Although Brett Kavanaugh has now won confirmation to the Supreme Court, the fallout will resonate for months – and likely longer (even if he does follow my advice and withdraw between now and his swearing in). So some final (for now) thoughts on this debacle:
Principally, at this point it looks like President Trump’s instincts on the politics of the Kavanaugh nomination were better than mine. I feared that sticking with Kavanaugh would accomplish less in firing up the Trump-Republican base (by now, they’re almost identical) than it would harm the GOP’s chances in numerous upcoming midterm elections by alienating and downright antagonizing moderate Republicans (especially upper middle-class women) and independents (of all genders).
The main evidence that Trump – and Kavanaugh stalwarts – were right politically? Polls showing a closing of the so-called enthusiasm gap for these midterms, between Republicans and Democrats – widely seen as a good predictor of voter turnout – has narrowed in favor of the Republicans. But there’s a twist here: as stated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this afternoon, the gap closing was mainly a gift from the Democrats, and the die-hard Kavanaugh opponents comprising a big part of their base. That their hysteria and extreme tactics have undoubtedly turned off many voters in the center looks clear from the recent shift in public opinion in support of the Kavanaugh bid. In fact, I have no doubt that videos of the anti-Kavanaugh protests will be a gift that keeps on giving to Republican candidates from now through election day, in the form of countless campaign ads that will feature them.
Come to think of it, I suspect that the Kavanaugh protests have backfired in the way that comparably angry protests unwittingly sabotaged the anti-Vietnam War movement decades ago. This journal article does an excellent job of showing that the polling data from the late-1960s and early 1970s – when U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia expanded dramatically, and dissent became more strident and sometimes violent – can support several different interpretations, no doubt because public opinion was understandably confused by this then-unprecedented type of conflict.
But one legitimate interpretation of the findings is that public opinion would have turned against the war much faster had so many Americans, rightly or wrongly, not found the protests and the protesters themselves to be so offensive in so many ways. Surely that’s why the winner of the 1968 presidential election was not a dove, but Richard M. Nixon. His emphasis of his unhappiness with the Johnson Administration’s supposedly muddled approach to the war and strong suggestion that he would break the emerging stalemate in various (often not mutually consistent) ways closely approximated the views of a critical mass of the public.
And just as surely that’s why (along with dramatically declining casualty rates) Nixon was reelected in a landslide over Democrat George S. McGovern, who Republicans portrayed as the champion of “acid, amnesty [for draft-dodgers], and abortion.”
A “Blue Wave” could still wash over Congress this November, but at this point, it’s also entirely possible that on “the morning after,” the big questions dominating American politics will concern whether the Democrats will recognize their Kavanaugh overreach, and whether they can (or want to) start presenting a more appealing face to the electorate over the next two years.
At the same time, the big qualifier remains fully in tact – whether, between now and then, President Trump will finally cross a line that will convince voters that he and his Republican Congressional and gubernatorial supporters truly are unfit for office, and must be thrown out at the next possible opportunity. But if the President’s many disruptive words and even deeds haven’t produced these results so far, this hope looks like an increasingly slim reed on which to hang political success.