Editor’s Note: David Axelrod is a CNN political commentator and host of the podcast “The Axe Files,” now a regularly featured show on CNN. He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.com.
An old Senate colleague of Mitch McConnell tells the story of cornering him on the Senate floor to urge the majority leader’s support for a piece of legislation.
McConnell stared unblinkingly as the member earnestly made the case. Finally, the taciturn leader spoke.
“You must be mistaking me for someone who gives a s—-,” he said. “I don’t do policy. I do politics.”
Just ask Merrick Garland.
Garland–the chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia–waited 10 months for a vote, a hearing, even a meeting with key Republican senators that never were forthcoming after being named by President Barack Obama in early 2016 to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
If he was watching, one can only imagine how Judge Garland felt when he heard McConnell take the Senate floor Monday to accuse Democrats of flouting “standard bipartisan process” and “regular order” in the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
The cause of McConnell’s ire was the late-breaking allegation from Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist, that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, a charge that threatens to upend a confirmation which seemed assured just days ago.
McConnell, who is determined to deliver his second conservative Supreme Court justice in two years, now must navigate a treacherous pass.
On the one hand, the steely Republican leader is determined to act as quickly to confirm Kavanaugh as he was to delay and destroy Garland’s nomination. McConnell knows that, even with one of the most favorable Senate maps any party ever has enjoyed, the antics of President Donald Trump have helped put the GOP’s narrow, two-vote margin in jeopardy. He does not want to risk allowing the Senate vote to lapse until after an election Republicans may lose.
One reason the GOP could lose its grip is the historic gender gap that is showing up in poll after poll. By margins of as much as 20 points, women are less favorable than men to President Trump and more inclined to say they favor Democrats in the November 6th congressional elections.
With women in open rebellion, an unanticipated #MeToo drama five weeks before the midterms is a nightmare scenario for McConnell, threatening his Kavanaugh confirmation timetable on the one hand and an even greater breach with women voters on the other.
The potential for backlash is likely why the volatile Trump, who customarily would lash out at Kavanaugh’s accuser, was muted on Monday. As I’m sure those who are managing this crisis in the White House explained to him, Trump is just about the last person on the planet they need verbally abusing a woman who had stepped forward with a claim of sexual assault.
Despite the potential for high drama and even disaster, Blasey Ford’s offer to testify before the Judiciary Committee was one Trump, McConnell and the Senate Republicans could not refuse while still hoping to confirm Kavanaugh.
The stakes of such a hearing for Kavanaugh, who will also testify, are obvious. The political hazards for Republicans were made clear Monday when an off-script Sen. Orrin Hatch, a very senior member of the judiciary committee that will quiz Kavanaugh’s accuser, suggested that Blasey Ford may be “mixed up” about a recollection she says has haunted her for 36 years.
Kavanaugh’s supporters on the committee will want to vigorously defend him. But if the other Republican members —all men—follow Hatch’s lead, they could turn the GOP’s yawning gender gap into an unbridgeable chasm.
McConnell knows this and, presumably, will have his attack dogs on a short leash when the hearing convenes. Yet this Kavanaugh imbroglio has introduced for McConnell a gnawing element of uncertainty.
If he loses Kavanaugh, the high-profile failure would deprive McConnell of a second, Supreme Court jewel and further depress turnout in the fall.
Yet the leader knows that if he and his majority are seen as blaming or ignoring the victim, the voter backlash could cost him his throne.