At next Kavanaugh hearing, the stakes are higher than a Supreme Court seat

Analysis: The "Me Too" movement, President Donald Trump, the two political parties, ambitious lawmakers and the institution of the Senate — they've all got something big on the line.
by Jonathan Allen /  / Updated 

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WASHINGTON — There was already a lot at stake — a Supreme Court seat — in Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation fight.

But now that Christine Blasey Ford has come forward to accuse the judge of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school — and now that the Senate has scheduled an additional hearing Monday so she and Kavanaugh can testify publicly, if she accepts the invitation — there's so much more on the line for the "Me Too" movement, President Donald Trump, the two political parties, ambitious lawmakers and the institution of the Senate.

"What’s at stake is the question of how much things have changed, both since the #MeToo movement gained steam, and since 1991, when Anita Hill testified at the hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas," Jill Filipovic, a feminist author and attorney, said in an e-mail. "It’s not just a question of whether we believe women; it’s about whether those in the highest echelons of power even let them speak freely and fully, and whether we weigh women’s words equally to men’s. If Ford is attacked, silenced or mistreated, as Hill was, I imagine women’s rage will carry over to the ballot box in November.”

Kavanaugh, who has been holed up at the White House for the last two days in an effort to save his nomination, has strenuously denied Ford's allegation and told Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that he wasn't at any party like the one described, even though Ford hasn't provided specifics as to its date, time or location.

This is one of the rare moments in American politics when the result of a political battle truly appears up in the air. And because so many players see such risk — and such opportunity — in a spectacular Senate showdown, a public hearing promises to be packed with as much drama as Kavanaugh's first round of testimony lacked.

"The stakes are tremendously high," said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "It drills down much to the detriment of Republicans on the narrative about how the party responds to issues that affect women, and particularly those women who are arguably victims of bad male behavior."

Indeed, Republican campaign strategists have to worry that, win or lose, the stain of the allegation — which Kavanaugh denies — could harm them with the cohort of suburban women who have been drifting away from the party. And Democrats have to be concerned about a backlash among Republican base voters.

But Leah Litman, an assistant professor of law who has written about the Me Too movement, said that it's a lose-lose for Congress.

"I don’t think that a messed-up hearing will jeopardize Me Too," she said in a telephone interview. "If anything, it will prove why it is necessary. A hearing that is done well could help #MeToo by showing that we hear women and we are going to do better than what happened in 1991."

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., risk the reaction of conservative voters if their hand-picked choice to clear the Senate fails this highest-of-profile hearings and withdraws or is defeated. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are betting that their hard-line demands will be vindicated by the story that Ford has to tell as Republicans accuse them of politicizing the nomination process.

"Senator Feinstein ... has had this information for many weeks and deprived her colleagues of the information necessary to do our jobs," Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said.

The most politically ambitious senators on the Judiciary Committee — Democrats Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, Democrats who are eyeing 2020 presidential campaigns; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is locked in a tight re-election campaign and ran for president in 2016; and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who appears to be building a date-unspecified presidential run — could have star turns or trip themselves up as they question the witnesses.

Both Harris and Booker took criticism for their performances in earlier hearings, when Booker called attention to himself by releasing "committee confidential" documents publicly and Harris intimated, without evidence, that Kavanaugh had discussed special counsel Robert Mueller's probe with other lawyers.

Cruz is facing a serious bid by Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke to unseat him.

These senators could help themselves in the national spotlight of a must-watch hearing, but they wouldn't have the ability to control the atmosphere or the other players — making accusations of grandstanding a perilous proposition.

Janet Mullins Grissom, a former aide to McConnell and Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., said the Senate is suffering because of a years-long breakdown of norms and civility — and she pins the blame for the latest turn on Feinstein, because she could have brought up the letter before the Judiciary Committee was set to vote on Kavanaugh.

"Process is important, due process is important, shame on Dianne Feinstein for the way she did this," Grissom said. "This whole decline of the process and decorum is really, really hurting the Senate, and it breaks my heart."

She added that the "hijacking" of the Kavanaugh nomination by Democrats at the last minute "doesn’t do the [Me Too] movement any good, and it certainly doesn’t do either one of these people any good."

Of course, it's possible the high-stakes hearing won't happen at all.

Republican senators, who originally wanted to avoid a public airing of the charge and denial, could begin dropping hints to the White House that they would prefer to see the nomination withdrawn and a new candidate selected. Or Ford could decide she doesn't want to testify — putting Senate Republicans in the unenviable position of either compelling her appearance to recount a traumatic story or voting without her testimony.

"I am not convinced Kavanaugh can survive much longer," said Jim Manley, who was an aide to then-Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. "He may want to battle it out, but I am not convinced Senate Republicans want to go through with the circus that is sure to come next Monday."

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