Brett Kavanaugh Highlights the Country’s Partisan Rot

Republicans under Trump will never be bipartisan. Kavanaugh proves it.

The Watergate Committee in 1974. Source: The New York Times

The discussion of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has been dominated in recent days by a credible accusation of a violent crime. Christine Blasey Ford, a California research psychologist, has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault at a party when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh has denied the allegation, but Democrats and even some Republicans are calling for the nomination to be delayed so that Ford can testify. This bombshell event has scrambled Republicans’ plans for the midterm elections and their opinions of the Trump presidency, not to mention putting an accomplished woman into the harsh national spotlight.

The significance of the Ford allegations for Kavanaugh’s tenure, the Trump presidency, and the #MeToo movement have been and will continue to be covered in the media. But what struck me as particularly galling in the response to Ford’s announcement was the way in which a small group of conservatives attempted to justify Ford’s actions. “Conservatives Suddenly Realize Juvenile Offenders Deserve Leniency,” read a Jonathan Chait headline in New York magazine, where the author details multiple ways in which Republicans have tried to excuse Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior. Excuses range from dismissing Kavanaugh’s behavior as common and harmless (the “boys will be boys” defense) or arguing that “misdeeds Kavanaugh committed as a stumbling drunk 17-year-old tell us little about his character as 53-year-old, let alone about his competency as a jurist.” This effort recalled an earlier attempt by Republicans to explain away the pedophilia charges against Roy Moore last year. Among the usual Republican defenses of Moore’s contemporary character, some officials argued that his transgressions were not that terrible, with one invoking the Bible by saying, “Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth… Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter.”

Republican efforts to defend men accused of sexual harassment do not extend to liberals like Bill Clinton or Al Franken. The power of partisanship is too strong. Of course, Democrats are not immune from partisan double standards. They have admirably taken a bipartisan stance on sexual harassment and assault, possibly jeopardizing their Senate hopes by holding Al Franken to the same standard as partisan opponents. But this trend has not and does not always extend to other actions taken by Democratic leaders, not even counting the double standards on sexual harassment of the Bill Clinton presidency. Liberal media outlets that mercilessly attacked George W. Bush’s foreign policy often explained the Obama presidency’s regime change efforts, particularly in Libya, in humanitarian terms. Trump’s deportation teams have not come close to matching the number of deportations that Obama had presided over at this point in his administration. The half-hearted denunciations that liberals now express against the Obama presidency were much quieter and less frequent during that presidency.

Several books have been written answering the question of why this partisanship has emerged and who is responsible. But the more important question to me is: is partisanship actually good? Can it garner accomplishments and enact necessary reforms? Or is it always a poisonous force that tears the nation apart?

The general consensus on partisanship that has emerged from liberal scholarship is that it has been essential to the fabric of American society for better or for worse. To many liberals in particular, bipartisanship is a dead letter. After the Civil War, bipartisanship led to the horrors of Redemption, when a united white majority turned a blind eye to Democratic terror campaigns and the eventual imposition of Jim Crow. Bipartisanship in favor of capital and against African Americans also led to the bland postwar period, an impotent New Deal, a weakened civil rights movement, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. To many liberals, bipartisanship is equal to conservatism, and the correction is an adamant, partisan resistance, particularly to the presidency of Donald Trump.

But this narrative fails to understand the benefits of bipartisanship throughout American history. Historians today can easily and honestly critique politicians of the past for their racism, sexism, and commitment to large landowners and business leaders. But bipartisanship is not just politics as usual. Bipartisanship is the combination of parts or the whole of two parties, Democrats and Republicans, in order to accomplish goals and pass legislation. The lived reality of the country’s history suggests that this practice is far from the evil that many liberals and conservatives view it as today.

The clearest example of the potential successes of bipartisanship was the much-maligned postwar period, from around 1945 to 1980. Partisan successes during the New Deal period led to a consensus on domestic and foreign policy: more government spending at home, efforts to contain communism abroad. The country’s many mistakes during this period, especially in Vietnam, were offset by the many positives made possible by an atmosphere of compromise. Congress could pass massive public housing, health care, and civil rights bills in a matter of a few years, if not months. Politicians had an incentive to work across the aisle and act against the self-interest of their own party, whether because of bipartisan coalitions or district-specific spending.

Decades of bipartisan bills helped create an atmosphere of agreement and comity so strong that it could push members of Congress to take extraordinary actions against the self-interest of their parties. The Nixon impeachment proceedings were a high water mark in this process. Republicans knew that Nixon’s successor would most likely be a lame duck, hampered by the party’s defeat in the 1974 midterms. They knew that if all Republicans stood behind him, Nixon could have survived for months or even years in office. And yet, Republicans still called for him to resign. James L. Buckley at the National Review made the case succinctly at the time and even swatted away many of the excuses and “whatabouts” of Nixon defenders at the time, writing,

It is fruitless to argue that much of what has occurred in Watergate has occurred before and will in all probability occur again… What is important is the situation in which we, who bear the responsibility to ourselves and to the future as well as the past, find ourselves; a situation different not only in degree but in kind from any other in American history.

It will be enormously difficult for the country to recapture its bipartisan past. To Democrats, this prospect seems unthinkable now with Republicans changing their ideas on pedophilia and juvenile justice at a whim to support their own candidates. Electorally, the country will certainly have to change before bipartisanship becomes warranted again. The first step will be for the Democrats to prevail in 2018, 2020, and beyond. Once Democrats take charge again and show the electoral deficiencies of the nihilistic, power-hungry Trump brand, they will be tasked with the work of rebuilding bipartisanship. Purely partisan successes will merely be repealed once the other party takes control. Democrats may be able to target certain amenable Republicans, perhaps whatever Never Trump Republicans are left, and bring them into prominent places in the Democratic electoral coalition. The process will take time, but Republicans are always thinking several decades in advance in terms of think tanks and judicial nominations. Democrats should start doing the same.

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