Ross Douthat: Frank, it’s good to be back with you. The last time we conversed, we agreed that the Kavanaugh hearings would be a snooze, all grandstanding and no revelations, leading up to the all-but-foregone conclusion of his confirmation.
We were mostly right about the hearings, but surely we should have anticipated that the Author of our crazy national melodrama had another narrative trick to play. And now we have it: Brett Kavanaugh, just a few days before what was to be his confirmation vote, stands accused of committing sexual assault as a drunken teenager. How are you processing this?
Frank Bruni: Anxiously and with the heaviest of hearts, because it’s unlikely that this ends in a manner that a significant majority of people, including a mix of Democrats and Republicans, find just and satisfying. The Senate was absolutely right to delay a vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation so that there could be consideration of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation, because it’s a serious charge to which she has, at a definite cost, attached her name; because this is a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court that we’re talking about; and because it really is possible, in the course of sworn testimony from these two and (I hope) other investigation, that we’ll get a clearer, fuller picture of what happened more than 35 years ago. Agree or disagree?
Douthat: Agree about the investigation, sadly uncertain about whether we’ll get that clearer picture. The story Blasey has told so far seems like something that very easily could have happened without there being a way of getting the evidence that you would need to feel confident about her veracity. So much will depend on whether it’s possible to get more detail on the when and where of the alleged incident — but even then, we may go through a public airing and still be stuck choosing (through the inevitable partisan lens) between his word and hers.
Bruni: For now and maybe forever, we have a Rorschach test. To wit: A hugely respected, supersmart female lawyer I know — a Democrat and a woman of color — sent me a message about Kavanaugh this morning that said, “My guess is that he and his chums, an entitled group of frat straight white boys, behaved this way, and there are other women.”
Minutes later, a hugely respected, supersmart male political strategist I know — a Republican, white — shared his suspicions about the “11th-hour” timing of this latest development, telling me: “It’s something that’s impossible to prove and impossible to defend against, so this invariably devolves into a tribal death match with the accused having a permanently damaged reputation even if confirmed by the Senate.”
Douthat: Which might be a reason to withdraw his name, if the allegation doesn’t fall apart under scrutiny. One can believe that Kavanaugh might be perfectly innocent and still think that, unfair as it is to him, the political interest of the country would be better served with a nominee who didn’t have to be confirmed under a cloud of suspicion.
Bruni: [Frank is uncharacteristically mute.] Forgive me for my delay just now, Ross, but I blacked out for a second. From disorientation. Did you just suggest that in 2018, it would be possible for someone or some group of people to put the political interest of the country above party, above partisanship, above personal ambition?
Douthat: No, I’m not that naïve! My suggestion is that if the cloud can’t be cleared, the country’s interests and the interests of conservative partisans might converge. The G.O.P. is at risk of losing women voters by extraordinary margins under Trump, and the pro-life movement has no future, even if Roe is overturned, if its anti-abortion vision is seen as just the recrudescence of patriarchy. With both those problems in mind, shifting to a different, unclouded nominee — even, dare one say, a female nominee — seems like an adaptive move for the long run, however much stress it would create.
Bruni: There you go again, lobbying for your beloved Amy Coney Barrett, whose nomination you once accurately tweeted — and I mentioned your tweet in a column of my own! — would be partisan Armageddon.
Regarding women: The context for the way this plays out is fascinating. Women voters will probably decide who has the House and Senate majorities after Nov. 6, and both parties are acutely cognizant of that right now. Also, women voters are not so hot on one Donald J. Trump. (I can hear him bellowing “Fake news!” already.)
Ross, do you know how many women are in the Senate and will get to vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation — if it comes to a vote — versus how many got to vote on Clarence Thomas’s more than a quarter century ago?
Douthat: I’ll be a good sport and refrain from Googling it, and just say a whole lot more.
Bruni: Kudos for refraining from Googling. There are 23 women senators now next to a grand, whopping, breathtaking total of two women senators back when Anita Hill was trying to be heard.
Douthat: And fittingly the key deciders here will be just two (Republican) women. I’m confident that Trump won’t abandon Kavanaugh of his own accord, because he sees battles only as short-term, zero-sum affairs, and because of what ditching a nominee over a sex-assault allegation might imply about his own fitness for office. But ultimately it’s not his choice: It’s the choice of Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, in whose hands the nominee now finds himself.
Bruni: Collins and Murkowski are definitely the two Republican senators to watch most closely, but I do wonder if we’re wrong not to consider that, say, Joni Ernst might have pause here. She has talked about sexual harassment that she endured in the military, teamed up with Democrats on legislation related to the issue, and seems to take pride in being sensitive on this front.
