Thursday, September 27, 2018

Consequences of a Kavanaugh Confirmation? Yes, in the Long Term

When a political event of any note occurs in the midst of a campaign season—and often when it doesn't—media commentators predictably lapse into extensive speculation about its likely effect on the outcome of the next election. As the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court moves closer to an endgame in the Senate, debates over the impact of a potential confirmation on this fall's midterms have become more frequent. Will one party's supporters become energized and the other demoralized as a result of the vote? Would Democrats benefit in November from a rejection of Kavanaugh's nomination, or does extending the process actually help Republicans rally voters in red states?

I remain skeptical that the Kavanaugh appointment, however it turns out, will exert a measurable effect on the outcome in 2018. The voters who care about the Court and have been following the proceedings closely are also the most likely to already be strong partisans and highly engaged in the election. Kavanaugh is not a popular nominee by historical standards, but views generally fall along existing party lines and about a third of Americans don't know enough about him to have an opinion either way. It's possible that a Kavanaugh confirmation will push Democratic enthusiasm for voting "through the roof," but Democrats (as well as Republicans) are already at historically high levels on that score this year. And we still have six weeks to go before Election Day, with plenty of opportunity for a new issue or crisis to redirect popular attention elsewhere.

But that doesn't mean that the events of this week, and next, won't have important long-term implications. Just as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings of 1991 helped to inspire a then-record number of women to seek political office the following year, a Senate vote to confirm Kavanaugh despite the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford may turn out to be an important moment in the intersection of gender and party politics. This year has already produced a remarkable surge in the supply of, and demand for, female candidates in the Democratic Party, but a widespread backlash against Kavanaugh might help sustain this unprecedented mobilization of women in 2020 and beyond.

Today's hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee also laid the foundation for another set of potential developments in the future. To the extent that it reflected a calculated strategy, Kavanaugh's combative demeanor toward Democratic senators and angry denunciation of the charges against him as a partisan conspiracy were apparently intended to rally Republicans to his enthusiastic defense—including a president who was reportedly dissatisfied with his nominee's degree of aggressiveness on his own behalf earlier in the week.

But there is a cost to dropping the cloak of non-partisanship and reserved judicial temperament en route to the Supreme Court, just as there is a cost to putting someone accused of sexual assault by multiple women in a position to cast pivotal votes on abortion rights and related subjects. Trump and other Republicans could have avoided these costs by quickly withdrawing Kavanaugh in favor of an equally conservative but less controversial nominee, but they are now in the position of either forcing their own party's moderate members to vote Kavanaugh down or setting him up to be a divisive figure on the bench for years to come. It's even conceivable that John Roberts—sufficiently concerned about the legitimacy of his institution to serve as the surprise swing vote upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in 2012—will turn out to be less ambitious in charting a new rightward trajectory for the Court if Kavanaugh is confirmed than he would have been alongside a different appointee.

Trump, whatever his other qualities, is not known for being excessively occupied with long-term planning, and the entire Republican Party is now subject to Trump's win-the-day strategic mentality for at least the duration of his tenure as its national leader. That doesn't mean, however, that the rest of us can't take the broader view. If Kavanaugh joins the Court, the consequences may not be immediately visible in the election returns, but they will still stretch on for many years after the 2018 midterms have come and gone.