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Emotionally wrenching testimony leaves the Senate, and the nation, bitterly divided

Emotionally wrenching testimony leaves the Senate, and the nation, bitterly divided
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the Senate Judiciary Committee's only undecided member on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, listens to testimony during Thursday's hearing. (Win McNamee / Associated Press)

If each side had set out to design witnesses who more perfectly embodied the nation’s bitter partisan divide — or could more effectively widen it — they scarcely could have done better than the two who faced off Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Frequently fighting back tears, Christine Blasey Ford described the sexual assault she says she suffered during the summer of 1982, when she was 15, at the hands of a man now nominated to the nation’s highest court. Her anguished testimony made her an Everywoman stand-in for victims of sexual violence. And as a white, female university professor from California, she virtually personified the Democrats’ resistance to President Trump.

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In the afternoon, the man she has accused, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, channeled the president who nominated him, delivering a blistering, angry denial in which he repeatedly declared his innocence and portrayed himself as a victim of “a frenzy on the left” born of “pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election” and “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”

At the risk of torching any image of judicial temperament, Kavanaugh interrupted Democratic senators and glared at them, once sitting mutely rather than answer a question. He cast the fight mostly not as one of credibility — his word against Ford’s — but as raw partisan battle. He portrayed himself as the victim of “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” and “grotesque and coordinated character assassination.”

His tight-lipped fury marked a dramatic shift from a genteel performance at his earlier confirmation hearing. But it drew deeply from the well of grievance toward Washington and liberal politicians that has cemented conservative loyalty behind Trump through repeated crises in the three years since he opened his presidential campaign.

Underscoring the implicit demand for tribal unity — and its intended audience — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Kavanaugh’s strongest supporters on the committee, nearly shouted at the Senate’s remaining undecided Republicans when his turn came to speak.

“To my Republican colleagues, if you vote no, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics,” Graham declared.

Whether the hearing changed any senator’s vote is yet unknown. The committee’s 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats are expected to vote Friday, and the full Senate could begin preliminary votes Saturday.

Only a handful of votes remain uncertain — perhaps three Republicans and a couple of Democrats. But much like the confrontation between professor Anita Hill and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas before the same committee 27 years ago, the day’s drama seemed all but certain to become a national touchstone.

“This kind of mass national exposure is really unusual,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Think of the very few moments in which a large part of the nation pauses to consume something in common,” she said. “People assume if you were alive and above 15 when the Anita Hill hearing happened, you will remember it, and there is no need to explain what it is. This will also be one of those moments.”

Ford’s testimony revealed her as a naif in the world of politics. From her opening declaration about how terrified she felt at the witness table to her description of trying to interview prospective lawyers from her car parked outside a Walgreen’s drugstore, she appeared as an innocent suddenly parachuted, against her better judgment, into a Washington maelstrom.

“She came across as exactly the kind of witness one would hope she would be,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law and a former sex-crimes prosecutor. “Helpful, interested in providing the truth, willing to qualify the testimony where she needed to and very much a person doing her duty rather than grinding any ax.

“For survivors of any kind of assault or misconduct there was catharsis in this,” she added. “As difficult and excruciating as it was to see her relive the trauma, she held up incredibly well.”

Indeed, Ford’s soft-stated testimony elicited praise even from many Republican senators.

“I found no reason to find her not credible,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican.

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Kavanaugh, by contrast, made no effort to portray himself as outside the political realm, and he drew a polarized response. Democrats, as well as some nonpartisan observers, took note of the partisan framing of his anger and predicted his comments could leave permanent doubt about his impartiality if he does win confirmation.

“I think he has really raised serious questions about his temperament,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “He has raised threats of conspiracy and shown himself to be hot-headed in a way which really makes it questionable that he can be a fair judge.”

But Kavanaugh’s testimony drew support where it counted most — from the inveterate television watcher in the Oval Office, who cleared much of his calendar to watch the nearly nine-hour proceedings, a day after he seemed to hint that he might be wavering on the nomination.

“Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him. His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting,” Trump declared in a tweet shortly after Kavanaugh finished.

Conservative defenders of Kavanaugh’s were equally cheered by his partisan fire.

“Kavanaugh is not being withdrawn after this. The Republicans are going to have to confirm him or watch Trump and the GOP voters burn down the remains of the party, deservedly so,” declared Erick Erickson, the conservative commentator.

Before Thursday, many had predicted the hearing would replay the bitter 1991 clash between Hill and Thomas after she had accused him of sexual harassment.

And, indeed, Kavanaugh’s strategy of righteous indignation hewed to Thomas’ declaration that his opponents had engaged in a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks,” the counter-attack that helped save his nomination.

Then as now, the Republican side of the dais consisted entirely of middle-aged white men — a reality that Republicans sought to touch up by hiring a female prosecutor from Arizona, Rachel Mitchell, to question Ford for them.

That effort did little to assuage Democratic anger at the unrepresentative nature of the committee majority.

“The politics on sexual assault has shifted so radically. Yet these Republicans look like Rip Van Winkle, who woke up from a 20-year nap,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic policy advocacy group. “It is rage-inducing.”

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But the differences between 1991 and 2018 ran deeper than the similarities.

In the 1991 hearing, Republican senators subjected Hill to sharp and relentlessly hostile questions. One, the late Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, accused Hill of having committed perjury. Another, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who sat on the judiciary panel Thursday along with two other veterans of the earlier battle, suggested Hill had concocted her story from a popular novel.

Democrats, cowed by Thomas’ racially charged defense, mostly played the role of neutral bystanders, unwilling to take sides.

By contrast, in this year’s hearing, Democrats took turns lauding Ford while the Republicans mostly sat silent, at least during Ford’s half of the hearing, turning the duty of asking questions over to Mitchell.

Their disinclination to challenge Ford’s account reflected the huge social change that culminated in the #MeToo movement of the last year, Northwestern professor Tuerkheimer said.

“There is more willingness to believe,” she said. “There is greater peril associated with a reflexive dismissal of a credible woman’s account of sexual violence.”

But while society’s response to sexual assaults has changed over the last generation, the country’s partisan divides have only deepened. Thursday’s hearing, and the contrasting reactions to it, seemed likely to widen the divide further, leaving the process with few defenders.

“It’s depressing watching this because both of these people have been seriously and permanently damaged,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who has worked with one of the main conservative groups backing Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

“It reminds me of a Shakespearean tragedy, where everybody dies in the end.”

As the Judiciary Committee’s one member yet to declare how he’ll vote, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), put it: “This is not a good process, but it’s all we’ve got.”

“In the end, we are 21 very imperfect senators,” he said. “In the end, there is likely to be as much doubt as certainty going out of this room today…. There is doubt. We’ll never move beyond that.”

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