Conservatism after Kavanaugh
The die is cast. Brett Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court justice, and the nation is just four weeks away from a very consequential midterm election.
While many liberals are clearly demoralized and disgusted by Kavanaugh's ascension, they are also energized for November, eagerly awaiting a long-anticipated blue wave. Meanwhile, conservatives are enjoying their own transformative moment surrounding Kavanaugh. Over the last few weeks, the right almost seemed to be hosting a family reunion, setting aside long-standing grievances to rally around the embattled Supreme Court nominee. It was an extraordinary thing to witness, given the intense bitterness of these past few years. Who would have believed that the anodyne Kavanaugh (originally touted as an uninspiring but safe Supreme Court pick) would be the man to bring the team back together?
Now that their man is confirmed, the right faces an important question: Can it maintain the momentum of these past few weeks? Or will the Kavanaugh hearings be more like a divorced-family graduation photo: a brief moment of manufactured unity, followed by a resumption of familiar squabbles?
The answer really depends on what conservatives manage to learn from this experience. We've just gotten a glimpse of how effective the right can be when it pursues substantive goals with a prudent and focused strategy. Imagine what might happen if conservatives made a habit of that, instead of returning continually to the poisoned well of rage-driven populism.
To be sure, the Kavanaugh hearings provoked plenty of partisan rage. By telling a story with lots of pathos and little external corroboration, Christine Blasey Ford put the nation in an awkward rabbit-and-duck situation. Some saw a courageous woman speaking truth to a corrupt and powerful man. Others saw a respected jurist being consumed by a politically motivated smear campaign.
Regardless of which image first struck your cerebral cortex, the unfolding details likely served to confirm it. If you were inclined to see Kavanaugh as an entitled bully, his emotional and combative testimony did nothing to dispel that image. On the other hand, if the whole proceeding looked to you like a manipulative political ploy, Kavanaugh's emotion may have stirred considerable sympathy. Many conservatives agreed that Ford's allegations, if true, would be disqualifying. But almost any of us would find it excruciating to be grilled on high-school yearbook banter in front of the entire nation. When liberals declared that Kavanaugh's demeanor at the hearings was itself disqualifying, conservatives balked. To them, this was like telling a man that he had to win a pie-eating contest to save his career, then complaining that his table manners were too dreadful to be tolerated.
Grievance politics have become business as usual in America. This time, though, there was a difference. The right wasn't just looking to score more points in a never-ending game of "how low can you go." They were working to confirm a Supreme Court justice. It truly mattered. In conservative eyes, that political objective was paired with a significant moral principle. It just seemed wrong that Kavanaugh, once accused, might have no real avenue for clearing his name, even if he was innocent. That combination of substance and principle was what finally brought conservatives together for a brief moment, despite years of bitter infighting.
For those inclined to see Kavanaugh's confirmation as the final and complete triumph of President Trump, it's worth calling attention to a few incongruous details. First of all, this drama was unusual by current standards, in that it actually didn't revolve around Trump. The president was only a minor supporting actor last week, even after he tried to grab the spotlight by sounding off in typically crude fashion. Perhaps conservatism is stronger when it isn't mesmerized by The Donald?
Next, notice that the dynamic players in this drama were not Trumpian populists. Kavanaugh may owe his warmest thanks to Jeff Flake and Susan Collins, two of the most hated Republican senators of the Trumpian era. Flake, as Trump's most implacable opponent in the Senate, is now so reviled on the right that he's retiring from politics. Nevertheless, his demand for a limited-time-frame FBI investigation turned out to be quite prudent. It added a measure of legitimacy to Kavanaugh's conformation, which Collins then augmented with her floor speech last Friday. It seems there can be benefits to having a few moderates in your party.
It's been a long time since the right united around a serious and substantive political agenda. Is there a chance they might do so again? With Trump still at the helm, it would be rash to make optimistic predictions, but politics is full of surprises. Maybe some people enjoyed directing their mutual energy towards a meaningful goal for once, instead of spluttering about flags, fake news, football, and politically correct phrases. It would be ironic indeed if this stomach-turning episode actually inspired conservatives to turn a fresh page, tempering the populist zeal of the recent years with some more constructive impulses.
For many years now, the Senate has been one of America's most hated institutions. There's good reason for that. But it's never too late to start turning things around. What we've seen this last week is that prudent politics is simply more effective than a rage-driven populism at accomplishing meaningful goals. Set priorities, make principled arguments, and then craft prudent political strategies that can enlist the efforts of a wide range of people. That's statesmanship. We saw a few glimpses of it over these past few weeks. The nation as a whole is hungry for a lot more.