On July 9, 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to fill the place on the U.S. Supreme Court vacated by Justice Kennedy, with the prospect of ensuring a Republican majority for another generation.
Brett Kavanaugh, U.S. Supreme Court associate justice nominee Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
However, in its actions over the last ten days, the Republican leadership has jeopardized its goals through its failure to respect the rules of crisis management:
- Recognize the crisis as a crisis
- Get out as much information as possible as soon as possible, particularly any negative information
- Avoid saying anything that has to be withdrawn
- Avoid doing anything that looks like a cover-up
The Confirmation Hearings
Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee took place on September 4-7. The hearings were interrupted numerous times by Democratic senators and protesters. By the end of the hearings, a slight plurality of Americans surveyed did not approve of Kavanaugh’s nomination—a first for Supreme Court nominees.
Nevertheless, it appeared that the Republican leadership was on track to accomplish its primary goal, i.e. having Kavanaugh appointed to the court, and possibly preserve its other goals, such as maintain support of Republican women going into the mid-term elections.
On September 12, the existence of a complaint against Kavanaugh, by a “woman, who has asked not to be identified,” was made public, in which she accused him of trying to force himself on her when they were both in high school. She said the incident happened in 1982, when he was 17 and a student at Georgetown Preparatory School, and she was a 15-year-old high school student. The woman stated that she was able to free herself and that she has sought treatment for psychological distress subsequently.
On September 13, Senator Feinstein referred the matter to the FBI, including the identity of the accuser.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, California, Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg
On September 14, Kavanaugh issued a statement through the White House that said, “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”
On September 16, the accuser was publicly revealed by The Washington Post, to be Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a respected professor of psychology at Palo Alto University. She has written or co-written several books and many scholarly articles. She lives in Palo Alto, California, with her husband, whom she married in 2002, and two sons. In 2017 she participated in a local Women’s March protesting Trump and attended a March For Science in San Francisco to protest Trump administration cuts to research, but does not appear to have been active in Democratic politics.
Recognize The Crisis As A Crisis
The first failure of the Republican leadership was the failure to recognize the crisis as a crisis. The Republicans’ first instinct was to to brush aside the accusation as partisan politics and press ahead with a quick vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. A single accusation from one woman 36 years ago was presented as “a little hiccup.” (Senator Heller)
However, once the identity and professional background of the accuser became known, first to the FBI on September 13, and then to the public on September 16, it became apparent that she deserved to be heard, as Senators Flake and Collins insisted. In effect, if the Republican leadership had pressed ahead, it would have been at risk of not having enough Republican votes for success.
What the Republican leadership hadn’t initially grasped was that this was a real crisis for Kavanaugh’s nomination. It would have been one thing if the accusation was being made by a partisan politician. It was another when it was made by a well-respected professor, with no active record in partisan politics and no particular axe to grind. Coming in the midst of the #MeToo movement, the accusation was bound to be a sensation.
Getting All The Information
The White House issued a short, categorical denial on September 14. It wasn’t until a week later that Kavanaugh sat down with the White House for a lengthy briefing session trying to ascertain all his answers to possible questions. (Even then, Kavanaugh refused to answer some questions that he saw as too personal.) In between, a steady flow of information has come into the public arena that has made the accusation steadily more credible.
According to Ford, Kavanaugh’s friend, Mark Judge, was in the room when Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her. Judge has written about how much alcohol he and his classmates consumed while in high school and other raunchy behavior. (Judge has said he does not remember the event and doesn’t want to testify.)
It emerged that Georgetown Prep, Kavanaugh’s private, all-boys school, fostered a world of rowdy parties, excessive alcohol, drugs, and misogynist attitudes to women. These elite schools were even “bastions of misogyny,” according to Greg Jaffe, who attended one and is now a reporter for the Washington Post.
Kavanaugh himself seemed to be alluding to this culture, when Kavanaugh said in a 2015 speech at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, “Fortunately, we had a good saying that we’ve held firm to, to this day… which is, ‘What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep.’ That’s been a good thing for all of us, I think.”
Efforts To Contain The Inquiry
Once the Republican leadership accepted the need to hear Ford, they then tried to limit the inquiry to testimony from Kavanaugh and Ford alone, with no witnesses and no FBI inquiry. The reasons were not persuasive.
- “The FBI doesn’t investigate these kinds of matters.” (It does so all the time.)
- “There is no time to investigate.” (The Anita Hill investigation was completed in 3 days)
- “There is no need to investigate.” (If so, why was there a hearing?)
The Republicans also allowed themselves to get into a defensive crouch, giving the impression that Dr Ford was the one who wanted the truth to be told and they didn’t.
- Ford wants the FBI to investigate. Kavanaugh doesn’t.
- Ford wants other witnesses to be heard. Kavanaugh doesn’t.
- Ford wants the alleged eye-witness to testify. Kavanaugh (and the eye-witness) don’t.
- Ford has taken a lie detector test. Kavanaugh hasn’t.
Republicans In Denial
As these details were emerging, Republican leaders began making defenses and raising questions that would later have to be modified or withdrawn:
- “It must have been someone else.” (Ed Whelan)
- “Dr. Ford is mixed-up or confused.” (Senator Hatch)
- “If it had happened, it would have been reported at the time.” (Trump)
U.S. President Donald Trump Photographer: Neeta Satam/Bloomberg
- “There are gaps in Dr. Ford’s narrative, which raise doubts about her veracity.” (Senator Cornyn).
- “Others have vouched for Dr. Ford’s character, so it couldn’t have happened.” (Trump)
- “It happened so long ago, we can never know, one way or the other.” (Senator Cornyn).
- Even if it did happen, it doesn’t matter. Boys will be boys. That was a different time.
Jumping The Gun: The Semblance Of An Inquiry
Having once crossed the threshold and accepted that there was going to be an inquiry, the Republican leadership then said things suggesting that it wasn’t a real inquiry, thereby undermining their own credibility,
“In the very near future, Judge Kavanaugh will be on the United States Supreme Court,” McConnell said to applause from religious conservatives at the Value Voters Summit on Friday. “So my friends, keep the faith, don’t get rattled by all of this. We’re going to plow right through it and do our job.”
On September 21, after days of relative restraint, President Trump suggested that the accusation couldn’t be true because it wasn’t lodged with authorities at the time, thus revealing his conclusion, even before hearing from Dr. Ford.
Multiple Deadlines Maximized Public Attention
The sensational nature of the accusation increased public attention to the Kavanaugh nomination. That attention was further accentuated by the multiple shifting deadlines. The hearing was first scheduled for September 20. Then once it was agreed that Dr Ford would be heard, she imposed conditions. She was then asked to reply by September 21, then September 22, and then September 23, with no answer as to whether the vote might be on September 24 or a hearing on September 27. It was as if the Republican leadership wanted the public to follow the “would she/won’t she” nature of the negotiation.
It remains to be seen what happens at the hearing of Ford and Kavanaugh, now apparently confirmed for September 27. Through failure to adhere to the rules of crisis management, there is now greater-than-zero chance that Kavanaugh will not be confirmed.
Moreover the Republicans have guaranteed that Democrats will be even more energized going into the mid-term elections in November. The Republican brand with women also risks being further weakened.
Perhaps most seriously, through politicizing the nomination process, the authenticity and apolitical character of the Supreme Court has been jeopardized.
Update Sunday evening, September 23: “Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called late Sunday for a delay in further consideration of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh after a second woman accused him of sexual misconduct.”
Note: The author is registered as an independent.