Watching Elena Kagan's Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week, I felt like I was seeing her interview for two different jobs. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee were interviewing Kagan for a position on the Supreme Court requiring a depth of legal knowledge, a nuanced view of the Constitution, and an ability to engage thoughtfully on issues like the First Amendment, workplace arbitration, and oil spill litigation. The Republicans, by and large, were at a different hearing. With little ammunition to defend the current conservative Court against substantive constitutional criticisms, they were unable to escape the irresistible pull of their biggest irrational obsession. In other words, they set out looking for a Supreme Court Justice who shares their strong, anachronistic dislike of gay people.
It wasn't always like this. Remember when the Republican party wanted to keep government out of America's bedrooms? Despite the American people's increasing and matter-of-fact acceptance of gays and lesbians, this GOP gay witch hunt has only seemed to increase in its intensity, becoming even more shrill and more embarrassing.
We were once again given a strong reminder of this at Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings, when Republican senators hosted a four day-long attack on the nominee based on one issue--her opposition to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the anti-gay policy that is not only overwhelmingly unpopular across the political spectrum, but is unlikely to even be on the books by this time next year.
This line of attack was catnip for the GOP because it provided a too tempting mix of three Republican stock favorites: provoking resentment of gay people, accusing Democrats of being anti-military, and insinuating the existence of an Ivy League East Coast Elite Conspiracy. With so many critically important issues facing the country and the world, this Republican obsession came off as a ridiculous hot mess of intolerance and irrelevance.
The actual accusation that the GOP levied at Kagan--that she was somehow hostile to the military because she set up an alternate location for military recruitment at Harvard Law School in order to accommodate both the school's non-discrimination policy and military recruiters--was widely discredited and absolutely denied by many Harvard Law students who readily found military jobs during Kagan's tenure.
Yet Republicans in the Senate were fixated on the Pro-Gay, Pro-Harvard, Anti-Military axis. Sen. Jeff Sessions, the leading Republican on the committee, spent the majority of his time at the hearings badgering Kagan about her actions as dean, and his party brought in three men in uniform--Republican activists who had, it seemed, never actually met Kagan--to testify against her. (This testimony included some ironic exchanges in which the witnesses compared Harvard's military recruiting policy to racial segregation--a comparison that noted civil rights activist Sen. Sessions ate up).
Had they thought about it rationally, the GOP might have chosen another topic. The American people have overwhelmingly rejected discrimination in military service, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell is in the process of being phased out by Congress and the military: Kagan's firm opposition to the policy is solidly in the mainstream, and entirely compatible with support for the armed forces. To most of the country, there are more important issues than the placement of Career Placement at Harvard.
But the Republicans' gay obsession will apparently flourish as long as it can still be sold to a shrinking extreme-right base. When will the Republican rank and file tell their leaders that they are concerned about things other than holding back the tide of progress toward equality?