If I were Kellyanne Conway right now, I would be edgy. Edgy that my boss was going to fire up his Twitter trumpet any minute and blow away Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Conway understands the delicacy of the moment, not only for Kavanaugh, but also for Republicans generally and for Trump specifically. She came of age as a pollster with a specialty in trying to help Republican men understand women, and she knows that the last thing Republicans need in the midterms is to pour more high-octane fuel on an already burning dislike for Trump among suburban women. That is why she was front and center when the name of Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, was revealed, urging that she “not be ignored or insulted.” Her “support” for Kavanaugh’s alleged victim was begrudging, couched in subclauses of thinly veiled skepticism. But at least it was there, and it set an initial smart direction for the president.
Now it’s up to Trump: Can he keep his mouth shut? It will take all of Conway’s psychological skills, honed in many months of working for Trump, to keep him on message. So far, so good. While expressing sympathy for Kavanaugh’s limbo and saying vaguely that “it” (the charge itself? the timing?) is a “terrible thing,” Trump has, so far, said nothing negative about Ford, reiterating Wednesday that she should be heard. Trump is cleverly parroting the Republican strategy of inviting her to come, betting that she won’t and then getting on with confirming Kavanaugh with minimal political damage. Perhaps, it will play out that way. Ford’s lawyer said Tuesday that Ford won’t testify without an FBI investigation of the facts first, and two key Republican senators, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, seemed to indicate that she should go ahead anyway and, regardless, that the vote should not be delayed beyond that. Trump seemed caught a little flat-footed by Ford’s request for an investigation, revealing a newfound respect for the agency’s independence when he said the FBI shouldn’t “be involved because they don’t want to be involved.”
How will this play out? If Trump remains disciplined and Ford won’t testify, which as of this moment in a very fluid story seems most likely, Kavanaugh would be confirmed early next week. And then what of the political fallout? Minimal, I would venture. Ford, for perfectly understandable reasons, has set a standard that is fair: An impartial expert should investigate her claims before she subjects herself to a hearing. But as a matter of strategy for defeating Kavanaugh (which is not necessarily her aim), it is the wrong one. The best leverage for that would be for her to testify credibly and force a choice on all the male Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee: Do we “ignore” this woman’s account and rush to a vote, or do we need further investigation? Trump himself understands the danger here, saying Wednesday: “If she shows up and makes a credible showing, that will be very interesting.” Yes, it would.