When Democrats retook the House in the 2018 midterms, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hailed it as a triumph of Democratic strategy. “Having a Democratic House puts our caucus in a much better position when it comes to both holding the president accountable and getting things done,” Schumer, who lost three Democratic seats in his own chamber, told Politico. “As in the last two years, the secret to our success will be unity.”
Despite this lofty talk from Schumer, divisions in the party were on full display just months earlier; after President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on July 9, 2018, liberal activists found Democratic leaders in the Senate were reluctant to join them in waging all-out war. Of course, Senate Democrats were forced to reconsider when it emerged that Christine Blasey Ford had credibly accused the judge of attempting to rape her when they were teenagers. Fresh reporting in Ryan Grim’s new book, We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement, sheds more light on Senate Democrats’ tactics during the Kavanaugh hearings and suggests that at this pivotal moment, leaders treated their energized base more like a threat than an asset.
Grim reports that Senator Dianne Feinstein failed to act on a letter from Blasey Ford, her constituent, for weeks, despite pressure from fellow California senator Kamala Harris. The office of Representative Anna Eshoo forwarded the letter, which described her allegation against Kavanaugh, to Feinstein on July 30. However, it only became public in mid-September, after Grim reported on its existence in The Intercept. In his book, Grim casts doubt on Feinstein’s explanation for the delay — that Blasey Ford had requested anonymity — noting that her argument “ignored that Blasey Ford had already taken repeated steps to come forward, had already told friends she planned to do so, had already come forward to two congressional offices and reached out to the press, and was only asking for confidentiality until she and Feinstein spoke.”
Blasey Ford’s letter didn’t just contain information that could jeopardize the nomination of a man who posed a threat to Roe v. Wade. Its very existence implied some moral obligation on the part of its recipients: Blasey Ford wrote the letter, and initially contacted Eshoo, because she wanted to be heard. If Feinstein understood Blasey Ford’s intentions, why did she hesitate to reveal the letter? Grim offers an answer, reinforced by contemporaneous reporting from The New Yorker. Feinstein, the magazine reported, believed her party “would be better off focusing on legal, rather than personal, issues in their questioning of Kavanaugh.” There are other, more cynical possibilities for her delay. The senator also faced a challenge to her reelection bid: Fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon was running against her from the left. As Grim notes, Feinstein needed conservative votes to shore up her lead in the state’s general election. A combative posture toward Kavanaugh didn’t exactly serve her interests.
Schumer seemed to share Feinstein’s desire for moderation. Grim reports that he “repeatedly told outside allies that a furious stand against Kavanaugh would enrage Trump supporters and only disappoint progressive voters. We have no power, he explained repeatedly.” When Kavanaugh’s nomination was first announced, Demand Justice, an activist group, threatened to run ads against conservative Senate Democrats likely to vote for the judge; namely, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Schumer, Grim writes, “was furious” with the group. He had a caucus to protect.
Initially, it did seem that Republicans — who held 51 Senate seats — were going to confirm Kavanaugh no matter what Senate Democrats did. But Democrats weren’t entirely powerless. They could have followed through on talk of a walkout to protest the withholding of millions of documents on Kavanaugh’s past. Schumer could have directed his ire at wavering members of his caucus, rather than dismissing party activists. Feinstein could have promptly shared Blasey Ford’s letter, instead of withholding information that her colleagues, and the public, deserved to know. There’s no way to know how these moves might have shaped the confirmation fight, but it seems safe to assume Senate Democrats could have mounted a stronger opposition to Kavanaugh and done more to support Blasey Ford.
For a moment, it looked like the professor’s decision to testify — though she knew it would be painful and possibly even dangerous — might accomplish what Democratic leaders thought impossible. Grim reports that when the Democrats gathered on September 27, shortly after Blasey Ford’s gripping testimony, Schumer advised his caucus to do nothing. “There was no way, he said, that Kavanaugh could survive. That meant that the smartest Democratic move at this moment was to not get in the way,” Grim writes. “Don’t do anything, he told Judiciary Committee members, that could screw this up and give Republicans some way to paint Kavanaugh as the victim. Stand down, he said.”
But Schumer’s prediction proved incorrect: Kavanaugh did survive. The Senate confirmed the judge on October 6 by a vote of 50 to 48, with only two party dissensions: Democrat Joe Manchin voted yes, and Republican Lisa Murkowski voted “present.”
The revelations in Grim’s book raise interesting questions, which remain relevant with the Democrats’ moderate and more activist wings still split over what tactics to use in countering the Trump administration. If nothing else, Schumer, Feinstein, and their colleagues had a moral obligation to press the fight on Kavanaugh, both for Blasey Ford and for their constituents, who will suffer under the weight of the conservative Supreme Court. By the end of the Kavanaugh hearings, Grim wrote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “had a single purpose” in pursuing the nomination: spite, directed mainly at the activists who’d fought so long and so hard to block Kavanaugh from the Court. “It was to look those protesters in the eye and say, in as clear a voice as possible: No, you don’t matter,” he continued. But they did matter, and they still matter, and they deserve a party whose leaders aren’t afraid to agree.