Editor’s Note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen. James Piltch is Gergen’s chief research assistant at the Center for Public Leadership. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Perhaps one day, women in America will find that they can reveal their deeply painful stories of sexual bullying and win compassion as well as respect from men. Perhaps we will one day think of each other again as “fellow Americans.” Perhaps our Supreme Court will once again command the trust of the country as an impartial, fair-minded steward of our rule of law.
Perhaps – but that day now seems far away, almost beyond our imaginations. This struggle over our new Supreme Court justice has inflicted deep wounds upon our body politic that may need a generation or longer to heal. Tragically, it didn’t have to be this way.
In an earlier day, the two parties would have looked for ways to reconcile their differences, seriously addressing the underlying issues and protecting the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. But in this case, neither party rose to the occasion.
Democrats took every opportunity to disparage Kavanaugh about things that had little to do with the alleged assault. Republicans, who controlled this process and could have sought compromise, used brute force to get their way and, in doing so, showed little regard for the pain so many women were rightfully expressing.
The result leaves the Supreme Court without a swing vote for possibly decades to come and leaves many women legitimately wondering if powerful political leaders in Washington care about their experiences with sexual assault.
For those with long memories, also distressing was something else, captured in Susan Collins’ speech justifying her yes vote: that our bipartisan tradition, one that has deteriorated severely in the last several years, is all but dead.
Many are angry at Collins for the way she voted. But if she genuinely believes Kavanaugh to be innocent and genuinely believes that he will be a check on President Trump, then one can’t begrudge the vote on the judicial merits.
What was concerning, though, was that Collins, emerging as the decisive vote, chose not to exercise her power to walk in the footsteps of her hero, the late congresswoman from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith. Instead, she chose to go along with, and even to feed into, the rank partisanship and power politics that defined this process and have dominated American politics recently
Margaret Chase Smith, serving in the Senate in an era of similar (or even worse) political dysfunction and nastiness, did not stand by idly and ignore that issue. On June 1st, 1950, Smith took to the Senate floor and gave her famous speech, “Declaration of Conscience.” Many – including Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley – remember that speech as Senator Smith denouncing fellow GOP Senator Joe McCarthy, and that is precisely what it was.
But Smith’s words were much more than that. That day, Smith stood up to her entire party. She made it clear that winning the wrong way was much worse than losing the right way.
She declared, “I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some real soul-searching and to weigh our consciences as to the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America and the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges.”
She went on to reprimand her fellow Republicans for their role in that system: “To displace (the Democratic Party) with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to the nation.” And finally, she asked Republicans to take a pledge: “We are Republicans. But we are Americans first.”
In her speech on Friday, Collins was right to point out that the Democrats made some egregious mistakes in the Kavanaugh process. They sat too long on the initial claims by Christine Blasey Ford and leaked her letter without her permission. They tried to incite their base, a group that already had legitimate, organic reasons for anger, and failed to acknowledge a lack of witnesses who could confirm the party in question.
But if she wanted to keep bipartisanship alive and find the best possible outcome for the Supreme Court and country, why did she not also condemn the egregious mistakes of her own party, the party that now controls all three branches of government? She should have criticized her fellow Republicans for the withholding of documents and the empty FBI “investigation.”
She should have decried the GOP’s rush to judgment and ignoring of Ford’s own right to due process. Surely, she should have rejected President Trump’s ugly taunting of Ford and the awful theory put forth that another man was the one guilty of Ford’s assault.
To use such a pivotal moment, with all the eyes and cameras on her, to critique just one side and cast doubt on Ford’s words was not what Americans needed. Citizens and politicians alike needed to hear an honest accounting of how this process became so ugly. We needed to be reminded not only of the way Democrats tried to block Kavanaugh but also of how Republicans blocked Merrick Garland (one of the most qualified nominees to the Supreme Court) without giving him a hearing at all.
Yes, Democrats ginned up anger towards Kavanaugh with “dark money” long before these allegations, but a fair-minded analysis would have pointed out how Judicial Watch spent millions to support him and then demean Ford. And yes, Democrats should not have spoken to Judge Kavanaugh the way they did during the first Senate hearing—but he also was wrong to sarcastically question Sen. Amy Klobuchar the way he did.
This piece is not to take anything away from Susan Collins. Other senators could have taken action, too, and she is a fine person who, on more occasions than most, has acted bravely in putting country above party. But if we now want to restore our bipartisan tradition and regrow needed trust in our political institutions, all Americans need to remember the Margaret Chase Smiths of our past and, in moments of national testing, draw strength from their profiles in courage.
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If one leader had done that, this process did not have to, and would not have, ended this way. Instead, Americans must reckon with a White House, Congress and Supreme Court that seem defined by partisanship.