As the vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh remains in limbo after two days of rage in the Senate, it now seems fairly obvious that previous assertions that Democrats and Republicans in Washington resemble a dysfunctional family are far off the mark.
Beyond all the grandstanding and preening, these people despise each other.
And the result is a federal government – all three branches – that is incapable of functioning in anything close to a competent, professional manner.
The gridlocked Congress has suffered from an awful reputation for several years, based on lowly approval ratings in polls. The executive branch led by the Trump White House has suffered through the chaos of resignations, indictments and long-unfilled vacancies, plus the back-stabbing atmosphere described in Bob Woodward’s book, “Fear.”
Now, the third branch, the judiciary, is tangled in this hyper-partisan mess. At a time when Supreme Court rulings, and the nominating process for justices, already seemed more political than judicial, the ugly Senate moments televised over the past 24 hours for the nation’s polarized electorate to drink in may have fully transformed the high court into just another arena for fights between Republicans and Democrats in every facet of American life.
In a manner of 20 months, we have reached a point where all three branches seem to be delegitimized by intense partisan rancor. Neither party can escape blame as they fan the flames.
The Senate agreement, with Trump’s blessing, calling for a 1-week FBI investigation of past sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh certainly does not signal a truce on Capitol Hill.
During Thursday morning’s Senate Judiciary hearing, Kavanaugh, the president’s nominee, appeared to be on the ropes after the woman accusing him of attempted rape in 1982 appeared as a credible witness worthy of empathy. In the afternoon, Kavanaugh came out swinging and revived his chances, as enraged Republican senators who went from gloom to glee cheered him on.
The visceral passions on display included a rant by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who called the accusations against Kavanaugh by Ford and two other accusers on the sidelines a “sham,” a power play by the Democrats. “You’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics. You want this seat? I hope you never get it,” Graham angrily told committee Democrats
‘You can’t handle the truth’
On the Democratic side, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois demonstrated that the fury was palpable on both sides of the aisle. Durbin turned the hearing into a Hollywood-style drama, not unlike the famous courtroom scene from “A Few Good Men.”
When Durbin insisted that Kavanaugh call for an FBI investigation of all allegations against him, the senator said: “I want to know what you are going to do.”
Kavanaugh responded: “I’m telling the truth.”
Durbin countered that Kavanaugh could pave the way toward clearing up all the controversy by endorsing an investigation. “I want to know what you are going to do,” he repeated.
Kavanaugh responded: “I’m innocent, I’m innocent of this charge.” That was followed by a long pause, and no conclusion reached.
In today’s committee session, we witnessed yet another turnaround as a botched, bizarre attempt by some senators at a bit of compromise ended in confusion. The committee voted 11-10 to forward the Kavanaugh nomination. But retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona made his “yes” vote contingent on honoring the Democrats’ demand for a quick but thorough FBI investigation of the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh.
The deal was worked out during a recess yet, when the vote was completed in public session, it became clear that the senators were not quite sure what they had agreed upon. In the middle of an awkward discussion among several committee members about what had just taken place, committee Chairman Charles Grassley suddenly declared that a 2-hour time limit had been reached and he gaveled the session to a close.
Beyond the usual stumbling-and-bumbling throughout the Kavanaugh hearings by Grassley, a 37-year Republican veteran of Congress from Iowa, his counterpart, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, suffered a hit in the way she handled the matter of Ford coming forward, from start to finish.
FBI in the crosshairs again
To be sure, the FBI investigation, with a coveted Supreme Court seat on the line, will have a dramatic effect on another facet of the federal government that is supposed to operate above partisanship. This latest upheaval comes at a time when President Trump has denounced nearly every top official in federal law enforcement – Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Special Counsel William Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former FBI director James Comey (whom he fired).
With Republican lawmakers latching onto Trump’s derision, the Kavanaugh investigation will put the FBI in the crosshairs. Regardless of the probe’s outcome, the losing side will certainly bash the bureau’s investigative work. If the FBI investigation sinks the Kavanaugh nomination, the conspiracy theories of the right-wing about so-called “Deep State” attempts to undermine Trump will be enflamed. If the FBI essentially clears Kavanaugh, liberals associated with the #MeToo movement may accuse the staid bureau of protecting a white, privileged male.
I can clearly recall in 1991 keeping tabs on TV coverage in The Macomb Daily newsroom as professor Anita Hill testified in Washington at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, accusing him of blatant sexual harassment.
At one point, I walked up to my editor’s desk, in astonishment, and updated him: “They’re now talking about pubic hair on a Coke can.”
This was just a few years after Republican senators were infuriated with Judge Robert Bork’s rejection by Democrats for a Supreme Court seat, a time when political observers assumed that the highly partisan Bork hearings had marked a new low point for the future of the Supreme Court nomination process.
After the contentious Senate hearing with Hill, and subsequent testimony by Thomas, a black man claiming he was a victim of a “high-tech lynching,” President George H.W. Bush’s choice gained narrow confirmation to the high court. Again, political analysts concluded that the formerly demure process had further slid to its lowest point ever.
Concerns of three decades ago now seem almost trivial
Consider those trepidations of 27 years ago compared to the excruciating political soap opera that played out on Capitol Hill Thursday. A hearing to decide a Supreme Court seat had sparked death threats, raucous protests and people across the nation feeding their biases, spellbound by the Senate testimony.
In a moment not experienced in the recent history of Congress – perhaps ever — court nominee Brett Kavanaugh engaged in angry, tearful testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, denying accusations that he committed attempted rape (and more) while in high school and college, while slamming the committee’s Democrats with heated and snarky comments.
So much wrath lingers in the background. Beyond Bork and Hill, the unprecedented decision in 2016 by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to successfully shelve President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland for 400 days still stings among Democrats on Capitol Hill.
If Kavanaugh survives, I suspect the justice will live with a taint among critics that goes far beyond the blemish that Thomas has endured for the past 27 years. If Kavanaugh loses, Democrats need to be prepared that a similar conservative nominee, without the baggage, will be approved by the Senate. The future ideological stance of the court will be barely altered, but the Dems will have succeeded in embarrassing the GOP just weeks before the midterm elections.
One factor that seems abundantly clear is that the Supreme Court nominating process of the near future will be based not on fairness or nonpartisanship but on political vengeance.
The emotional past 24 hours have served as a moment of clarity. This was an ugly instant that showed those of us who refuse to embrace undying partisan loyalty, on the left or the right, that we are now at the whims of two warring tribes in Washington that are not interested in professionalism or facts or compromise, only in winning.