Will #MeToo Be The Senate’s Waterloo?

Something decisive will occur in the Senate this week.  Not just a nomination hearing, but a political drama crystallizing in the minds of Americans the nature of a political party, and an institution.

In a hearing set for Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a person of respectable character.  They will hear from a California psychology professor, Christine Blasey-Ford, who has come out of nowhere with a believable claim that in 1982 Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15.  Kavanaugh denies it.  Despite the perturbation the allegations are causing, Senate Republicans are intent on shielding the nominee.  Determined to treat whatever is disclosed in tomorrow’s hearing as irrelevant to his confirmation, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell anticipates that, after hearing from the two parties in a non-judicial setting, the committee will vote on the confirmation the very next day.

On the way to that vote, America will see how its leaders behave.  How do senators treat a woman whose personal story threatens the plans of President Trump and the Republican Party?  How considerate are they in sorting out this very unsavory #MeToo story, which the recent openness of women in discussing sexual assault is empowering?  To what extent have senators reckoned with the implications of sexual equality, or how badly are they out of step with the times?

President Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have dug in their heels, exploiting their every institutional advantage in an effort to mute a damning social narrative and push Kavanaugh through.  Trump’s White House has become Kavanaugh’s sanctuary.  He has been holed up there like a wanted man, arming himself with the latest in dis-ingenuity.  Kavanaugh’s proxies have spread out on the news circuit, broadcasting doe-eyed astonishment that anyone could fail to see Judge Kavanaugh as squeaky-clean.  Meanwhile, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the judiciary committee, has announced that an outside interlocutor, Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, will spare Republicans members the embarrassment of figuring out how to talk with Dr. Ford.  A brilliant fix for a hearing where the goal is to avoid hearing anything she says.

Ultimately—and this is what the president and Senate don’t seem to get—, Dr. Ford’s challenge to Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t about legalities.  It’s about whether Kavanaugh is acceptable to society.   It’s about whether Brett Kavanaugh, who is rumored to have put his hand over a girl’s mouth while attempting to overpower her, is a socially respectable being.  Is he a gentleman?  Today, American society is ostracizing harassers of women because their behavior is anathema to equality.  The buzz surrounding Kavanaugh is alarmingly loud.

Over the centuries, the Senate has often exemplified dignity.  It has upheld courtesy as an ideal, as a source of inner order, as the secret of its prestige.  Tomorrow, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be called on to receive “an inconvenient rememberer” courteously.  Yet, as #MeToo comes knocking, a blinkered and insensitive Senate cowers.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Caitlin Flanagan, “I Believe Her,” The Atlantic.
Caitlin Flanagan, “The Abandoned World of 1982,” The Altantic.

The Five-Hundred-and-Thirty-Five Shareholders

A color panoramic view of the US Capitol taken from the driveway circa 1898.
Donald Trump doesn’t know how to share power.  His companies are private and he has never had to be accountable to other stakeholders.  He would be terrible at running a public company.  Now he is the head of the federal government, where the key concepts are “limited powers” and inter-dependency.  Still he behaves as though he’s running the family hotel chain.  Displease the big boss and one’s head will roll.

The situation presents Congress with an unusual opportunity to reclaim its former status as a branch co-equal to the executive.  Trump’s style of administration suggests why the Framers did not go all in for an imperial presidency: to look to the present White House as a source of legislation and policy is sheer folly.  This president may be capable of reforming (that is streamlining) the executive branch, and he may learn how to defend and represent American interests ceremonially.  But, being reluctant to extend his trust to professional experts, his White House is not likely to become a font of innovative and workable legislative initiatives–which, after all, used to be Congress’s domain.

Once upon a time, the Senate was a center of intellectual excellence, where the chief leaders of the states spent endless hours in one another’s company.  It was a tight-knit group, often described as a club, where members knew one another thoroughly, and where they took a strange kind of pleasure in devising bills that would meet the conflicting demands of (wait for it) their constituencies.  The House, the Senate’s more rambunctious sibling, could not equal it in prestige and in certain periods was of such low quality that it could not sustain the interest of the press: quite different from the situation that prevails today.

What will Congress make of this opportunity?  This era could be remembered as one when one-hundred senators and 435 representatives restored Congress’s vitality, when their creative and constructive energies went into crafting workable and forward-looking legislation, and when their power vis-a-vis the presidency earned them the nation’s gratitude and admiration.   The fortunes of the nation would look less bleak if Congress’s full power to work for the good were being deployed.

Image: William Henry Jackson photograph of the Capital taken circa 1898
Published by the Detroit Publishing Company in 1949
The Library of Congress

The Rebel Angels

Senator Mitch McConnell (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
In Paradise Lost, Satan (a.k.a. Lucifer) is the leader of the forces Milton describes as ‘rebel angels.’  Satan is the most glorious of angels, but he can’t stand the idea of serving God.  He chafes at the idea of obedience.  He actually persuades many other angels, who look up to him, to wage war against God, famously declaring ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.’  God puts up with Satan as long as he can but, finally angered, he quells the rebel angels by turning every last one of them into snakes.  Unfortunately, Satan, a sibilant snake, still has the gift of speech.  And, though much reduced in his status, cosmically speaking, he still has the capacity to make trouble for earthlings, which he does when he successfully tempts Eve to eat of the apple, destroying the good thing Adam and she have had going in the Garden of Eden.

