World·Analysis

The high price and complicated politics of sticking with Brett Kavanaugh

With six weeks to go before crucial midterm elections, Republicans, who already have a problem appealing to women, are planning a high-profile public hearing that risks reminding women of why that is.

Allegations against Supreme Court pick put Republicans in awkward spot

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, right, arrives with judiciary committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley for the second day of his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 5. The committee plans to hold a hearing this Monday after a woman accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were high school students in the 1980s. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Here's the situation: With six weeks to go before crucial midterm elections, Republicans, who already have a problem appealing to women, are planning a high-profile public hearing that risks reminding women of why that is.

The issue before the Senate judiciary committee is whether to believe a woman who has accused a man of sexual assault, or whether to believe the accused, a man whom President Donald Trump has nominated to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Note, too, that Republicans have no women on their side of the judiciary committee and the nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, is considered the potential lethal vote against abortion rights.

Republicans are incensed that they have to go through this. They've reportedly considered having female staffers ask their questions at committee, as if that wouldn't draw more attention to the very problem they're trying to hide.

No exits

If they could have found a way out of it, they would have seized it by now, but all exits have been blocked. Here's how:

Kavanaugh not only denies he once forced his drunken self on top of a frightened teenaged Christine Blasey Ford, held her down, clapped his hand over her mouth and tried to pull her clothes off, he has also apparently told Sen. Orrin Hatch he wasn't even at the party where he's alleged to have assaulted her more than 30 years ago.

Precisely when and where that party was no one seems to know, so how Kavanaugh can be sure he wasn't there is one of the mysteries the Senate committee might explore next week if hearings resume.

But the point is Kavanaugh has staked out the most categorical of denials.  

He's not opted for the wiggly explanation that he can't remember the incident but regrets it if it happened. He's not said there was a misunderstanding for which he should apologize. He's not tried the "So what?" excuse that whatever happened, happened long ago when he was just a roughhousing, reckless teen.

U.S. President Donald Trump is sticking with his Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, despite the sex assault allegation against him. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

If he'd done any of those things, the president could reasonably express regret, withdraw Kavanaugh's nomination and choose someone else, possibly a woman, whom the Senate could quickly confirm — possibly with bipartisan support — then declare victory and move on.

But Kavanaugh foreclosed on that with his flat-out rebuttal that he wasn't at the scene of the assault and is, therefore, the innocent victim of a false accusation. Now that's a defence Trump can get behind. He admires it so much he's used it himself — many times. And so Kavanaugh's innocence is defended at the very top and his nomination lives on.

But this is where things get tricky.

No guarantee

There was a time when some Democrats up for re-election in red states might have voted to confirm Kavanaugh, but he's too controversial for that now. A few Republicans are wavering, too, so suddenly there is no guarantee the Senate would confirm Kavanaugh if the vote were held today.

Stuck between the president's support for Kavanaugh and second thoughts about him in the Senate, the Republican leadership was forced to invite Blasey Ford to a hearing scheduled for next Monday — and risk making a spectacle of Republican ham-handedness with women.

Except she won't appear without the FBI first investigating her allegations.

Blasey Ford says she's certain Kavanaugh was at the party and that he did assault her.   

She's done several things that indicate she sincerely believes she's accurately described something that really happened.

She talked about it when she was in couples therapy several years ago and has contemporaneous notes from her therapist to prove it; she took a lie-detector test administered to her by a former FBI agent; and she identified someone she said witnessed the assault.

The alleged witness, Mark Judge, a high school classmate of Kavanaugh's, has said: "It's just absolutely nuts, I never saw Brett act that way." But that raises a question about why Blasey Ford would bring Judge into her story falsely. She'd have to know there was no chance he'd back her up, and that would discredit her.

Kavanaugh has 'categorically and unequivocally' denied Christine Blasey Ford's allegation against him. (Reuters)

Likewise with the lie-detector test: whatever might be said of its reliability, why risk taking it if you're going to lie?

Blasey Ford has no obvious reason to lie, but one can imagine that Kavanaugh does. Plus, there is reasonably compelling evidence he has lied in the past.

But maybe they're both telling the truth. It's possible that Blasey Ford has honestly mistaken the identity of her assailant. But is it possible for anyone to get to the bottom of that?

The president could act on Blasey Ford's request for an FBI investigation. He has the power to make that happen, but apparently not the inclination. It's not what the FBI does, is what he's said so far.

Bigger mess

Republicans also seem uninterested in hearing from Judge, the man Blasey Ford says was a witness to the assault. That seems odd given that Judge's sworn testimony, if he really is telling the truth and is credible, would corroborate Kavanaugh's denial. (It's possible Republicans simply don't want to get invested in someone who spent so much of his youth in a drunken stupor that he wrote a book about it, Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk.)

It seems unlikely there will be conclusive proof of what did or did not happen, but a hearing that becomes a spectacle reinforcing the worst things some women believe about Republicans couldn't come at a worse time for the party.

In some ways, they're already making a bigger mess of it. The president has repeatedly expressed sympathy for what Kavanaugh and his family are going through, seemingly stone deaf to Blasey Ford's account of a horrible and life-altering assault.

And stone deaf as well to the news of the high price she is paying now for daring to come forward. She's reportedly received death threats. She moves around from place to place with her family. Living in hiding.

About the Author

Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.