Opinion writer

Christine Blasey Ford has finished testifying, and judging by Twitter and cable, the widespread consensus among neutral observers and even some Republicans has been that she was entirely credible. Ford was endearingly convincing in declaring that her only true motive in coming forward was to help the assembled senators — and the country — by informing them of what she personally experienced at the hands of Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Ford erred on the side of caution when navigating the perils of memory, and struck an oddly compelling balance by airing her own emotions while explaining them in the clinical language of a psychology professor.

As many have pointed out, Rachel Mitchell — the prosecutor who questioned Ford so GOP senators didn’t have to — seemed to burn up her time on meaningless trivialities, asking Ford questions about her fear of flying, making opaque points about the layout of the neighborhood and floating impenetrable arguments about who paid for Ford’s polygraph test.

Why did Mitchell do this? Did she just screw up?

I think the answer lies in the meltdown that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) just displayed to reporters moments ago. Referring to Democrats, Graham said:

I’m really upset that they knew about this in August and never told anybody. … All I can say is that we’re 40 days away from the election, and their goal — not Ms. Ford’s goal — is to lay this past the midterms so they can win the Senate and never allow Trump to fill this seat…I don’t know who paid for her polygraph but somebody did. … I feel ambushed.

As the majority, we’re going to hear from Judge Kavanaugh. … When it comes to where it happened, I still don’t know. I don’t know when it happened. She said she’s 100 percent certain it did happen. I bet you Judge Kavanaugh will say “I’m 100 percent sure I didn’t do it.” … She can’t tell us how she got home and how she got there. That’s the facts I’m left with. A nice lady who has come forward to tell a hard story … if this is enough, God help anybody else that gets nominated.

My guess is that the Republican game going into this was for Mitchell to make as few waves as possible, because they expect that Kavanaugh will be able to deny the allegations with sufficient conviction to allow the handful of wavering GOP senators to decide they have just enough cover to confirm him, on the idea that at its core, this is fundamentally unresolvable. Given that expectation, it was fine for Mitchell not to go hard at Ford to undermine her credibility, because at the end of the day, all that matters to keep those undecideds in the fold is for them to be able to say they have no grounds for saying that Kavanaugh was less credible than Ford was.

In other words, Republicans went into this counting on it to be a wash. That’s what Graham basically tried to say when he framed this as a “nice lady who has come forward to tell a hard story,” while adding that she couldn’t provide sufficient chronological and geographical details to furnish grounds for disbelieving Kavanaugh when he says “I’m 100 percent sure I didn’t do it.”

At the same time, as Graham’s tirade shows (note his reference to the mystery of who paid for the polygraph), the specifics of Mitchell’s questioning did appear designed to feed right-wing media material to run with all sorts of weird conspiracy theorizing about how this is all a Democratic plot. As Jeet Heer put it:

Right-wing media can tell the base that the proceedings were a secret success, even as Republicans avoided going hard at at Ford in a way that might have alienated millions of suburban and college-educated white women who will decide the midterms.

But what they did not count on was that Ford’s performance might have a force all its own, independent of whatever Republicans did or did not do to frame the day’s events. In this sense, Graham — and Republicans — really were ambushed. No wonder Graham is so ticked off.

I don’t know if the force of Ford’s performance will be enough to get two Republicans to oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation, so in this sense, the Republican gamble going in could still pay off. But after Ford’s showing, it seems even clearer today that Republicans will indeed pay a big political price if they do confirm him.

Read more:

Ann Telnaes sketches Lindsey Graham, Rachel Mitchell and others from the hearings

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was devastating

The New York Times bails on insta-credibility poll for Christine Blasey Ford

The surprising thing about Christine Blasey Ford’s story is that she fought back

Brett Kavanaugh was a model youngster. Bart O’Kavanaugh was not.