Trump Hurt Kavanaugh More Than Helped

America’s angry national debate over the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has revived, and scrambled, the debate among conservatives over President Donald Trump.
The conservative commentators who oppose Trump were, as usual, split on Kavanaugh. A number of them came out against his confirmation, citing the ferocity of Kavanaugh’s Senate testimony. Others who have frequently opposed Trump were all in for Kavanaugh. Some of them came to appreciate Trump for pushing back against the Democrats — or, at least, looked at him more favorably in contrast to the Democrats. And those conservatives who have supported Trump all along said that Republicans needed a fighter like him to beat back what they saw as the vicious attacks of the left.
The conservative reassessment raises an interesting question: How did Trump affect the debate over Kavanaugh?
It’s widely understood that a different Republican president would also have been likely to nominate Kavanaugh. Would a different Republican — President Marco Rubio or President Scott Walker — have withdrawn the nomination after Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation went public? Those who praise Trump for never backing down may think so, but there are reasons for doubt.
Very few Republicans wavered in their support for Kavanaugh, whose career was incubated in the Republican establishment. Former president George W. Bush, the embodiment of the pre-Trump party, reportedly called senators to support Kavanaugh. There is also the example of Anita Hill’s charges against then-Judge Clarence Thomas. George H. W. Bush, the most consensus-minded Republican president of the last 40 years, went ahead with the nomination amid that firestorm. The elder Bush just tweeted a congratulatory message to Senator Susan Collins after she announced her strong support for Kavanaugh.
It’s certainly true that Trump made the case for his nominee in a different way than other Republicans would have. He veered from calling Blasey Ford “credible” to attacking her credibility. But it’s hard to see how the president’s most Trumpian flourishes appreciably helped Kavanaugh’s odds of confirmation. The key senators Kavanaugh needed decried Trump’s attacks.
There’s also the matter of Trump’s own history. He has been accused repeatedly of abusive sexual conduct. That made him a less credible character witness for Kavanaugh than someone else would have been, and made the Democratic charge that Republicans are indifferent to sexual abuse more plausible. His presence in the White House amped up the anger over the idea that women who have been sexually abused are ignored even when they are telling the truth.
Kavanaugh is all but confirmed now. He has good reason, of course, to be grateful to Trump, who nominated him and stood by him. And there is no way of knowing what a counterfactual world, in which someone else beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 and nominated Kavanaugh, would look like. But there is reason to wonder whether the distinctive characteristics that make Trump so controversial, and sometimes fascinating, actually helped conservatives advance their objectives. Which is a question that conservatives are going to continue to debate, and not just with respect to the courts.

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

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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