While Democrats continue to refight the 2016 election, Republicans confirmed their second Supreme Court judge over the weekend. And the soiled Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process put Democratic strategy for the 2018 midterms in plain view. The question is: will what hasn’t worked to date do any better for the Dems a month from now?
This week’s FBI investigation was never going to turn up much beyond incomplete recollections. Apart from liberal Twitter, all of whom are apparently trauma memory experts (last week they were scholars of perjury law), most people in Normal America have a hard time conjuring up details from long ago. It’s even harder to remember things that never happened. The FBI ran six background investigations on Kavanaugh over a period of decades without uncovering any of what he’s been accused of. Democrats knew that unless the FBI miraculously turned up a blue dress with semen stains on it, the facts by themselves were never going to be enough.
The investigation, like Trump’s taxes and Russiagate, was really just a way to turn a scar into a scab to pick at, enough to carry the story into another week. Then, if no new smoking gun-let dropped into the media’s lap, they would claim the process itself was unfair—Putin stole the election, gerrymandering cheated the vote, the FBI wasn’t allowed to interview enough witnesses.
The real plan was always to force the confirmation into the template that Democrats think will win them the House, the same one they thought would deliver a landslide in 2016. And so Kavanaugh’s complex judicial record was discarded in favor of Clinton-esque, er, progressive, talking points: the election, um, sorry, the confirmation is all about respect for women, fighting misogyny, defeating privilege, too many White Men, Trump is evil, we can’t have an accused rapist in the White House, sorry, on the Supreme Court! Disqualification via demonization. The Kavanaugh hearings were an updated version of what was supposed to be the 2016 game-changer, the “pussy grabbing tape.” The Dems would give America another shot at having had it with the patriarchy.
It didn’t work. Despite endless bleating, the hearings were a “job interview” and the hashtags were not enough. Judicial temperament problems? The issue never came up in all of Kavanaugh’s long career. And anyway few courtroom situations call for a judge to be a senators’ punching bag; maybe a little righteous anger was called for? Some may even remember how Democratic voters abandoned presidential candidate Mike Dukakis when he was too dispassionate in his reaction to a question about someone assaulting his wife.
Things had devolved quickly from concerns over Roe v. Wade to an attempt to catch Kavanaugh out on yearbook nomenclature. Dems convinced themselves it was conclusive when Rachel Maddow labeled Kavanaugh a liar over what “Devil’s Triangle” really meant at a suburban Maryland boys’ school in 1982. They imagined people would believe that wrongly stating the drinking age in Maryland decades ago was perjury and not just a mistake. They thought people would care more if the pool of “victims” (i.e. anyone who saw Kavanaugh with a brewskie) increased exponentially. Most everything serious was lost in a cloud of stupid.
It is hard to get people concerned about health care as a life-or-death issue to take you seriously as a party when all you seem to care about is high school butt sex. Jester Michael Avenatti pushed things further into farce with an “accuser” whose credibility failed sitcom standards. Susan Collins specifically cited Avenatti’s actions as a reason she voted “yes” on Kavanaugh. Yet Democrats still see Avenatti as a useful idiot, a kamikaze working alongside them, without understanding that he demeans everything he touches as a tabloid anti-Midas.
It was little surprise that the absurdity of it all was missed by the Dems. One Democratic strategist stated that “identity politics has really become the ecology you’re operating in. Economics aren’t as dispositive as they used to be.” That makes sense only to a party banking its midterm strategy on voters not noticing that the economy is doing pretty well. It follows to pretend that constant predictions of trade wars and real wars haven’t all turned out to be crying wolf. And then it starts to make sense that America would go along with the idea that a guy claiming he wasn’t a drunk in college means he’s a liar unfit to serve on the Supreme Court.
There were issues in Kavanaugh’s judicial history worth debating. Concern over Roe runs deep. But the Democrats spent little thought on that. They failed to grasp that while American demographics may be changing, they haven’t yet changed.
The only constituency energized over Kavanaugh is suburban liberal white women (accuser Ford could not have been more of a Clintonite if Murphy Brown was reanimated out of the 1980s via a horcrux from Hillary herself), who already favored the Democrats. Apparently this group can also be counted on to ignore that a Democratic senator likely outed Ford when she wanted to remain anonymous, and to overlook attempts to slut-shame high school girl Renate Schroeder. Same for the tsunami of criticism directed at Susan Collins, labeled a traitor to her gender to the point that people are donating money to her unknown opponent of the future. CNN has yet to praise her as a courageous woman who made a thoughtful decision.
There’s little about the Kavanaugh fight to drive minorities, already understood as reluctant voters, to the polls. Millennial voters have a historically low turnout rate. If you can’t get much more than one out of four of a demographic to show up, things are unlikely to work out. Meanwhile, 71 percent of Americans over 65 vote, skewing Republican, and the Kavanaugh saga could easily energize them into even higher turnout. There seems little to no Democratic plan to shift these trends other than Trump rage and the warm feelings of consensual hallucination embodied on social media, both of which failed again this week to affect a #RealWorld event.
“Purple” men moving to the Democratic side? One of the things that damaged the women’s movement in the 1980s and helped the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to fail was an overemphasis on men as the enemy, a feature of the Kavanaugh process. Many women walked away from feminist groups supporting the ERA, knowing the mantras “all men are rapists” and “Republicans hate women” just weren’t true.
This is what is happening now. Those who support Trump based on his plans for the economy end up labeled fascists, those who support Kavanaugh based on his judicial history are rape apologists (or traitors), and those who support free speech are Nazis. It was similar to after the Parkland shooting when those who support the Second Amendment were slandered as child killers. It’s deplorable. No one supports rapists or child killers. And few voters are willing to trust Democrats who see them as those things.
The point of politics is to change people’s minds, not declare your rivals unfit to walk among decent folk. Kavanaugh proved that the Democrats (and their partners in the media) are still unaware that while this may be the year of #MeToo in Washington, New York, and Hollywood, it’s still just 2018 in West Virginia.
The Democrats failed in 2016 when they tried to make the election a referendum on Trump’s behavior. They failed again this week with the same strategy, even after building up Kavanaugh into a psychopathic POTUS mini-me. With no tailwind from Russiagate, Democrats move towards November with little more than more of the same, throwing in some mumbled threats to impeach Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court (will that be before or after they impeach Trump?).
It’s bad enough to pick the wrong hill to die on. Even worse to do it three times.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from federal employment and Twitter.