With Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh now back in the news, I am feeling a pang of déjà vu from last fall. The New York Times recently published a grossly misleading excerpt of a book about Kavanaugh by two of the newspaper’s reporters. The excerpt contained a new unsubstantiated claim that he allegedly exposed himself to a woman while he was in college. But the Times originally left out crucial information about the unsubstantiated claim – including that the alleged victim, who had not spoken with the authors of the book, reportedly told friends she had no recollection of Kavanaugh exposing himself to her.
The Times subsequently revised the book excerpt, which was labeled a “news analysis,” to include the critically important omitted information and published a long editor’s note. But in the hours before the truth came to light, the left and the right manned their battle stations readying for another knock-down, drag-out fight.
Judges, unlike any other issue, unite Republicans of all stripes: MAGA hat wearers, neoconservatives, country clubbers, and every other label you can think of. There’s simply no other issue like it. We relish judicial confirmation battles. We all want conservatives on the bench, and we’ll all fight like hell to get them there.
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The reasoning behind this isn’t a mystery. For decades, Republicans have always drawn a straight line between elections and judges. We know that a vote for a Republican president or senator is a vote for lifetime appointments for judges who will interpret the Constitution as it was intended.
This political calculus was battle-born from years of seeing liberal judges legislate from the bench and high-powered Democratic opposition to qualified Republican judicial nominees like Robert Bork and Miguel Estrada.
Judges, unlike any other issue, unite Republicans of all stripes. We all want conservatives on the bench, and we’ll all fight like hell to get them there.
However, the years we spent in the judicial desert fashioned a political weapon that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., used with skill.
It’s a fact the Supreme Court and judges played a major role in juicing GOP turnout in 2016. According to exit polls, almost 60 percent of Trump voters listed judicial appointments as “the most important factor” in their vote. It’s not hard to imagine many of those voters included traditional Republicans who strongly disliked Trump yet wanted a conservative judiciary. Trump —to his credit — understood the importance of this issue and, from the start, made credible promises on the types of judges he’d appoint.
What’s mystifying to me is Democrats have not duplicated this tactic. They have not drawn that same straight line between a Democratic president or Senate and its effect on the Supreme Court or the federal judiciary writ large. In the first three debates judges were barely mentioned. Aside from abortion, they don’t connect their priorities to high court rulings.
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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is a perfect example of how potent this issue is among Republicans.
Maine’s senior senator is decidedly moderate and has never been afraid to buck her party. She voted for both of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, refused to support Trump in 2016, and was a vocal opponent of ObamaCare repeal efforts.
Collins’ independent profile was not one that would fire up Republicans before October 2018. However, her compelling speech announcing her support for Kavanaugh changed the calculus.
The speech rocked the political world and its aftershocks were felt in all corners. Presidents Trump, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush praised her decision. The Judicial Crisis Network ran ads defending her. Photoshops even appeared on Twitter depicting the 66-year-old senator as Wonder Woman.
With that single vote in the face of strong liberal opposition, Collins not only became a household name across all segments of the party, she was lionized.
That’s why Republicans welcome a fight over judges or yet another fight over Kavanaugh. If you want our party united in an instant, threaten Kavanaugh with impeachment, publish another baseless allegation, or, of course, create a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
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There is little you can be assured of in Washington, but if a vacancy were to arrive before Election Day 2020, I can promise you three things.
First, Republicans, led by McConnell, would move heaven and earth to confirm a new justice. Second, with both armies scarred from the Kavanaugh nomination, this war would be bloodier and harsher than the last. And third, Republicans of all stripes would be ready for a hell of a fight.
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