Milton’s fable of the fall of Lucifer aptly encapsulates the dynamic playing out in the Senate.  The Senators, though immensely powerful, resent the President’s authority—in fact, they resent the President personally.  They simply loathe the President, and this loathing has eventually driven them to forget their duties, and their proper place in the scheme of things.  Discontent, they disdain the glories of their rightful position and their great capacity, as Senators, to effect what contributes to the betterment of our country.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, in particular, has warred against the Senate’s limited role in the selection of Supreme Court nominees.  He has militantly declared he will not do his duty, nor does he want other Republican Senators to do theirs.  He seeks to prevent the President from placing Merrick Garland on the high court, claiming that the next President will better represent ‘the people’s will.’  More recently, McConnell has disgraced himself by subjugating his own judgment on the matter to the judgment of two lobbying groups.  He falsely claims that history gives his acts legitimacy.  These are the marks of a man no longer content with dimensions of his own authority.

In truth, both the President and the Senate, as constituted, represent the people’s will.  The Senators are each delegated to express the will of their states, just as much as the President represents the people’s will nationally.  In straining to control all that happens in our political cosmology, the Senate’s ‘rebel angels’ are undermining their own prestige and the Senate’s once-illustrious reputation and authority.

Collectively, the Senate’s exercise of ‘advise and consent’ might confirm Judge Garland as a fit selection for the Supreme Court.  But wouldn’t that be a triumphant outcome, given that we live in a fallen world?  We are, as much as in Milton’s time or in Lucifer’s, ‘sufficient to stand and free to fall.’

Image:
1992 photograph of Senator Mitch McConnell by Laura Patterson,
from this source.

Marco Rubio’s problem

The GOP heap (after Scott Walker), © 2015 Susan Barsy

Marco Rubio’s problem?  He’s hasn’t done anything. Yes, he is skilled at talking and at winning elections, but he has a weak record of accomplishing.

Rubio is scrambling to be the GOP presidential candidate who benefits the most from Scott Walker’s dropping out of the race.  As I wrote the other day, a big factor for Republican hopefuls is where money and support drift as weaker candidates leave.  As they drop out, liberating resources, the market shares of the remaining candidates shift, reshaping the campaign.

Marco Rubio turned in a good performance at the debate.  Figures like David Brooks are talking him up.  Rubio has raised a lot of money.  He talks loudly about his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.  In the debate, he sought to impress by talking tough on foreign policy and trotting out his immigration plan.

Look closely, and you’ll notice that Rubio is an Obama-type candidate.  His career path is remarkably similar to the president’s, whom he despises.  A brief stay in the state legislature, then Senate election, and then  . . . (before youth fades) the presidency?  Rubio’s ambition is propelling him upward before he is ready.

Meanwhile, his lack of patience and success as a senator tells us what his presidential shortcomings would be.  Rubio wishes to leave the Senate without having figured out how to score legislative victories.  He hasn’t bothered to develop the relationships or negotiating skills that our interdependent style of government makes so necessary.  Being president would minister to Rubio’s self-image, but, when it comes to serving the nation, how effective could he be?

On immigration, for instance, Rubio is cogent because he once helped sponsor an ambitious bipartisan immigration-reform bill.  This was the impressive measure the Senate passed back in 2013.  At the time, the Huffington Post heralded it as “the most significant effort in years toward overhauling the nation’s inefficient patchwork of immigration laws.”

Republican senators proved powerless, however, to bring their more uncooperative House brethren along, so the initiative that Rubio and others had worked on died.  Now Rubio is touting his own reform plan that he asserts he could make a reality.  Given a president’s dependence on Congress, it’s doubtful he could make his claim come true.  Another young president who’s a weak party leader is the last thing this nation needs.

Yet Rubio is proud of his determination to quit the Senate in hopes of snagging the presidency.  Last week, he justified his failure to attend Senate by lashing out at a wrong-headed Washington establishment.  Though he hasn’t been able to alter that establishment as a Senator, he claims he can–if only Americans give him a bigger job.

Meanwhile, in the telling area of political endorsements, his fellow Floridan, Jeb Bush, continues to lead.  FiveThirtyEight ranks Bush at the top of the list in gaining the support of other established Republicans.  Rubio is near the bottom, indicating that Republican leaders view him much more skeptically than the media does.


Transcript of Senator Rubio’s remarks on his absenteeism
(courtesy CNN):

RUBIO: . . .  I’m proud to serve in the United States Senate. You know, when I ran five years ago, the entire leadership of my party in Washington lined up against me.

But I’m glad I won. And I’m glad that I ran, because this country’s headed in the wrong direction.  And if we keep electing the same people, nothing is going to change.

And you’re right, I have missed some votes, and I’ll tell you why . . .  Because in my years in the Senate, I’ve figured out very quickly that the political establishment in Washington, D.C. in both political parties is completely out of touch with the lives of our people.

You have millions of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck, and nothing is being done about it. We are about to leave our children with $18 trillion in — in — in debt, and they’re about to raise the debt limit again.

We have a world that grows increasingly dangerous, and we are eviscerating our military spending and signing deals with Iran. And these — if this thing continues, we are going to be the first Americans to leave our children worse off than ourselves.

That’s why I’m missing votes. Because I am leaving the Senate, I’m not running for re-election, and I’m running for president because I know this: unless we have the right president, we cannot make America fulfill its potential, but with the right person in office, the 21st century can be the greatest era that our nation has ever known.

Betsy Ross of the Capitol

A woman mends the American flag in a back room of the Capitol
“Washington, D.C.  Mrs. Georgeieanna Higgins.  Official title is Seamstress to the United States Senate, but for years has been called the ‘Betsy Ross of the Capitol.’  She is responsible for keeping the flag that flies over the Senate wing of the Capitol in proper flapping order.  This is no mean job since the flag flies night and day when the Senate is in session, which means a terrific beating from the elements, an average of 12 Flags is used each session”  (March 2, 1937)


Image:
from this source
.