the left with the
#BelieveWomen hashtag and angry confrontations at the U.S. Capitol,
frames the complex debate over the prevalent problem of sexual assault
as a binary choice, with both sides casting themselves as victims of
bigoted opponents operating in bad faith. As a result, the public space
for reaching common ground, a basic starting point for a functioning
democracy, has diminished.
On Capitol Hill, the planned overhaul of harassment rules in Congress
remains stalled. Even the proper response to evidence of misconduct is
now a subject to debate. Then-Democratic senator Al Franken (Minn.)
resigned in January following allegations of misconduct, including a
photograph of him groping at the chest of a sleeping woman, and a bevy
of House members, both Republicans and Democrats, have also left office
Trump ridiculed Franken this week at a rally in Minnesota, saying he
folded “like a wet rag” and was “wacky.”
“One can only hope that the Kavanaugh nomination is where the process
has finally hit rock bottom,” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said
Friday, when she announced her decision to support the judge, despite
finding the testimony of Ford to be “sincere, painful and compelling.”
She was repeating a phrase — “rock bottom” — that Judiciary Committee
Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) had used a day earlier as he
angrily lambasted the press for bias he believed it had shown in its
reporting on Kavanaugh, by choosing to interview more supporters of Ford
As he made his way into the chamber Saturday, retiring Sen. Jeff Flake
(R-Ariz.) repeated the sentiment. When asked why he and others kept
using that phrase, Flake grimaced and said, “Because it feels like we
are at the bottom.”
What no one could offer was a credible path up out of the abyss.
Michael Scherer is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.
He was previously the Washington bureau chief for Time magazine, where
he also served as the White House correspondent. Before joining Time, he
was the Washington correspondent for Salon.com. Follow
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