Brett Kavanaugh needs the Republican Party to save his Supreme Court bid — but the Republican Party doesn’t need Brett Kavanaugh. As White House aides implore the president not to attack a self-identified sexual assault survivor over Twitter — and Mitch McConnell arranges a historically consequential, he-said-she-said fight for next Monday — that fundamental fact lingers at the back of their minds.
The GOP was always going to need the world’s last two surviving pro-choice Republicans to vote for establishing a militantly anti-abortion-rights Supreme Court majority. But it certainly didn’t need to ask Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to evince indifference to victims of sexual abuse while doing so. The party was always going to have to hold heavily scrutinized Senate hearings. But it didn’t have to host a nationally televised “show trial” — in which Republicans represent a man accused of attempted rape, and Democrats stand for his accuser — right before a midterm election that will likely be decided by precisely how many female voters rally to the Democrats’ cause.
Which is to say: Republicans didn’t need to carry Brett Kavanaugh’s baggage. And they still don’t. There are plenty of conservative jurists ready and willing to protect the rights of corporations and churches, while restricting the liberties of labor unions and pregnant teens. Most of them lack Kavanaugh’s explosive paper trail; a few even come without the liability of a penis. If Trump withdraws his embattled nominee today, Senate Republicans should have little trouble putting an ideologically indistinguishable justice on the bench before the next Congress is sworn in.
And there are more than a few (self-interested) parties making this point. Advocates for the other judges on Trump’s short list — Thomas Hardiman, Amy Coney Barrett, and Amul Thapar — are “all talking w/ plugged-in friends in Congress or WH, ready for the possibility of further disruption of Kavanaugh nomination between now and [Monday],” the Washington Post’s Robert Costa tweeted Monday night. Meanwhile, GOP campaign operatives are grumbling about Monday’s scheduled hearing, where Kavanaugh and the woman who has accused him of assaulting her when they were both in high school, psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford, are expected to testify. Costa reports that these consultants’ “private grumbling” about holding such a “charged” and “unpredictable” hearing may become public as unease over next Monday’s scheduled events grows. And even Mitch McConnell is indulging a grumble or two, reminding confidants that he always thought Thapar would be easiest to confirm, and that his priority is saving the conservative Supreme Court majority, not Brett Kavanaugh’s skin.
The president’s feelings on the matter are harder to discern. One Trump confidant told the Post Monday that, “The president thinks it’s rough for Kavanaugh, and he’d decry the process as disgusting if he withdraws, but he’d nominate a carbon copy of Kavanaugh in a second if he goes down.”
But other White House insiders painted a very different picture to the Daily Beast:
For Donald Trump’s White House, Brett Kavanaugh is increasingly irrelevant to the politics of his own Supreme Court nomination. Instead, those close to the president view the next few days as a virtual X-ray on the backbone of their party and a litmus test for the future of Trump’s presidency.
… There has been no talk within the ranks about pulling the nomination and going with an equally conservative—if not less controversial—pick, even if it would remove a major complication from the Republican agenda just 50 days before the midterm elections. To do so, aides and operatives insist, would be a disaster of much greater magnitude: inviting Democrats to launch more aggressive challenges to future judicial nominees and depressing the very base of conservative voters needed in November.
It’s possible that the Daily Beast’s report is colored by the personal allegiances of its sources, some of whom are personal friends of Kavanaugh. But there are signs that an aversion to showing weakness in the face of Democratic attacks (and/or, unproven sexual assault allegations) will override Kavanaugh’s fundamental expendability. The Judicial Crisis Network, a right-wing pressure group, is moving forward with a $1.5 million advertising campaign in support of Kavanaugh’s nomination; the American Conservative Union, meanwhile, has announced that it will “score” the Senate’s vote on Kavanaugh and hold dissenters “accountable.”
The best-case scenario for Republicans is that Christine Blasey Ford decides she does not wish to detail her alleged trauma for an international television audience — or even to a private session of the Judiciary Committee. Susan Collins and Jeff Flake are uncomfortable with the idea of sweeping Ford’s story under the rug — but if Ford does such sweeping herself, that problem is solved, the politically inconvenient hearing is averted, and Collins and Murkowski can vote to confirm an enemy of women’s reproductive freedom to the Supreme Court, secure in the knowledge that they have given his alleged sexual assault victim every opportunity to convince them that they shouldn’t.
On Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley announced that Ford had yet to respond to several inquiries from the committee, a silence that “kind of raises the question, do they want to come to the public hearing or not,” Grassley told the right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Nevertheless, at this point, sticking with Kavanaugh comes with a major tail risk for the conservative movement. Senate Democrats are hoping to drag out Kavanaugh’s confirmation process even further, calling for an independent FBI investigation of Ford’s allegation before the Senate hears her testimony. Even if things proceed on schedule, there is a risk that Kavanaugh could ultimately be voted down too late in the fall for Republicans to confirm a replacement before the next Congress is sworn in. And, as of this writing, FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a one-in-three chance of taking the Senate in January. Which is to say: There is a tiny — but genuine — possibility that conservatives could squander a Supreme Court seat in an ill-fated attempt to “own the libs.”