Republican Senators fear Trump and his voters more than anything
Brett Kavanaugh will almost certainly be confirmed today as the newest member of the US Supreme Court. His behaviour in front of the Senate Committee – aggressive, threatening, overly emotional, highly partisan, evasive – would have been surprising for a nominee to an Executive branch position; as a candidate for the country’s highest court, where you might think that cool minds, sober judgement and lofty impartiality would be called for, it was extraordinary. You can see why Trump likes him though.
What’s less clear is why 51 senators would like him. Granted, he’s not a nobody: he’s served over a decade as a US Appeals Court judge as well as in Bush’s White House. Many Republicans may also like not just Kavanaugh’s rulings and judicial positions but also his assertiveness. Certainly, those with less interest in a well-balanced republic will. Whatever the reasoning, the Republican base is strongly behind the judge, as detailed in this poll. Close to every Republican voter who expressed a preference would rather vote for a candidate that backed Kavanaugh than one who opposed him.
Even so, irrespective of the veracity of the sexual assault allegations, there were more than enough good reasons to reject the nomination. It’s not as if a second nomination from Trump would likely be someone of markedly different judicial and political views and while the elections are in a month’s time, the new Congress won’t meet until January; there would have been time enough yet to require an alternative nominee. But they (barring Sen Murkowski of Alaska) voted down the line to move to an approvals vote today: a vote highly likely to produce a carbon-copy result.
To me, that’s the behaviour of a group in fear. Even though the Republicans are only defending 9 of their 51 seats this time (and only six senators are personally defending them: three are retiring), there must be a calculation that it simply isn’t worth opposing him: the backlash from Republican voters will remain long enough to be a factor in future primaries.
Arguably, the same applies to Democrats in reverse; certainly the pressure from voters does – Democrats are as heavily opposed as Republicans are supportive of the judge, though in a quirk of politics, it could be the Republican voters of W Virginia acting on Joe Manchin (who is up for re-election), that provides Kavanaugh with his confirmation majority.
The consequences of the vote on the Supreme Court and the country will be lasting, as will the effect on American politics. As I mentioned in June, Trump’s Big Deal was with evangelical Christians, who supported him in huge numbers despite his lack of interest in matters religious (ironically, Kavanaugh isn’t one of them either – he’s Catholic – but that’s not the point). That support was bought with the promise, implicit or explicit, that he would champion their cause. With two young, conservative Supreme Court justices nominated and approved, he will have now delivered on that.
It would be wrong to characterise those voters as Trump supporters. In reality, the dynamic is the other way round: he is their president. And, now, their candidate. In 2016, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. 71% of them currently view his presidency favourably. Presumably, that’s not an endorsement of, for example, the stories of his alleged relationship with Stormy Daniels. It’s support for his policies, actions and nominations.
We can take three things from that. Firstly, if Republican senators are going to vote almost down the line to back a highly questionable nominee to an exceptionally sensitive post, we can forget all talk of impeachment. Trump could probably tweet America’s nuclear codes to Putin and still GOP senators would line up behind him. Perhaps, if the Democrats take the House – no certainty there – then there might be an impeachment trial next year but if so, the Senate will dismiss it.
Secondly, Trump will not face a meaningful primary challenge next year. There ought to be scope for a candidate to run under a banner of something like “a better way is possible” and perhaps someone will but either way, it will come to nothing. The people for whom Trump is a cipher have no need to look elsewhere, and they’re more than enough.
And finally, that provides a big space for a Democrat win in 2020. We should be careful not to once again underestimate Trump, as many did in both the primaries and general election in 2016. However, equally, we shouldn’t go too far the other way. His overall ratings remain historically poor, if off the floor, and he only just beat a flawed and wooden candidate in 2016. Trump is currently 6/4 against. I think that’s too short (as are Pence’s odds of 20/1), and as such the value with Democrats lies more in the Next President market rather than the one for the nomination.
It is rare for a president to lose after just one term and even more so for a party to lose the White House after just four years but then Trump’s never followed a conventional script. In that too, he shares something with Brett Kavanaugh.