Ford’s Testimony Leaves Republicans in a Bind

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Christine Blasey Ford's opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee was riveting, and she didn't stumble in any important ways in subsequent questioning Thursday. So where do Republicans go from here?

Other than Chairman Chuck Grassley, Republicans on the committee were silent throughout the morning session and the cameras were never on them. They turned their questions over to Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona hired for the occasion, presumably because they were afraid of seeming boorish and unsympathetic, and because there are no female Republican senators on the panel. Mitchell asked detailed questions, but they didn’t seem to add up to anything. In any case, the format established by Grassley --  her questions in five-minute blocs broken up by five-minute segments for each Democratic senator -- made it hard for Mitchell to establish any kind of flow.

Standard operating procedure for Republicans at this point in most controversies would be to turn any discrepancies, no matter how minor or irrelevant, into "she's a liar" talking points on party-aligned media. That would almost certainly work because the core audience -- about 20 or 25 percent of Americans – would accept it. 

The question is whether Republicans will try to do that now. Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, who has been  accused by Ford of sexual misconduct when they were both in high school 35 years ago, is already unpopular. It’s hard to believe that the hearings Thursday, and Ford’s testimony, will suddenly make him more likable. And it remains true that there’s really no downside risk in pulling Kavanaugh and substituting another nominee. Intense Republicans will stick with Kavanaugh no matter what anyone says in the Senate panel’s hearings, but they also would transfer that same loyalty to his replacement. 

That said, someone has to take some initiative, and it’s hardly unusual for politicians to want to duck responsibility. But there are so many potential ways to end the nomination that it’s easy for all concerned to hope that someone else will step up. Kavanaugh could withdraw. Trump could pull his nomination. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell or Grassley could kill the nomination by saying that the committee, or the full Senate, would not proceed. In fact, any group of two or more Republican senators, on the committee or not, could announce they would vote no. 

But if no one steps up soon, Republicans are going to fall back on their standard operating procedure and start calling Ford a liar, perhaps based on very flimsy and irrelevant material. Is that really where the party wants to be? 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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