Partisanship Reigns Supreme

Commentary
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) speaks as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies. Sept. 27, 2018. Michael Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

In 1969 Oregon Sen. Mark O. Hatfield joined 16 other Republicans in voting against Judge Clement Haynsworth, who was nominated by Richard Nixon for the Supreme Court. His nomination was defeated 55-45. Then, in 1970 Hatfield (on whose staff I served during these times) was one of 13 Republicans voting against President Nixon's nomination of Judge G. Harrold Carswell for the Supreme Court. He was defeated 51-45. In both cases, bipartisan groups were in favor and against each nominee, based on whether their past actions rendered them fit to serve. Eventually Nixon nominated Harry Blacknum who was approved 94-0. When Anthony Scalia was nominated for the Supreme Court, he was approved by the Senate 98-0. I could go on.

One of the worst consequences of the Brett Kavanaugh debacle is how Supreme Court nominations are completely captured by raging partisanship. This damages the Court severely. Of course, both parties share blame. But Thursday, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) changed the narrative from the weight of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's compelling testimony to a matter of completely partisan loyalty against the Democrats, who of course had their own partisan motives. But the greatest blame, in my view, rests with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who made the most partisan move in the history of Supreme Court nominations by refusing to even consider President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland for an entire year. That poisoned the Senate "well" for Supreme Court nominations in toxic ways.

I knew McConnell in my early years; he served as an assistant for Sen. Marlow Cook (R-Ky.) when I served for Hatfield. So, McConnell experienced those days when Supreme Court nominations, while often contested sharply, were protected from purely partisan politics. He knows better. But those days now are in the past.

Now senators need to make careful, dispassionate judgments about whether Kavanaugh's temperament, qualifications, veracity, and the credibility of testimony about alleged deplorable actions early in his life, render him fit to serve on the nation's highest court. Those judgments, for Republicans and Democrats, should be beyond partisanship. Frankly, we need those like Mark Hatfield who were able to place the heavy weight of those judgments above partisan loyalty.

Thursday, moments at the Judiciary Committee showed hopes of that possibility until the angry style of Kavanaugh's testimony and the calculated outburst of Lindsay Graham pushed the dynamics back into the ugly, toxic partisanship, employed by both sides, which has clouded these proceedings from the beginning. That mood began with Trump's promises to the Federalist Society and rhetoric to his base during the campaign. We will await what these next days will bring and whether time for an FBI investigation will help. But the most help would be senators with capacity for independence from partisanship displayed by Oregon’s Mark O. Hatfield.

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