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More reaction to the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings on the Campbell Conversations

WRVO Public Media
Syracuse University professors Shana Gadarian, left, and Tom Keck

The nomination hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have taken an important turn. Christine Blasey Ford alleges that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while the two were in high school, and the future of Kavanaugh's confirmation is now uncertain. This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Syracuse University professors Shana Gadarian and Tom Keck about these developments in Kavanaugh's confirmation process. 

Editor's note: This program was recorded and had aired on WRVO before a second accusation was made against Kavanaugh, which was published in the New Yorker Sunday, Sept. 25. 

Interview Highlights

Reeher: Let’s just start with a look to the past. Almost immediately after this story broke [about Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh], comparisons with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas where made. So, I’m wondering, does the benefit of hindsight on that event, and in particular, the way that Anita Hill was viewed and treated at the time…does that help shape and influence the way this case is being viewed?

Keck: That’s a great starting point…In 1991, President Bush—the first President Bush—nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee conducted a more-or-less conventional round of hearings, and it then came out that a former staffer who had worked at two different government agencies for Clarence Thomas had accused him of multiple ongoing acts of sexual harassment in the workplace. And, as you indicated, the Senate judiciary, which was all male at the time and chaired by Sen. Biden, scheduled a second round of hearings at the widespread impression, certainly among many women that were watching and I think among many men as well, was that they put Anita Hill on trial, not Clarence Thomas. And the all-male judiciary committee was widely criticized for its treatment of Hill in that open hearing. And so, as you say, immediately upon the revelation of these most recent allegations against Kavanaugh, comparisons were brought back to that earlier episode, and lots of folks were wondering, will/can the Senate Judiciary Committee do a better job this time of investigating what appear to be credible allegations and doing so in a way that respects the rights of the victim.

Reeher: Shana, on this same issue, I’m wondering whether this moment, then, might be seen as providing some way to close the circle on that earlier event, that it in itself may provide its own set of motivations for observers and for some of the senators involved.

Gadarian: Well, certainly, there are some of the same senators involved that were in 1991. Are we going to get any better treatment of Christine Blasey Ford? I think that’s an open question, and Anita Hill actually wrote an op-ed asking for let’s try to do better than in 1991. And I think, again, there are more women involved in the process now, but certainly not on the majority side. There are no Republican women who serve on the judiciary committee, and I think there is a concern both from the members themselves and from the larger public that this is again going to be a spectacle where Blasey Ford is going to be on, and her background and her motivations are going to be questioned, as they are in mass media right now, rather than investigations of these particular allegations themselves.

Reeher: And then, of course, there’s the #MeToo movement, and this is happening kind of after that and still in the middle of it. So, how do you think, just in terms of the politics, that plays out as being viewed?

Garadian: There’s two things going on. One is the actual allegations and how we think about those allegations in this particular process of the Kavanaugh confirmation. And then, there’s the broader politics of #MeToo right now, which are both recognizing and trying to maybe do better in the way in both society and the workplace treat women. So, there’s a lot of sense of support in the broader public among women activists of Blasey Ford on this broader sense that women have to be believed, and we have to respect their place in society and not think of them as less than men.

Reeher: Tom, what’s your take on that, then, how the #MeToo movement might be affected by, I think, some of the politics of this and the way it’s being viewed?

Keck: My initial reaction when Christine Blasey Ford first went public was sort of how you framed it in the question, like given the current moment that we’re in…the Senate Judiciary Committee can’t possibly get away with treating her the way they treated Anita Hill. And so, wouldn’t it be nice if these two historical events are remembered together as a sign of some significant progress? In the days that have followed, I’m not sure how optimistic I am that anything better’s going to happen. There’s reports that Blasey Ford has been receiving death threats, and her email has been hacked. She and her family have had to move out of their home. Many Republican operatives, including some sitting senators, have made comments that have been extraordinarily dismissive of her very detailed and, I have to say, highly credible allegations.

Reeher: Another context for this is, of course, the level of political polarization in the country and the strong partisanship that exists. So, it is possible even to analyze what’s happening right now and what will happen without the lens of partisanship? And I’m thinking, is this something, perhaps, that could tap social issues in a way that might break through or explode that for a change?

