You may want to sit down while I tell you this: The sacred process of confirming a Supreme Court nominee has been defiled by … politics!
Specifically, Democratic senators who may be running for president in 2020 have brought to Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings their sordid motives of self-aggrandizement and base-pandering, ruining what would otherwise have been nothing but a dignified search for truth.
That’s what we’re told in articles today in the New York Times (“Democrats Grilling Kavanaugh Have Their Eyes on 2020“) and The Post (“Potential 2020 candidates use Kavanaugh hearings to show resistance to Trump“). Here’s part of the Times’s description:
The questioning of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh had not even begun Thursday morning when Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, threatened to release secret emails — even if it meant being expelled from the Senate.
“This is about the closest I’ll ever come in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” the senator declared with a flourish.
It was a made-for-television moment — albeit later mocked by Republicans as grandstanding — and for Mr. Booker, it might come in handy. He is one of three Democrats on the Judiciary Committee — the others are Senators Kamala D. Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — said to be contemplating presidential runs in 2020, and there is no time like a stately, nationally televised Supreme Court nomination hearing to grab the attention of the news media and amass valuable footage for future campaign commercials.
None of that is untrue. I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t be part of the story we tell about these hearings. But is there anything wrong with it?
Conservatives rushed to condemn Harris and Booker in particular for grandstanding; Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said: “Running for president is no excuse for violating the rules of the Senate.” Matt Lewis wrote that the two “look like phony politicians.” And Jonathan Tobin of the National Review said, “Harris not only gained the kind of publicity that is fundraising gold for a potential candidate, she also made it clear that she would stop at nothing in her efforts to smear opponents,” adding that she was “snide and disrespectful.”
We’re going to need a bigger fainting couch.
Let’s be honest: There’s a lot of pretending going around in this process. Kavanaugh is pretending that he has no opinions about any substantive matter and no ideological agenda. Republicans are pretending they neither know nor care what Kavanaugh thinks about abortion or corporate power or executive privilege or anything else; they support him only because of his fine credentials and deep respect for the law. And if future presidential candidates say that 2020 isn’t in the back of their minds as they decide how to address Kavanaugh, they’d be pretending, too.
But thinking about politics — including how Democratic presidential primary voters might respond to the Kavanaugh nomination and the Supreme Court, in general — is exactly what these politicians ought to be doing. Politics is how we settle the most vital questions that confront us as a nation. And if the process of choosing and confirming Supreme Court justices was ever removed from politics, it certainly isn’t now. What’s wrong with Democrats, or Republicans for that matter, raising the issues they think their constituents care about?
If you’re a Democrat, one of your top priorities should be to convince those constituents that the makeup of the courts is an absolutely vital issue that should get them active and engaged. Republicans have understood that much more than Democrats have in recent years; it’s one of the main reasons they lined up so enthusiastically behind Donald Trump in 2016 despite his being one of the most repugnant human beings in American public life, and why he retains their support today. It’s why Republicans celebrated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) indefensibly anti-democratic decision to refuse to allow President Barack Obama to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat when it became vacant in 2016.
There’s no better time than a Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Democrats to communicate that the courts are an absolutely urgent issue. Democratic “grandstanding” is about generating as much attention as possible for these hearings, at a time when Republicans would be happy if the public barely realized there’s a confirmation going on at all. The last thing the GOP wants is for voters to think too much about what a conservative Supreme Court majority will mean for reproductive rights, or corruption in politics, or corporate power, or President Trump evading accountability for his actions.
But that’s precisely what we should be thinking about. If and when Kavanaugh joins the court, it will be the start of a legal revolution that will touch all of our lives.
So spare us the tut-tutting that the politicians are preening for the cameras. That’s what politicians do: They use whatever controversy is happening at a particular moment to argue for their ideological perspective and their agenda, and they do it in ways they think will make them look good. It’s a bipartisan pursuit. The consequences a radically conservative Supreme Court will have for the country, and which Democrat might be best able to represent their party as it deals with those consequences, will be an issue in 2020 — and it ought to be, starting right now.