Would Kavanaugh Have Been Defeated if Democrats Were More Ruthless?

With the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, we’ve been exposed to three false narratives about what happened. I’ve written about two of them: (1) both-siderism, with its claims that the two parties engaged in bad behavior, and (2) the Republican conspiracy theories about how Democrats engaged in a political smear campaign against Kavanaugh.

Let’s talk about the third false narrative before we put this whole thing to rest. It’s the one articulated by Julian Zeilzer in an article titled, “How the Democrats got outplayed on Kavanaugh.”

For all the chaos of the Trump White House, the GOP remains adroit at using the levers of power in our modern political system. Senate Democrats and Republicans are not even playing the same kind of game. The GOP comes to work ready for full-contact boxing while Democrats were setting up for a friendly game of checkers.

Zeilzer would have us believe that Kavanaugh now sits on the Supreme Court because Democrats are too weak to play hardball. After recounting all of the Republican power plays that were employed during this confirmation process, he finally admits the following:

Of course, this entire strategy depended on Republican control of the Senate. Legislative politics always comes down to math and from the start Republicans had the numbers in their favor.

Whenever this argument about Democrats being weak is employed, it’s always important to unpack the issues around the math. So let’s lay that one out a little more honestly than Zeilzer was willing to do. In order to stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Democrats needed all of their members and at least two Republicans to vote no. That’s why there was so much drama about Senators Flake, Collins, and Murkowsky leading up to the vote. In the end, Murkowsky voted “present” and the other two voted “yes.” For Zeilzer to prove his point that Democrats don’t play hardball, he’d have to demonstrate that there were tactics that they refused to employ that would have changed that result.

I don’t know about Senator Flake, but I listened intently to the speech Senator Collins gave to explain why she decided to support Kavanaugh. We were led to believe that she struggled with that decision and I have no way of getting inside her head to know if that was true. But I did hear her words. Not once in her 45 minute address did she allude to any doubts or reservations about her decision to vote yes. It was a full-throated defense of Kavanaugh, completely rejecting any evidence to the contrary. In other words, her speech convinced me that she had always planned to vote the way she did in the end.

If the Democrats are to learn anything from this experience, it would be to remember that on every issue, Senators like Collins and Flake have voted with Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. To assume that if Democrats were more ruthless that would somehow change is incomprehensible to me.

Ultimately, Trump and McConnell didn’t win this confirmation battle last Saturday. They won this one at the ballot box on November 8, 2016. The bad news is that there are no ruthless tactics Democrats could have employed as the minority to stop Kavanaugh from getting a seat on the Supreme Court. It is understandable that people are enraged about that. But the good news is that those paying attention got another lesson on how elections matter—just in time for the midterms. This one’s on us!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.