Keck: Congress is extraordinarily polarized. The Senate is extraordinarily polarized. The Senate Judiciary Committee is extraordinarily polarized, and the Supreme Court is increasingly polarized, which really raises the stakes for this nomination. Kavanaugh’s nomination, from the beginning, has been widely perceived as an opportunity for the Republicans to finally cement their firm control of the Supreme Court, which they’ve been seeking for a long time. And so, given the high level of polarization and the high stakes for this nomination, I think that explains the behavior of some of the Republican senators…To your question, I don’t know—is it possible that, for example, some Republican women would be turned off of their party’s treatment of Blasey Ford in this situation? I think that is possible, but I don’t know yet whether that’s happening, so it might just be re-inscribing the polarization that we already have.

Reeher: Shana, you’ve studied how polarization intersects with messaging and different kinds of messaging. So, is there any hope for me in the idea that somehow, this might be a moment that breaks through that?

Gadarian: No. I’m not particularly optimistic. So, one thing I want to back up and say is, not only is the polarization increasingly obvious at the institutional level; it is also increasingly obvious among people who pay attention at the mass level. So, one thing I want to say is, most people in the mass public are not paying close attention in the confirmation hearing, but one of the things that could get people to pay attention is an issue like sexual harassment, sexual assault because one, it’s easy to understand and two, it’s going to get covered very extensively. When these confirmation hearings come back, it is going to be much more of a spectacle than, let’s say, your normal kind of confirmation hearing. So, one of the things that’s pretty obvious is that lots of people say they don’t know how they feel about Brett Kavanaugh because they’re not paying very close attention. Among the people who do pay attention, it’s pretty split along partisan lines about whether or not they think he should be confirmed. And that is informing their views about whether or not Blasey Ford is credible and whether or not they should hear from her. So, there’s two things. One is that that means that those people aren’t going to be moveable by whatever she says unless there’s more evidence brought to bear, perhaps by the FBI, perhaps by the Senate judiciary, but that also that there is this big portion, almost 25 percent to 30 percent of people, who could be moved to form an opinion and perhaps move toward one side or another based on the evidence, but only if they are paying attention. And that is partially why the Republicans want to move this through so quickly, is they would rather not have more evidence. They would rather not people who are not paying attention start to put on their lenses and pay attention because if more things come out that are not particularly positive toward their nominee, it could take those people who aren’t paying attention and move them into putting pressure to withdraw the nomination.

Reeher: When I first read this and read some of the things that suggested that this was, you say, credible accusations that need to be taken very seriously, my first thought was, “Well, this is done. This is over. They’re going to have to get another nominee.” But a lot of observers of the Supreme Court…have opined that Kavanaugh is still likely to be confirmed. So, what’s your read of the likely outcome at this point?

Keck: Things change day by day, but at this moment, yes. If I had to bet, I would say he’s likely to be confirmed. It’s a long-term, deeply rooted goal of the Republican Party to capture control of the Supreme Court, and they think this is their moment, and the moment is closing. So, if Kavanaugh’s nomination is pulled, there’s lots of other well-qualified conservative judges who President Trump could replace him with, but given the timing, they would not be able to confirm that second-choice nominee before the midterms. They might well be able to do so during the lame-duck session in December.

Reeher: Shana, I think you had some thoughts about this lame-duck plan B, but how do you see this?

Gadarian: That’s all possible, given the current politics, but the other current politics is of very energized and angry public who is putting pressure committee right now and would put a great deal of pressure on this committee even after the midterms. We don’t know what the election outcome is, but it’s quite likely the Democrats take back the House for sure and that the Senate is unclear, but the Republicans probably keep control. But I think the public is going to see a Congress that they want, which would be more balanced and more democratic, and then see this lame-duck session as an affront to what they just did and just said in the midterm elections. Now, they don’t have a lot of recourse other than more protests, more calling, more putting pressure on these members, some of whom might’ve just lost their jobs.

Reeher: Let’s imagine that he is confirmed…First of all, what effect is this going to have on the way that Kavanaugh is viewed from here on out, Kavanaugh himself, because certainly, Clarence Thomas carries this baggage with him to this day?

Keck: Clarence Thomas, for sure, carries the baggage. On the other hand, given lifetime appointments, a lot of time can pass, and Clarence Thomas gets to go about his business being a Supreme Court justice. And most of the time, most days that he’s doing that work, folks are not asking him about Anita Hill. So, time will pass on the one hand, and Kavanaugh will be a Supreme Court justice, likely, for decades. On the other hand, I think Shana is right, that the combination of being on the court with Clarence Thomas and having been appointed by a president who himself faces multiple credible allegations of sexual assault and the fact that this confirmation was pushed through without any credible investigation being conducted—I think those facts damage the public’s impression of the Supreme Court, particularly among Democrats and particularly among women, but more broadly as well, potentially.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.