Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Brett Kavanaugh. Photo courtesy the Office of Senator Chuck Grassley.
Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh opened this week with a minority-party mutiny that was like nothing Senate observers have ever seen – but which was still all too familiar.
In what they later acknowledged was a premeditated parliamentary mugging, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee did not let Chairman Charles Grassley get more than 10 seconds into his opening statement before they began talking over him. California’s Kamala Harris threw the first verbal sucker punch with a loud demand that the hearing be adjourned indefinitely pending analysis of thousands of pages of newly released documents that Democrats have demanded (along with the review of thousands more pages that are not within Grassley’s reach, and which would not change a single vote on the committee even if they were).
Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal then joined in, followed by several other Democrats who maintained the disruption. Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar tried to justify the attempted coup by declaring that nothing about Kavanaugh’s standard-issue 21st century confirmation and the associated brouhaha is normal, which is how she and her fellow Democrats feel about everything that has happened since Inauguration Day 2017. From there, it was on: seven hours of verbal assault on the majority party’s right to run the committee, and the nomination process, in a manner consistent with parliamentary and democratic norms. It was an exercise in free speech – for Democrats.
This is not the way Senate committees typically operate, even in uber-partisan 2018. But still, it was nothing we haven’t already seen many times in many places. It has shown itself on college campuses from Middlebury, Vermont, to Berkeley, California, to Oregon’s Reed College. It was a hallmark of the blockades and invasive counterprotests that were a regular occurrence at then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign rallies in 2016.
Nor is this hearing the first time Democrats have taken a cue from their base’s behavior. Also in 2016, on the other side of the Capitol, House Democrats took over the floor of their chamber in a multiday sit-in to demand that their gun-control proposals move to the top of the legislative agenda. Much like their ideological forerunners in the short-lived and largely unmourned Occupy Wall Street movement, the lawmakers left behind a pile of literal rubbish; unlike their street-protester role models, however, the legislators could count on a janitorial staff to clean up after them.
Political junkies know about all of these events. Most other American adults are too busy with real life to immediately see the parallels, but anyone watching a video of Kavanaugh’s hearings could still recognize what was on display. After all, we’ve all seen temper tantrums that a 2-year-old throws when she can’t get her way.
This particular tantrum had a purpose, however, and it had nothing to do with exploring Kavanaugh’s qualifications to sit on the Supreme Court. The singular purpose of Judiciary Committee reality show was to try to delay the confirmation vote on the Senate floor until after the November election. This would save Democrats who are in jeopardy in states that Trump carried from a no-win situation: Voting in favor of Kavanaugh would enrage their Democratic base, while voting against would alienate the Republicans whose votes are essential for Democrats to win statewide in places like West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri and Montana.
Tellingly, there is not a single Democrat on the Judiciary Committee who comes from a state that Trump won in 2016. For the mutineers, this exercise in reality TV was a cheap campaign commercial, especially for Harris and New Jersey’s Corey Booker, both of whom are believed to be eyeing presidential bids in 2020.
One way to put out a fire is to starve it of oxygen. Another is to let it burn itself out. House Speaker Paul Ryan used the first approach in 2016, when he adjourned the chamber until after Independence Day and turned off the television cameras. Grassley opted for the latter tactic, letting the committee Democrats hog seven hours of time (and making the nominee politely sit in his place while they did so) for their base-pleasing moment.
As for the matter of high principle on which the Democrats tried to place their misbehavior, it boils down to this: During George W. Bush’s administration, Kavanaugh was a White House lawyer with the title of “staff secretary.” His job, as described by others who have held the position, was to distill the information, proposals and recommendations flowing from various agencies to the president’s desk, making sure the information reaching the commander in chief was accurate, concise and complete. Just as chief executives have varying styles, so do staff secretaries. Some write their own synopses of the underlying material, akin to the syllabus that the Supreme Court’s reporter prepares for each decision that the high court hands down.
But staff secretaries neither make nor implement policies, which is why you never heard of the job before the fuss over Kavanaugh (or, depending on how closely you follow politics, until right now). It is an important function, but an internal one. That is exactly why this White House, like any White House, would refuse any congressional demand to turn over the internal deliberative documents of their administration. And it would not change a single thing, even if the White House were to hand over everything on the Democrats’ bogus wish list. It would simply provide an excuse to delay a confirmation vote until after the upcoming court term begins in October and, especially, until after the election.
There is a correct and adult way for Senate Democrats to respond if they feel they cannot support Kavanaugh: They can vote against his confirmation. Most of them, if not all, will do just that. But absent a couple of increasingly unlikely GOP defections, they don’t have the votes to stop him from being confirmed, and they know it.
So if they conclude that the next best thing is to grab the microphones and throw a fit – well, let’s just all remember that these are the people who say they should be calling the shots. Which is just what you would expect from a 2-year-old.