It’s an incident that may well be forgotten in a few weeks, except by those conservatives who will brandish it as a bloody shirt until the next thing comes along that offers a peg for fresh outrage. But still, it’s not a good sign for Democrats that six of the ten presidential candidates who were on last week’s debate stage in Houston used a shaky allegation of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh raised by the New York Times to demand his impeachment before the ink was dry — and certainly before it was authenticated. Julián Castro, whose campaign did some extended whining when Elizabeth Warren was credited with being the first in the field to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment, was clearly the first out of the blocks with a call for the justice’s impeachment on Saturday night, on Twitter, of course, but was duly followed by Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and finally Pete Buttigieg.
But then the Times backtracked on its own story, leaving these candidates a bit high and a bit dry, as my colleague Benjamin Hart noted:
On Sunday, the New York Times updated its story reporting a new assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh, which had drawn widespread attention, to clarify that the woman at the center of the incident does not recall it.
A newly attached editor’s note at the bottom of the story reads: “An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book’s account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party. The book reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident. That information has been added to the article.”
That clarification put already substantial right-wing backlash to the story into overdrive, with many conservative defenders of Kavanaugh — most prominent among them President Trump — alleging journalistic malpractice or worse.
Fortunately for them, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar responded to the original Times story by calling for an investigation of the new allegations (and reinforcements of old allegations). That was perfectly appropriate, particularly given the sense that Senate Republicans pushed Kavanaugh through to confirmation after smearing or ignoring earlier accuser Christine Blasey Ford and making the blustering and defensive nominee out to be a victim of persecution. And even if you can put aside the lingering questions about Kavanaugh’s behavior toward women, I’d say the odds are extremely high that he lied through his teeth to somebody during the process that led to his confirmation — either the vetters of the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation who were charged by Trump with producing a Court that would reverse decisions protecting reproductive rights, or the Senate Judiciary Committee and the whole wide world who were told of Kavanaugh’s deep respect for those very same precedents.
Having said all that, impeachment of Supreme Court justices is even rarer than impeachment of presidents: it’s happened just once (to Samuel Chase, in 1804; he was acquitted by the Senate). Barring some massive new disclosure of criminal activity in his background, Kavanaugh would not be removed from office by the Republican-controlled Senate — most of whose members, you may recall, chose to believe his side of the story in the earlier allegations of sexual misconduct. And even if you suspect a deeper look at Kavanaugh’s background beyond an apparently sloppy FBI investigation would bear fruit, instantly moving toward impeachment is a clumsy way to proceed. After all, Kavanaugh is a piker when it comes to eliciting sexual misconduct allegations as compared to Donald Trump — who, furthermore, tells more lies before breakfast every day than Kavanaugh is suspected of telling during his confirmation hearings. And sentiment for impeaching Trump took quite a long time to develop among congressional Democrats and presidential candidates alike.
So why the hasty cries for impeachment of Kavanaugh? It’s unclear. Yes, reminding people of the justice’s baleful presence on the Court and potential significance is a good way to energize progressives, and to remind them that other Kavanaughs are in the pipeline if Trump is reelected next year. And as the Washington Post’s Amber Phillips notes, Kavanaugh is a convenient figure for connecting Donald Trump (who nominated Kavanaugh) and Mitch McConnell (who ensured his confirmation), the two central figures in 2020 Democratic demonology. But again: You don’t have to talk about impeachment to talk about SCOTUS, Trump, McConnell, or even about Kavanaugh or powerful men getting away with predatory behavior.
For observers of a certain age, what SCOTUS impeachment talk will remind them of is the cranky right-wing cause (a signature for the extremist John Birch Society for decades) of impeaching the great liberal jurist and Chief Justice Earl Warren. And it could even undermine the credibility of the still-unfolding case for impeaching the man who is in the process of reshaping the Court to reverse Earl Warren’s legacy (and that of many subsequent justices).
It is to be devoutly hoped that the rush to impeachment on Kavanaugh does not confirm the fears of my colleague Jonathan Chait that Democratic candidates are running for “president of Twitter” rather than president of the United States. The best way to keep Trump or Kavanaugh from launching, or continuing, a war on women is to defeat the former and isolate the latter. That means thinking first and tweeting later — or perhaps sometimes, not at all.