29 Sep 2018

Republicans ok for election hit if Kavanaugh gets top court

6:28 pm on 29 September 2018

by Phil Smith*

Opinion - In 1991 Anita Hill was a young US government lawyer, who dared to suggest her former boss, Clarence Thomas, was not a suitable nominee for the US Supreme Court because he had repeatedly engaged in sexual harassment in the workplace.

Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a party 36 years ago, testifies before the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

Photo: AFP / Pool

Clarence Thomas had only been a judge for a year so was being touted on the basis of his character.

On 11 October, 1991, Ms Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in their hearings after Clarence Thomas' nomination by George H. W. Bush. During the televised hearings she was lectured, rebuked and called a liar by the entirely white, male, committee.

It was Republicans who were particularly defending Clarence Thomas although the Democratic Senator Joe Biden was chairing the committee and later apologised for the way he did so.

Two other women came forward to corroborate her claims, but only Ms Hill was called to testify. Ms Hill presented intelligently and calmly but was called deranged. Ms Hill took and passed a polygraph test, Mr Thomas did not take one.

Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice and is still one today. In the 1991 midterm elections just a month later the Republicans got a slapping in what was called the "year of the woman". (Mid-term elections don't include the role of President.)

Now, 27 years later everyone has been given a second chance. How far we have come.

Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor, who was called to testify against the conservative nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who has also been touted on the basis of his character.

Ms Ford has strong memories of a very drunk Mr Kavanaugh laughing while attempting to rape her during a high school party. Ms Ford took and passed a polygraph test, Mr Kavanaugh did not take one.

A number of other women have also come forward with corroborating statements regarding Kavanaugh's drinking and behaviour towards women, including the claim that he and friends would drug women and take turns raping them. No other women have been called to testify.

And here is where we find how much has changed.

 Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee

Photo: AFP

In the 27 years since, Republican Senators have learned (just a little) about perceptions. This time the 11 elderly white male Republicans on the Judicial Committee chose not to publicly question the motives and veracity of the alleged victim, they hired a woman to do that for them.

Their aim was presumably to prevent old white Republican male shouting at Ms Ford.

They failed in this. Having not directly questioned her, they waited until she was gone and then shouted about her. Or were just plain creepy. Orrin Hatch, (a Republican senator from Utah) described Ms Ford as "attractive" and "pleasing".

Ms Ford was every bit as calm, reasonable and intelligent as Anita Hill had been. She even provided a quick neurology lesson on why core traumatic memories endure, while peripheral details fade.

Mr Kavanaugh was neither calm, nor reasonable. He ranted, he stalled for time and he dodged questions. He even shouted down senators as they attempted to quiz him, including the female Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

He even said "what goes around, comes around", which is exactly the sort of sentiment you hope never to hear from someone you are considering appointing to the most powerful court in the land.

If Mr Kavanaugh was female his performance might have been characterised as shrill, petulant and at times hysterical.

At this point any normal president would likely withdraw his nomination. Donald Trump is likely to double down and cheer him on. Two Republican senators would need to break ranks for Mr Kavanaugh's nomination to fail. The likeliest candidates are two women not up for re-election this year, and two men who are retiring anyway.

This fight has been about a number of things, but respecting victims, believing women and doing the right thing are not high among them. This fight is about who gets to shape the future of American society and politics using the increasingly powerful and politicised Supreme Court.

And to a lesser extent it is about managing the impact on the November mid-term elections - hence the concern about perceptions.

The elections are just five weeks away and the Republicans are looking at an oncoming train. The latest poll gives the Democrats a 14 point lead while poll experts believe seven point lead is enough to overcome Republicans and gain control of the lower house.

Fourteen points might even make taking the Senate a possible dream. However, only one third of the Senate is elected every two years and this year most of the senate seats up are already held by Democrats - including a number in very Republican States - so it's a tough ask.

The Supreme Court hearings could make the Republican election showing even more grim - solidifying female support for the Dems. In the same recent poll suburban women (always a key demographic in American politics because they bother to vote) were 61 percent to 35 percent in favour of the Democrats. Ouch!

But here's the thing. Many Republicans will believe that getting a very conservative justice and a majority on the Supreme Court is well worth losing an election. An election result lasts two to six years. A Supreme Court justice can sit for 40.

The Republicans have long had a better grasp of the impact of stacking the bench to achieve societal dominance in the ideology wars much of American politics has descended into.

It is arguably in the hope of just this outcome that millions of right wing Christian voters were prepared to hold their noses and vote for an irreligious, serial philanderer.

The holy grail for the most conservative is a Supreme Court willing to overturn or water down abortion rights, voting rights, affirmative action, the separation of church and state, gay rights and civil rights: Many of the societal changes frequently described by the rest of the population as progress.

So much could change. So much hasn't. Political theatre is frequently nail biting, and very often tragic.

*Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.

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