Now that those of us committed to truth and justice have, we hope, at least several days before almost all Republicans try to ram an obviously untrustworthy and dishonest nominee through to the Supreme Court, it’s time to diagnose the Democrats’ big stumble of this dramatic past week.
Overall, the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee did an excellent job in responding to Christine Blasey Ford’s credible allegation of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. And they ultimately got, at least officially, the FBI investigation they were pushing for. They should feel good about these successes.
But they also had a big failure: They didn’t understand how Republican grandstanding would play on live television.
There is only one accurate way to portray what happened in Thursday’s hearings. Blasey’s testimony was so powerful and believable, and her behavior so respectful, that even President Donald Trump could see it from his alternative mental universe. Even Chris Wallace at Fox News was calling it a “disaster for Republicans.”
So in desperation, the GOP decided to blow up the entire proceeding. The strategy was to take all focus away from what the nation had just heard. Instead, turn the hearing into a partisan attack on Democrats, throwing anything and everything possible at them in the hopes that something, somehow, sticks.
The Democrats let the GOP’s performance have its intended effect.
That’s why the Republicans suddenly dropped their guest prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, early on in the questioning of Kavanaugh. And that’s why, instead of asking any substantive questions themselves, they turned the hearing into a political circus ― led by Lindsey Graham in an unhinged tirade (which many observers saw as his audition to become Trump’s next attorney general).
Everything about it was nakedly hypocritical and ridiculous, particularly from the party that had blocked Merrick Garland for an entire year. To the Democrats on the committee, who could see the faces of Ford supporters in the room, the GOP’s desperation probably seemed so obvious that they assumed Americans would see through it. But when something like this happens on live TV, you have to state the obvious by calling it out.
The Democrats didn’t. Instead, they continued their attempts to ask questions of Kavanaugh ― even though he made clear that he wouldn’t answer them, and would just repeat talking points.
As actress Alyssa Milano (who was visible in the shot behind Kavanaugh) later told The Hollywood Reporter, “I felt like the Democrats didn’t really know how to respond to that rage in a way that was effective and impactful.”
Exactly. The Democrats let the GOP’s performance have its intended effect. Trumpists ― who, sadly, comprise the majority of today’s historically unrecognizable Republican Party ― prize shows of strength above all else, including truth. Graham’s grandstanding came straight out of the Trump playbook: Who cares if something is accurate, legitimate or sensible, as long as people who want to believe it are watching?
It became one of the most talked-about moments of the day. Suddenly, people who wanted Kavanaugh’s nomination to sail through were “energized.” Trump and his team were happy. The lies and hypocrisy worked. Some conservatives declared Graham “won” the hearing. A CNN analysis said it may have even “single-handedly saved” Kavanaugh’s nomination.
This is the lesson: When a side that is morally and factually in the wrong tries to claim the high ground on live TV, you have to knock them back down right then and there and reclaim it.
Democrats should have screamed back, pointing out Graham’s insane level of hypocrisy. They should have stated what was happening: They were searching for answers, while Republicans were fighting to prevent that from happening. They should have pointed out the pathetic weakness and misogyny of Republicans hiding behind Mitchell during Blasey’s testimony, only to speak up once she left the room. They should have noted that Blasey was surely watching the hearing, and challenged Lindsey Graham to tell Blasey that the entire hearing was really, as he called it, “crap.”
If, after this, other members of the GOP still continued their charade, the Democrats should have kept fighting back. When Sen. John Cornyn had the audacity to compare the event to the McCarthy hearings, Democrats should have asked the Republicans on the panel whether any of them ― with the possible exception of Sen. Jeff Flake ― had any decency.
Yes, there were procedures in place for who speaks when, and there were supposed to be time limits. But Graham and his compadres threw propriety to the wind. If you have to get reprimanded for interruptions, get reprimanded. Just show the country, and the world, that you are right ― and won’t take the pummeling.
Democrats: Next time a Trumpist lobs a verbal grenade in hopes of blowing up memories of something that just happened, jump right on it. Or, better yet, pick it up and throw it back.
Josh Levs is an entrepreneur, former CNN and NPR journalist, and the author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses ― And How We Can Fix It Together.