Also, could this be when Jeff Flake or Bob Corker or both take the revenge against Trump that they go to bed each night so richly and rightly fantasizing about?
Douthat: I think they’ll follow the women, but that’s an interesting point about Ernst. The issue then, though, is whether there’s a ready alternative whom Collins can accept. One theory was that she preferred Kavanaugh to Barrett, and that she’d be loath to vote for a nominee whose personal back story made her seem a more likely anti-Roe vote. On the other hand she voted to confirm Barrett to the lower court not so very long ago. Maybe the only alternative to Kavanaugh is the eternally recurring Thomas Hardiman.
But back to the confrontation ahead of us. Frank, you mentioned Thomas and Hill. Is this just the #MeToo replay?
More from Opinion on the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh.
Bruni: Glad you asked that, because there’s been a lot of hasty “This is Anita Hill all over again” commentary, and there are differences. The accusation against Kavanaugh involves something that happened (or didn’t) more than 35 years ago. Hill’s claims were fresher than that, and memory can degrade over time. Second, he’s 17 in the story. Also, this isn’t workplace harassment, grave as that is — if her recall of events is accurate and his denial isn’t, this is sexual assault. Aren’t those relevant?
Douthat: They are, but Kavanaugh has effectively removed one of them from play. He’s not saying, “I was a teenager, I was drunk and made a dumb pass, she misremembers it as worse than it was, but I’m ashamed of myself and I apologize.” He’s explicitly putting his reputation on the line by saying that nothing like this ever happened at all. So while it’s interesting to debate how much his age would be a mitigating factor and all the rest, for the purposes of whether he should be confirmed, he stands or falls on his absolute denial.
(Even though there is, yes, the possibility that something happened and he was drunk enough that he doesn’t remember it at all.)
Bruni: This is all so frustrating because one wants to be fair to everyone involved, and not rush to conjecture or judgment. By which I mean that I don’t want to do that and neither, clearly, do you.
I wish I could say the same about Donald Trump Jr., who has proved over time that he is wholly worthy of the name he inherited. We can integrate his weekend Instagram post about this into our Conversation, can’t we? Let’s. Here it is. Please react.
Douthat: Right, so this is the usual Large Adult Son thing with Trump Jr., where you had a period when the allegations were reported to be tamer than they proved to be, and conservatives expected this to be a nothing story and made jokes like this … and then Trump the younger decided to make the most offensive possible version of the joke just when its premise was becoming untenable. Charming, to the last — but also an example of the style of politics, call it “boys will be boys conservatism,” that clearly animates people in the Trump administration and will make them loath to cede an inch.
But the other question, alongside what Collins and Murkowski decide to do, is how this plays in public opinion — which, after months of stability, was turning more against Trump even before this story broke, knocking his approval downward from its mid-40s ceiling. Do you have a theory of that pre-existing slide?
Bruni: Democrats haven’t consistently distinguished themselves during the Kavanaugh hearings, but this newest twist and the next chapter are bad for Republicans and Trump, perpetuating one of the main reasons that Trump’s numbers are tanking: A great many voters are simply exhausted by and disgusted with the nonstop melodrama. And Trump’s placement of the blame for it on the “fake news” media grows thinner and thinner.
Douthat: I think it’s mostly the recent cascade of scandal — Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, etc. — but also, to steal an insight, maybe an indicator that tuned-out voters are tuning in to politics, with real election season finally upon us, and being reminded of all the things they disliked about Trump but managed to forget so long as their minds were safely elsewhere. But whatever the cause, it’s left a White House with limited capacities in a political situation where it has zero margin for error.
Bruni: I find myself wondering — and Peter Hamby wrote a great piece for Vanity Fair about this last week — if we’re minimizing the likelihood of an enormous blue wave because we got Trump’s election wrong and we’re in once-bitten, twice-shy mode. Possible?
Douthat: Discretion is the better part of valor, Frank, and after 2016 we all have reasons not to leap to conclusions. Indeed, I expect an unexpectedly transformed landscape when next we talk. And I look forward to it.
Bruni: That’s in just two weeks! And you’re right, in Trump Time, that’s two decades. We could have a new Supreme Court nominee! Hell, we could have several new cabinet members! Will you promise to use a word as dazzling as the “recrudescence” that you hauled out a few paragraphs back? If so, I’m in.
Douthat: Only if Supreme Consul Amy Barrett permits it. Until next time.