The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Kavanaugh-Ford hearing broke the committee

We should apply a higher standard to Supreme Court nominees. Nobody deserves to be on the bench, says editorial board member Stephen Stromberg. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Conservatives were probably hoping on Thursday that the Senate Judiciary Committee testimony of research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of trying to rape her when they were in high school, would make her look like a strident left-wing activist, or a flake. They were sorely disappointed. Ford was soft-spoken, warm and very likable.

Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona sex-crimes prosecutor who questioned Ford, spent little time trying to poke holes in Ford’s somewhat vague story. Instead, she quickly shifted the focus toward Senate Democrats.

The latter half of Mitchell’s questioning elicited the following facts:

• That Ford was willing to talk to investigators from the Judiciary Committee, though the committee was somehow unable to arrange this with her lawyers.
• That Ford was somehow unaware that the committee had, according to Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), offered to fly investigators to California to interview her, though her lawyers should presumably have communicated that fact.
• That Ford had found her lawyer through the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, before the confirmation hearings began.
• That only Feinstein and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) had the letter in which Ford outlined her allegations. The letter set off the current turmoil when its existence was leaked to the media, despite Feinstein’s promise that it would be kept confidential — unless Ford decided to go public.
• That Ford’s fear of flying, which her attorneys claimed made it impossible to hold the hearing last week, apparently didn’t keep her from flying for work, family visits, or for surfing vacations in places as far-flung as French Polynesia.

The committee’s Republicans, in effect, put their fellow Democrats in the dock, painting an unlovely picture of them concealing explosive charges from Republicans until they could only be aired in an 11th-hour public spectacle, and of politically connected lawyers helping the Democrats delay.

Kavanaugh took a similar line during an emotional, and often angry, opening statement, emphasizing his lack of ill-will toward Ford while lashing out at the Democrats who had put him and his family in this hellish situation.

Later, Republican senators took over. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) launched into a blanket denunciation of Democrats on the committee: “If you wanted an FBI investigation, you could have come to us. What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life and hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020 . . . This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics. If you really wanted to know the truth, you sure wouldn’t have done what you done to this guy.”

“We could have handled this in private,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), in the gently shocked tone that passes for a searing rebuke in the Midwest. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) thundered, “This committee could have investigated Dr. Ford’s claim in a confidential way that respected her privacy.”

So Democrats, unexpectedly, had to defend against the implication that they had strategically mishandled the process. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) started explaining that an FBI investigation — the prime Democratic talking point for weeks — would not be able to reach any conclusions. And Feinstein felt compelled to deny that she’d been the source of the leak.

Democrats do look ridiculous explaining the extraordinarily convenient timing by citing Ford’s request for confidentiality — while treating the leak that breached it as a sort of act of God, an immaculate defection. But how much does that matter? Though catnip to Beltway insiders, in the rest of the country, procedural arguments fall into my-eyes-glaze-over territory.

A small yet important audience, however, cares very much: Republican moderates. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the most publicly vocal member of that select group, has signaled that she wants to get to the bottom of the allegations, but also that she’s very displeased with the political machinations.

There’s something deeply awful about treating this as a political question rather than one of justice. But the vagueness of Ford’s allegations — neither provable nor falsifiable — always meant that, unless new evidence surfaced, it would come down to a judgment call. And the way both sides have exercised that judgment, weighing their political priorities at least as carefully as the evidence, meant that when the judgment came, it was likely to be ugly.

Kavanaugh’s name is publicly sullied, his family put through a nightmare. Progressive groups are already calling for him to be impeached from his current judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Conservative rage at this state of affairs can only be assuaged by confirming him — and thereby igniting an equally livid revolt from the left at the thought of Ford’s attacker sitting on the Supreme Court.

While I still think the best course is still to leave the nomination open and launch an all-out investigation, I saw no remaining goodwill that might get us to that compromise. Leaving no way to resolve this that one side will not see as a declaration of total war on all that is decent in America. And no matter what is decided about Kavanaugh, that it has reached this point is an indictment of our entire political class.

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