If you’re not completely depressed by the Brett Kavanaugh mess, you must be a hopeless partisan – either Democratic, because you’re exhilirated by the improved odds of derailing a Supreme Court nomination you opposed from the start, or Republican, because your main reaction is rage that Kavanaugh’s confirmation is now endangered by a shameful smear. Yet here’s a surprise: Despite the torrent of strident partisanship that’s still gushing, the often (rightly) besmirched process of “politics” looks like by far the best solution available, at least at this point in the story.
What’s most depressing, of course, is the likelihood that now each likely outcome of this nomination battle could result in a major injustice – either rewarding a sexual criminal with a lifetime post on the highest court in the land, with all the power that entails, or trashing the reputation of an innocent and possibly destroying his current family life.
Moreover, it’s entirely possible to be legitimately depressed about this situation even if you believe, as I do, that victims of sex crimes often fail to report them right away, or even for many years, for reasons that anyone with any sense of compassion should understand and accept; that for equally valid reasons, their memories of the these incidents can be flawed; that denial is a standard initial response even of the guilty; that the trauma induced by such actions is so powerful that even offenses by the relatively young can’t be soft-pedaled, much less excused; that even one-time assaulters need to be punished; and that in the court of public opinion (as opposed to the legal system), a blanket assumption of innocence shouldn’t always be made.
It’s entirely possible to be legitimately depressed despite these observations because, however compelling they are in general, it’s always less certain whether they apply to an individual case.
As a result, perhaps most frustrating and dispiriting of all, it’s entirely possible that the truth may never be known. There’s a view out there that, given enough time, resources, and energy by journalist or law enforcement officials, the full story will eventually come out. This is what we’ve just been told, for example, by former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. But with only one other person in the room at the time, according to alleged victim Christine Blasey Ford, and her apparent failure to share her story contemporaneously (and No, that’s not a criticism), this optimism seems excessive.
At the same time, the case for confirming Kavanaugh has merit as well. For example, there’s some evidence that a large percentage of sex offenders are repeat offenders, but no evidence has yet surfaced of a pattern of abusive behavior toward women by Kavanaugh at any stage of his life. (Some researchers, however, have found that most sex offenders are not repeaters.)
Less convincing, but not entirely out of bounds, is the “horseplay” argument – i.e., that the force of Kavanaugh’s alleged advances was not nearly as strong as Ford has indicated. On the one hand, I strongly agree that whenever anyone signals reluctance, an immediate stop in the activity in question is mandatory – even when teens are involved. On the other hand, as observed by Washington Post columnist David von Drehle (who wants Kavanaugh to withdraw his nomination), “adolescent boys and girls often address their awkwardness with alcohol, and sexual inexperience plus inebriation is a time-tested recipe for regrets and misunderstandings.”
So there’s plenty of powerful ammunition available to both sides in the Kavanaugh fight, and possibly towering stakes. What to do? Here’s where politics comes in. The Constitution vests the Senate with the authority to approve or disapprove a President’s Supreme Court (and many other) nominees. Although the Founders were looking for a check on presidential power from a body that they wanted largely shielded from popular pressures (by stipulating Senators’ election by state legislatures), since the advent of direct elections in 1913 (via the 17th Amendment) these pressures (i.e., standard politics) are now the paramount standard. Here’s the essential background.
As a result, with this set of circumstances, the most legitimate way for the nation to solve this problem is to hold a Senate vote on Kavanaugh (unless he withdraws or President Trump pulls the nomination), and therefore discover what the popular will is. This vote could certainly be preceded by a new investigation that would add to what is already known about Kavanaugh from the several background checks he has gone through during his career in public life. But I would hope that the investigation is short – because of my aforementioned doubt that new evidence can be found.
Senate approval of Kavanaugh would be a clear sign that at least a plurality of Americans is comfortable with him serving on the Court – for whatever reason they choose – and vice versa. Moreover, there’s a useful recent precedent in this regard: President Trump’s election.
As many no doubt remember, shortly before the November, 2016 vote came the surfacing of the “Access Hollywood” tape, which contained a boast from candidate Trump about behavior that could well qualify as sexual assault. In addition, throughout the campaign, numerous women accused Mr. Trump of just such behavior. These charges, along with the tape, were widely reported. The public had ample opportunity to consider them. Voters ultimately deemed him fit for the highest office in the land nonetheless.
Voters have a chance to tell their Senators what they think of the Kavanaugh nomination, too, and lawmakers can also consult the polls. Is it reasonable to contend that, because Ford’s charges became public so recently, voters need more time to contact their Senators, or that Senators need more time to seek their opinions? Sure. But the resulting delay in the vote, again, should be short.
Skeptics could argue that, since Republicans hold the Senate, this exercise would be a sham. But the GOP members might run significant risk for blowing off their constituents’ opinions, especially given that the party’s ratings from women have been pretty dodgy lately. Moreover, if after any confirmation, important evidence against Kavanaugh came out, he could be impeached.
A reasonably prompt Kavanaugh vote certainly wouldn’t disburse all the clouds currently hanging over his nomination. But it would stamp it with a democratic (small “D”!) seal of approval. What more could the nation reasonably hope for?