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.