Thursday was an emotional whirlwind for millions of Americans transfixed by the hearing where Christine Blasey Ford accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. He denied the allegations in the most vehement possible way and later, he fired back that Democrats had coordinated it all as a political attack and some sort political payback for his work against the Clintons.
It was emotional. It was raw. It was impossible to escape on broadcast television, cable news and online.
The nation watched, but it was a political trial – with a jury of between three and six senators.
The country will be split on who to believe. At least four GOP governors have called for a delay in the vote on Kavanaugh. None of that really matters. Republicans will now try to vote at lightning speed and there are only a few votes in play.
After nearly two weeks of digging into Kavanaugh’s past and the dissection of his accuser’s life – and a vitriolic process that may have forever changed how Supreme Court justices are confirmed – senators are finally set to make a decision on the fate of a nominee who could determine the direction of the high court for a generation. Votes are scheduled in committee for Friday morning and then the first votes on the Senate floor are set for Saturday.
At least one Democrat was not optimistic.
“They’re going to do whatever the White House and Mitch McConnell tell them to do,” said Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. He said Kavanaugh’s performance seemed well-rehearsed, and “it brought me back to memories of Clarence Thomas.”
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Two Republican women, Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, both of whom had said they wanted to see Ford’s testimony, will be key. So could Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who has crossed Trump and is now on his way out the door and not running for re-election. He’s been critical of the process.
They huddled together after the hearing and before a larger meeting of Republicans. Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat who joined the group for their huddle, said afterward that they were all still undecided.
Those Republicans and any others who might waffle after Ford’s testimony will be under untold pressure from McConnell, the Senate majority leader. He and President Donald Trump know that there’s little time to squeeze through another nominee before their majority is on the line in the November. If a Republican wants to see a conservative majority on the court, Kavanaugh is really their option. After that, Democrats could take the majority in November. Republicans could find another nominee and push him or her through in a lame-duck session (you can bet they’d try), but it could be even more difficult to keep moderates on board in that kind of political scenario. Collins is up for reelection in 2020 and Murkowski is up for reelection in 2022.
Under similar pressure from the other side will be Democrats up for re-election in red states – people like Manchin in West Virginia and Joe Donnelly in Indiana.
The Senate Math
The current breakdown in the Senate is 51-49. If Democrats unite against Kavanaugh (still a question) Republicans can lose one vote and still confirm Kavanaugh using a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence. They cannot lose two votes.
The question after Thursday – and the draining experience of seeing both Kavanaugh and Ford – will be, how do those few senators process what they saw?
Ford’s searing testimony was a case study in how to come forward. She was confident in her memory and believable. Heck, she was able to explain the science behind memory.
Kavanaugh’s angry boxing at Democrats channeled Trump and had some Republicans fist-pumping on Twitter.
The hearing didn’t offer any kind of hard evidence for either Ford or Kavanaugh. There was no reason to believe she wasn’t telling the truth. And for his supporters, there was no reason not to believe his denials.
What the hearing should do is disabuse Americans of any fantasy that potential Supreme Court justices are above politics or that their confirmations can possibly be politics-free.
Kavanaugh’s clear disdain bordering on hate for how Democrats have handled this process could make it hard for him to keep an even keel ruling on any case involving a Democrat in the future.
It was pretty clear that Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were rallying around Kavanaugh after his opening statement when Sen. Lindsey Graham delivered a white-hot rebuke of his Democratic colleagues.
“What you want to do is destroy this guys life, hold this seat open and hope for someone else in 2020,” said Graham,” calling it “the most unethical sham” he’s seen in politics.