Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. In January, Norton will publish a new book by him and Kevin Kruse, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In the past few days, the experts have wondered whether the Senate had learned anything from the horrendous way that the Judiciary Committee treated Anita Hill back in 1991.
In light of Hill’s accusations that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the all-male committee turned the Supreme Court hearings into a farce. Republicans, and most Democrats, focused their questions on Hill’s credibility, raising doubts about her intentions and whether she was exaggerating what today President Donald Trump would call “locker room” talk. They demonstrated almost no sympathy for the victims of sexual harassment and made comments that today seem unthinkable.
Because of the backlash to the 1991 hearings, the working assumption was that this time the Senate Judiciary Committee would surely get things right. The panel would treat Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault with dignity and handle the process in a respectful fashion. Understanding how the times had changed, the Republican majority would turn the committee hearings into a serious forum for an examination into whether there is sufficient evidence to prove that Brett Kavanaugh and a high school friend held her down and attacked her while they were drunk.
In the shadow of the #MeToo movement and all of the changes that have affected American society since the early 1990s, surely the Senate would get it right.
But that’s not what happened, and it showed how far we still have to go. The all-male Republican majority on the committee actually took many steps backward. In certain respects, Thursday’s hearing revealed that as a nation our politics are in a worse place than they were 27 years ago.
The committee “investigation” was a joke. This was not an investigation, just political theater put on for the benefit of red-state voters who Trump and the GOP hope remain loyal when it comes time to vote in November. From the start, the hearings were stacked in favor of the nominee. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sold the public a bill of goods with the artificial timetable that he says must be followed. The timeline created a rush to judgment.
The Senate Judiciary Committee majority did not ask the FBI to investigate – as occurred with Hill – it did not allow for any other witnesses, it implemented a truncated five-minute questioning period for each senator, and it allowed Kavanaugh to out-filibuster colleagues.
With Mark Judge hiding out on the beach, Sen. Chuck Grassley seemed to have no interest in asking questions of the other person who was allegedly in the room. The other Republican senators didn’t say a thing in the morning. Using a female prosecutor to interrogate the alleged victim while the male Republican senators sat in the background was almost more insulting than having the cohort of male senators do the interrogation, as happened in 1991.
After tossing sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell aside during the male portion of the hearings in the afternoon, the GOP was dismissive of the entire issue. Sen. Lindsey Graham screamed vitriol at his colleagues, showing everyone his brand of Trumpism with a Southern twist. “If this is the new norm, you’d better watch out for your nominees,” he warned Democrats, as if Ford’s horrific experience was some kind of partisan talking point. They spent less time on Ford’s accusations than they did with Hill (three days).
They simply replaced the direct accusations they made against Hill (such as saying her story came from the film “The Exorcist”) by indirectly discrediting Ford’s story as if it were a product of partisan strategy. They repeated the mistake of refusing to call key witnesses who could add to their knowledge. Even the structure of the hearing, which gave Kavanaugh the final say, favored his side of the story, given the limits of the investigation.
When Senate Republicans announced Thursday night they would hold their vote Friday without further inquiry, they showed their cards.
In contrast to 1991, this time the nominee was comfortable launching a hyper-partisan grenade at the Democrats and implicitly at Ford herself. There is no other way to put it other than saying he sounded just like Trump (except for Kavanaugh’s tears). Despite all the niceties Kavanaugh and Republican members expressed toward Ford following her moving testimony, they were pretty clear in their opinion.
In shocking fashion, Kavanaugh didn’t even pretend to have judicial temperament. He charged that this was all a result of a left-wing Democratic conspiracy to bring him down. He yelled at individual senators, and he constantly interrupted their questions in aggressive fashion.
He evaded basic questions, such as whether he thought Mark Judge should testify or whether he favored an FBI investigation, even when the same questions were asked again and again. He presented his testimony as a defense of all men: “I ask you to judge me by the standard you would want applied to your father, your husband, your brother or your son.” At a minimum, this was as bad as the way Thomas tried to deflect the charges against him as a “high-tech lynching,” with Kavanaugh offering the wealthy, privileged white man’s political version of this argument – that this is all just about a partisan conspiracy, a “political hit” in response to the 2016 election by “left wing” opposition groups, not the real world experience of a high school girl.
Regardless of the sexual assault accusation, Kavanaugh’s testimony should have been disqualifying for a potential Supreme Court justice. He showed himself to be a tough partisan. With his statements, he undermined his own promise he could be neutral and apolitical in handling issues. He can’t. Yet most Republicans are moving forward to confirm with gusto. This is a victory for the principle of partisanship through and through.
Finally, these hearings were even worse because of what happened with Anita Hill. Timing and sequence means everything in American politics. The fact that the Republican majority would allow such serious charges to be handled in such a shoddy fashion in 2018 and the fact that so many of them ape Trump in his conspiratorial rhetoric of male rage is a powerful statement showing that not only didn’t they learn from Hill, they just don’t care. Congress still has a massive problem on its hands in its treatment of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape.
Thursday was a tragic moment in our political history. Faced with a test to see how some of the most influential members of our legislative branch would handle extremely serious charges involving a Supreme Court nominee, Senate Republicans have demonstrated that things have actually deteriorated since the time that Thomas was confirmed as a justice.
The #MeToo movement has a long way to go and, unfortunately, the struggle within our democratic institutions might be the toughest hurdle of all. The first real opportunity to do something about this will be to change the final floor vote of the swing senators in the GOP, Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, and even more importantly, by changing the balance of power in the November elections.