But that doesn’t mean we won’t hear a lot more about this. The incident the New York Times reported is just coming to light, and with it new questions about its validity and why we are just learning of it. We’ll also continue to hear about it because the allegations against Kavanaugh provide potent political weaponry for both sides. They are a way for both Democrats and Republicans to make the 2020 election about something other than Trump, while still playing up the central themes of their messaging.
Democrats witnessed in 2016 how Hillary Clinton’s warnings to voters about the dangers of Trump didn’t turn out or win over the voters they needed. In 2018, Democrats won back the House of Representatives not by campaigning strictly against Trump, but by focusing on health care and other policy issues.
Could talking about Kavanaugh be a more politically effective way to talk about Trump? Axios reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is worried about Trump fatigue in 2020, too, so she has a plan to shift political messaging away from Trump and more toward Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the self-described “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation. There’s evidence the base is fired up about confronting McConnell. The Democratic challenger for his Senate seat, Amy McGrath, raised a wild $2.5 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign.
From there, Senate and House Democratic candidates can connect the dots between Kavanaugh and McConnell, who pushed through Kavanaugh’s nomination in the fall over allegations of sexual misconduct, and McConnell held another Supreme Court seat open during the 2016 election so Trump could fill it after he won.
Already, the Democratic challenger to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose swing vote on Kavanaugh helped put him in the court, has folded all these things into a fundraising effort for her campaign. “I’m tired of hoping that Susan Collins does the right thing when she has shown time and time again that she puts Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell ahead of Mainers,” Sara Gideon tweeted, with images of Collins and Kavanaugh.
If new Kavanaugh allegations have the potential to help Democrats motivate their voters, then why is Trump also driving the conversation? He tweeted about Kavanaugh half a dozen times Sunday and Monday, saying Kavanaugh is being smeared so Democrats can influence his opinions, that the Justice Department should have his back, and that Kavanaugh should “start suing people for libel.”
Like many of the president’s political calculations, this one is blunt: Trump is playing the victim by way of the beleaguered Supreme Court justice, who already went through one of the most contentious confirmation processes in modern history.
Having his justice victimized by Democrats fits nicely with Trump’s broader message about his presidency, that House Democrats are pursuing an impeachment investigation into him to undermine his presidency. And that’s consistent with a message he’s been selling nearly his entire presidency: that the investigation and report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was driven not by facts, but by a partisan effort to, well, undermine him and his presidency.
Playing the victim is really Trump’s primary messaging strategy in some of the high-profile conflicts of his presidency. Republicans no longer control both chambers of Congress, so he doesn’t have much in the way of legislative success to look forward to. The Mueller report, with all of its behind-the-scenes unsavory details of Trump’s presidency, is out there. And he needs to explain why he and his administration are blocking nearly 20 congressional investigations into him. They want to investigate and impeach me and my Supreme Court justice, too, could be a helpful talking point in such a situation.
Outside of Trump, there’s evidence that the polarization around Kavanaugh benefited Republicans. Republicans in the Senate pushed through his nomination and kept control of the Senate (and even expanded their majority) a month later. Polling showed that Republican voters overwhelmingly supported confirming Kavanaugh.
A Senate Republican super PAC took a swipe at Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), the most vulnerable senator up for reelection next year, for just stating the facts, saying that Congress can impeach Kavanaugh if new revelations demonstrate he lied during his confirmation hearing.
All this is to say that both sides know full well that Kavanaugh will probably stay a Supreme Court justice for the foreseeable future. But that won’t stop them from arguing about his fate for the foreseeable future. It’s just too politically fruitful of a topic for both sides.
This post has been updated to clarify Sen. Doug Jones’s statement about Kavanaugh’s impeachment.