Jeff Flake Gave GOP Senators Time to Breathe. Now They Will Determine Their Legacy.

Senator Jeff Flake’s decision to to stall the confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by a week while the FBI conducts a limited inquiry to the assault allegations may turn out to be a mere speed bump on the road to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Given the nominee’s brazen lies under oath on matters small and large, it is also possible that a week will be more than enough time for a combination of journalistic and law enforcement inquiries to expose Kavanaugh as too patently unfit for even this hyperpartisan Republican Senate to force through.

Either way, in the current political environment a week is an ocean of time, giving Republican Senators like Flake, Murkowski, Collins and others ample opportunity to consider just how history will view them, and just how low the Republican Party will sink under their guidance.

They could be ever so slightly forgiven for being steamrolled by the process as it has played out so far. Under the leadership of Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, the GOP has attempted to advance Kavanaugh through the Senate at warp speed prior to the midterm elections and before any uncomfortable facts about him could be brought to light.

It almost worked. Democrats had little opportunity to make an issue of Kavanaugh’s misstatements about his record as a partisan operative prior to revelations of the allegations of sexual assault. Once the latter became public Grassley made every effort to curtail the inquiry, refusing to invite other accusers to testify beyond Dr. Ford, and refusing to subpoena other witnesses (particularly Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge) in the matter brought to light by Dr. Ford. The deliberate intent was to falsely create a “he-said-she-said” argument, get it over with in one day, then proceed post haste to a vote while most of the country either sat dazed, confused and retraumatized, or engaged in fierce partisan warfare with one another.

That rush was–quite by design–not conducive to the contemplation such a grave decision requires. Even if he only did for show, Jeff Flake provided an opportunity for everyone to breathe, take a step back, and truly consider what they are doing.

It’s almost cliche to note it by now, but history will not be kind to those who vote to confirm Kavanaugh regardless of what facts the FBI may turn up at the end of the week. His accusers are highly credible. His belligerent, partisan, entitled and childish performance in reaction to the allegations was a shocking embarrassment. The lies he told under oath were jaw-dropping, even on matters about which lying was ostensibly unnecessary.

Women across America are experiencing waves of pain and fury as a result. Kavanaugh’s attitude before the Judiciary Committee is well-known to the spouses and children of abusive men, and a nation full of them were watching it closely. A clear majority are opposed to his nomination, and my own anecdotal experience suggests that regular people who don’t follow the day-to-day maneuverings of politics but did view the testimony are often shocked that a man who behaved so erratically and pompously on matters of such weight, actually still has a chance of being confirmed.

It is understandable that Senators who have devoted their lives to Republican politics want to see a conservative majority on the Court–stolen goods as it is. But it is not necessary to confirm this nominee to get it. The sequence of events in which Republicans fail to get a nominee by 2020 is extremely improbable: Democrats would need to win the Senate in November, Republicans would need to fail to secure a vote during the lame duck session, and then Democrats would need to hold the line on the McConnell Rule with every single Senator no matter whom Trump nominated. Each of those events is more improbable than the last.

From a purely short-term partisan electioneering perspective, there is an argument to be made that it would be better for Democratic candidates heading into November if Republicans do confirm Kavanaugh. It would stoke apoplectic fury with both the liberal base and with moderates, independents, and (of course) women across the spectrum. Republican turnout might soften if Kavanaugh were scuttled, but just as likely it might be the other way around: confirming him might lull Republican voters into complacency, while a bump in the road might stoke their anger enough to turn out to vote.

This is also potentially the last chance Republican senators like Flake and Collins have to stand up to Trump without having their hands forced by Democrats. If Democrats do retake the House as currently seems likely, the Senate will be mostly playing defense as Democrats press message bills and investigations into Trump and his acolytes. Republicans will hardly get credit for noble actions if they come under the pressure of Democratic activity in the House.

Now is the time for these Senators to take a deep breath and figure out how they want history to remember them, and what impact they want to have on the country. Will they help Trump, McConnell and Grassley force a hated and patently unacceptable nominee onto the country as a raw partisan power play–or will they step back, do the right thing and work to get a different nominee confirmed to the court even if takes a little more time?

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.