WASHINGTON - Watching Christine Blasey Ford’s harrowing testimony, it seemed clear that either Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination goes down or he will take the entire Republican Party with him.
Women of all political persuasions - and a hell of a lot of men - will be remembering this hearing when they go to the polls in 2018 and 2020. And while it is dangerous to overexaggerate the political influence of a single event in our hyper-partisan times, Thursday’s testimony has the potential to be seismic.
It wasn’t even what Ford said - though her repeated recollections of Kavanaugh laughing during the alleged sexual attack were haunting - so much as her mixture of composure and emotion as she said it. This was a wrenching event in her life and she had no hesitation in testifying that Brett Kavanaugh was one her two sexual assailants.
Every strategic decision that the Senate Judiciary Republicans made accentuated the power of her testimony. Normally, a she-said-he-said confrontation over factual events leaves everyone with an open mind having doubts about the truth. That obviously was the GOP theory in refusing to allow any other witnesses other than Ford and Kavanaugh.
But it backfired when Ford seemed so compellingly honest, so desperate to be helpful, so certain of the core of her accusations. Any other witness - even Kavanaugh’s accused wingman Mark Judge - would have distracted from the clarity of Ford’s words.
What also backfired was the decision by the timorous all-male committee Republicans to farm out the questioning to Arizona sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell. This meant that virtually the only Republican senator that Americans heard during Ford’s entire testimony was Iowa octogenarian Chuck Grassley, who will never be mistaken for Mr. Empathy.
The problem with Mitchell’s fact-based questions, which avoided provoking emotional responses from Ford, was that they buttressed a series of lawyerly points that are primarily of interest to Fox News conspiracy theorists. For example, using a map of the D.C. area, Mitchell tried to get Ford to confirm that someone must have driven to and from the party in question - and, by implication, why hasn’t that mystery driver come forward?
Even more farcical were Mitchell’s laborious efforts to establish that despite her “fear of flying,” Ford did travel by airplane to the hearing and to a family vacation in Delaware this summer.
In theory, this was designed to set up a GOP talking point about the excuse Ford’s lawyers used to delay the hearing. But the questioning about her “fear of flying” became so elaborate that I began wondering whether this entire hearing was not designed to set up a bizarre Kavanaugh defense based on the Erica Jong novel.
If Brett Kavanaugh had any sense of gratitude to the Republican Party that he so loyally served during the Kenneth Starr investigation, the Bush-versus-Gore 2000 recount and in the George W. Bush White House, he would have withdrawn his nomination at the end of Ford’s testimony.
Instead, Kavanaugh decided to throw any judicial restraint aside - and live up to Donald Trump’s image of a high-energy Supreme Court justice. Shouting, fighting back tears, proclaiming his innocence and resorting to pathos - claiming that because of the Democrats, “I may never be able to coach (basketball) again” - he came across as a desperate man.
But it was impossible to tell if this was the desperation of an innocent man on the way to the guillotine or the desperation of a lifelong Washington careerist seeing his Supreme Court ambitions wither because of events that he has repressed since the 1980s.
Displaying a volcanic temperament, Kavanaugh came across as the most politically partisan jurist since LBJ crony Abe Fortas served on the Supreme Court in the 1960s. But Fortas put a veil of decency over his political maneuverings even as he funneled privileged information to Lyndon Johnson in the White House.
In his opening statement, Kavanaugh denounced “a frenzy on the left” and portrayed himself as the blameless victim of “a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election.” Just for good measure, Kavanaugh also wailed about those working for “revenge on behalf of the Clintons and million of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.”
Forget the sexual allegations for a moment. Kavanaugh’s own words would make him incapable of offering a fair judgment - either on the Supreme Court or if he returns to the D.C. Court of Appeals - in any case where a Democrat or a left-of-center outside group is challenging the Trump administration or a Republican.
Kavanaugh - echoing Lindsey Graham - also warned that in politics “what goes around comes around.”
Indeed, it does. Kavanaugh after all, when working for Kenneth Starr, had a no-holds-approach to asking sexual questions of the president. And Graham, it should be remembered, was one the House impeachment managers for the Senate trial of Bill Clinton in 1999.
As the questioning of the combative Kavanaugh (who followed gender equality by interrupting male and female Democratic senators alike) dragged into the early evening, small emblematic moments became lost amid the partisan frenzy. But it did seem telling when Orrin Hatch, inadvertently harking back to Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” said in defense of Kavanaugh: “This man is not a monster.”
It is true that the allegations against Kavanaugh are monstrous. And GOP efforts by the likes of Ben Sasse to dismiss Ford as a “victim” of a heartless cabal by Democrats make her anguish and the courage of her testimony seem like a footnote to Judge Kavanaugh’s true suffering.
By egging Kavanaugh on from the White House, Trump is trying to extend his contempt for fair-minded justice to the Supreme Court. Whether Trump succeeds depends on the willingness of wavering senators like Jeff Flake, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins to save the Republicans from their own worst instincts.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.