The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Just how low can Republican senators go?

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) during a Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday. (Jim Bourg/EPA-EFEShutterstock)

If that hearing could have possibly gone worse, please tell me how.

Christine Blasey Ford was the soul of credibility, which should be no surprise. She is a PhD psychologist in the middle of a distinguished career. Her voice was both strong and vulnerable as she recounted the details of the sexual assault she says she suffered more than 35 years ago at the clumsy, drunken hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. She didn’t sound like a partisan. She sounded like a determined survivor.

Kavanaugh sounded like a man fighting for his life. That was no surprise, either, but his tone was unexpected. He shouted. He wept. He flatly accused Democratic senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee of timing Ford’s allegation as a last-ditch effort to prevent his confirmation — a startling allegation from a sitting federal appellate judge, let alone a nominee for the Supreme Court.

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)

The body language of the Republicans on the panel reflected the bipolar nature of the day. Ford’s compelling testimony slumped their shoulders and furrowed their brows. Kavanaugh’s fiery self-defense seemed to animate them, buck them up and perhaps rescue his nomination’s chance of approval.

We should have known that unless Ford or Kavanaugh somehow fell apart in the witness chair, the nation would be left with a dilemma. What I didn’t fully realize was how damaging and divisive that dilemma may ultimately prove to be.

Republicans have the votes — and those on the committee may now have the will — to “plow right through this” all the way to confirmation. But if they do, especially following the partisan allegations Kavanaugh made against Democrats in the Senate — many Americans may always suspect his decisions are motivated by politics rather than jurisprudence.

There is something that could be done: Reopen the FBI background investigation of Kavanaugh, and let the nation’s best investigators dig out whatever facts are there to be unearthed. The Senate would then have more of a record on which to base its ultimate decision.

But Kavanaugh, notably in a tense exchange with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), maintained he would welcome any kind of investigation but adamantly refused to say he wanted the FBI inquiry to be reopened. Republicans on the committee made clear that they are untroubled by the contradiction. To others, it looked as though he has something to hide.

Ford sounded, at times, not just like an accuser but also like an expert witness. At one point, the Republicans’ hired-gun interrogator, Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, was asking questions that seemed designed to suggest that perhaps other events in her life were responsible for symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder that Ford reported suffering. Ford began her response by noting research that suggests “the etiology of anxiety and PTSD is multi-factorial.” Mitchell, who is not a PhD psychologist, wisely decided not to pursue the point further.

Why was Mitchell even there? Because the lily-livered Republican members of the committee — all of them white males — were afraid to question Ford directly, knowing the optics would be awful. If dirty work was necessary, much better to get a woman to do it.

The new paradigm for the #MeToo Era is “believe the woman.” It was bizarre that Senate Republicans wouldn’t even speak with the woman.

But after Kavanaugh’s emotional opening and his first few rounds of sparring with Democrats on the committee, Republicans were emboldened to dispense with Mitchell’s services and weigh in aggressively in support of Kavanaugh. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — who, during the break between the star witnesses, referred to Ford as “a nice lady” — broke the dam. His colleagues then followed, trying to portray the entire affair as an exercise in character assassination.

The problem is that the afternoon session did not erase Ford’s testimony. She said she was “100 percent” certain that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her one night in 1982. She mentioned the attack and named the alleged perpetrator, years before Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court. She tried to alert Congress before he was nominated. She has taken, and passed, a polygraph test.

President Trump tweeted his approval of the fighting spirit Kavanaugh displayed. But Trump can be coldblooded, and, while the majority on the Judiciary Committee seemed ready to move full steam ahead, quite a few GOP senators have been withholding judgment, at least publicly. Trump will have to gauge not just whether his nominee has the votes in committee but also whether he can prevail on the floor.

To the list of an awful day’s victims, add respect for the Senate and the Supreme Court.

Read more from Eugene Robinson’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook. You can also join him Tuesdays at 1 p.m. for a live Q&A.

Read more:

Ruth Marcus: Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was devastating

Molly Roberts: I hope you were crying

Jennifer Rubin: The power of Christine Blasey Ford’s voice

Robert Gebelhoff: Christine Blasey Ford, psychologist