When Sen. Lindsey Graham’s time came to ask questions of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Thursday, Republicans were on the verge of outright panic.
Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers, had delivered a stirring account of that night in 1982. She had come across as credible and sympathetic – a woman who had clearly been traumatized and who had zero doubt that Kavanaugh was responsible for it.
Rachel Mitchell, the independent prosecutor brought in by Senate Republicans to question Ford and Kavanaugh, had failed to poke any significant holes in the accuser’s story and seemed to have flummoxed the judge with queries about how many beers he believed to be too many beers to drink.
Enter Graham. Unlike his Republican colleagues before him, Graham, a former member of the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General corps, didn’t cede his five minutes of questioning to Mitchell. He seized it – and with an impassioned attack that displayed his clear anger, frustration and impatience with both the process and the Democrats sharing the dais with him, he gave Republicans from the White House on down a shock to the system – a wake-up call that fundamentally altered the remainder of the Kavanaugh hearing.
“What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020,” Graham angrily accused his Democratic colleagues. “To my Republican colleagues, if you vote ‘no’, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing that I have seen in my time in politics.”
Suddenly Republicans, both in the room and around Washington, had something to rally around. Graham’s outrage was praised by the White House (.”@LindseyGrahamSC has more decency and courage than every Democrat member of the committee combined. God bless him,” tweeted press secretary Sarah Sanders) and by his fellow senators (Texas Sen. John Cornyn could be seen turning to Graham and telling him good job).
After Graham spoke, not a single Republican senator ceded his time to Mitchell again. She effectively disappeared from the hearing – even while she continued to sit just below the GOP senators on the dais. Conservatives across social media cheered. Graham was a guest Thursday night with the high priest of the Trump movement: Sean Hannity.
(You can and should watch the entirety of Graham’s five-minute speech here.)
Graham’s performance had several audiences.
The first was President Donald Trump, who was watching the hearing and loves the stridency and confrontation that Graham had on display.
The second was his undecided Republican colleagues. Graham’s cajoling played as an attempt to stiffen their spines while also trying to shame them into being for Kavanaugh.
The third audience was Republican voters in Graham’s home state of South Carolina. In each of his last two re-election races, Graham faced primary challengers who cast him as insufficiently conservative. He won. But with another re-election race coming up in 2020 and Trump’s conservative base flexing its muscles in GOP primaries around the country in 2018, Graham might have faced a major challenge in two years’ time. That seems less likely now – although who knows what the next two years will hold.
One group that clearly was not part of Graham’s intended audience were Democratic senators and that party’s base voters. Graham’s condemnation of his colleagues won’t play well in a chamber that, at least for a very long time, staked its reputation on its collegiality. And within minutes of his speech in the Judiciary Committee, Graham was being condemned by Democrats on Twitter and in other forms of social media as a transparent Trump sycophant.
The reaction to Graham speaks to the bitter divisions within the country. For Republicans, his words were the highlight of the hearing. For Democrats, the low light.
What is beyond debate is that prior to Graham’s speech, Kavanaugh’s chances were fading. After it, they look to be at least 50-50, particularly with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, announcing that he is voting for Kavanaugh’s nomination in the Judiciary Committee later Friday afternoon.
All of which means that if Kavanaugh winds up on the Supreme Court, he’s got Lindsey Graham to thank for it – maybe more than anyone else.