Which party is going to come out ahead in next month’s midterm congressional elections? Don’t ask me. Our politics has gone through the looking glass, and I have no idea how to make predictions any more.
But I have noticed a peculiar pattern. Both sides seem intent on burrowing into their bubbles, reinforcing their own internal view of themselves and ignoring how an impartial observer—or, more to the point, an independent voter—might see them. It’s a battle of the blind, where the outcome depends on which side is more oblivious to the world outside of its bubble.
Like I said, I’m not going to try to predict the outcome, but if I had to choose, I would say that the Democrats are “winning,” which is to say, losing.
During the Kavanaugh hearings, they talked themselves into a cartoon caricature of events in which all of the accusations against Justice Kavanaugh were not merely “credible” (a curiously elastic term these days) but were assumed to be absolutely true, and in which Republican voters and cautiously moderate politicians like Susan Collins all woke up one morning and decided to send the message that they approve of sexual assault.
If you think that’s an exaggerated description of the left’s view of things, check out the caricature in its original form on the editorial pages of the New York Times, in the form of a blanket denunciation of “white women.”
These women are gender traitors, to borrow a term from the dystopian TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They’ve made standing by the patriarchy a full-time job. The women who support them show up at the Capitol wearing “Women for Kavanaugh” T-shirts, but also probably tell their daughters to put on less revealing clothes when they go out….
We’re talking about white women. The same 53 percent who put their racial privilege ahead of their second-class gender status in 2016 by voting to uphold a system that values only their whiteness, just as they have for decades. Since 1952, white women have broken for Democratic presidential candidates only twice: in the 1964 and 1996 elections, according to an analysis by Jane Junn, a political scientist at the University of Southern California….
That’s because white women benefit from patriarchy by trading on their whiteness to monopolize resources for mutual gain.
The author of this screed against white women is, of course, a white woman. But you probably guessed that by now.
This op-ed itself is not worthy of analysis. It’s an unhinged rant devoted purely to psychologizing what an imagined enemy “probably” does and thinks. What is important is that the New York Times found it fit to print. They clearly thought this was something that would resonate with the mental and emotional state of their readership.
This is utterly repellent to voters outside the left-wing bubble, who don’t appreciate constantly being bullied rather than persuaded. But those inside the bubble have no clue and are excitedly e-mailing and retweeting this sort of thing to one another. They already lost one big election doing this, and they show no sign of learning from their mistakes.
Hence the result of the Kavanaugh Affair. Three weeks ago, Republicans suffered from a serious “enthusiasm gap” leading up to November’s election. Midterm elections have lower turnout than elections with a national candidate at the top of the ticket, so they tend to be won based on the enthusiasm of each party’s core voters. For example, Barack Obama brought out a large bloc of voters for the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012. But when he was not on the ticket, in 2010 and 2014, those voters stayed home, while Republican voters’ outrage at Obama brought them to the polls.
It was looking like 2018 would be a mirror image of that, with Republicans staying home and outraged Democrats flooding the polls. But the Democrats’ handling of the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh did something Republicans could never have accomplished on their own: it united a fractured coalition on the right and motivated them to take a serious interest in the congressional elections.
The Kavanaugh Affair accomplished this in three ways. First and most important, it shifted attention away from Donald Trump. The importance of this should not be underestimated. Even those who no longer call ourselves “NeverTrump” cannot avoid a constant drip of reminders—both in his personal style and the substance of his policies—about why we find the president hard to defend. About every six months, just when I’m beginning to wonder whether his presidency isn’t so bad after all, he reliably says or does something I find disqualifying. (The latest? His love affair with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.)
But the Kavanaugh Affair put other people front and center as the faces of the Republican Party. There was Kavanaugh himself—a conventional Federalist Society constitutionalist who got his start working for George W. Bush—and then there was South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who emerged as Kavanaugh’s most fiery defender. In other words, the Democrats shifted our attention to exactly the kind of leaders most Republicans, even those who are unsatisfied with Trump—especially those who are unsatisfied with Trump—can enthusiastically rally behind.
Even worse for Democrats, they put the focus on Republicans in Congress, who were given the opportunity to be seen as bold leaders who stood firm and delivered for their core voters on an important issue. If the argument for Trump was “but he fights,” that is a virtue that can now be claimed by Senator Graham, and it will extend in some degree to other Republicans in Congress. Now that Democrats are vowing to revive the whole controversy by impeaching Kavanaugh if they gain control of the House, they have done Republicans the favor of making this an issue for House elections, too.
On the purely psychological level, Democrats also helped take attention away from the bad behavior of a Republican president and focus it on the bad behavior of congressional Democrats. It is an unfortunate truth of elections and comments fields that people are more motivated to act by anger than by love.
The attack on Kavanaugh was supposed to be the Democrats’ “October Surprise” to rally their voters in the month before the election. Instead, it functioned as an October Surprise for Republicans, and if anything can save them from the usual fate of the party in power in a midterm election, this will.
Yet as I said at the beginning, this is a battle of the blind, and Republicans are doing their best to undermine the advantages the Kavanaugh Affair has delivered to them.
They are doing this in service to a partisan imperative within the Republican Party. Seeing a moment of unity among divided Republicans, the pro-Trump partisans are attempting to use it to eliminate the last vestiges of Republican resistance to him. And so there has been a scramble to give Trump the credit for the Kavanaugh victory.
This is even coming from some unlikely sources. Brett Stephens, a relatively moderate conservative columnist for the New York Times, writes that “For the first time since Donald Trump entered the political fray, I find myself grateful that he’s in it,” because “one big bully was willing to stand up to others.” Similarly, a long report in the Washington Post credits Trump at his worst—his free-form mockery of Kavanaugh’s main accuser at a political rally—as the turning point of the affair.
Again and again, President Trump was instructed not to do it. A cadre of advisers, confidants and lawmakers all urged him—implored him, really—not to personally attack the women who had accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
So he did it anyway….
Establishment Republicans initially reacted with horror. But Trump’s 36-second off-script jeremiad proved a key turning point toward victory for the polarizing nominee, White House officials and Kavanaugh allies said, turbocharging momentum behind Kavanaugh just as his fate appeared most in doubt.
The argument for this is a bunch of vague imagery and painfully mixed metaphors (“turbocharging momentum”). But there is no actual evidence for the claim, and none is presented in the article. In fact, it eventually makes this concession:
In the closing days of the Kavanaugh fight, Trump’s role was mostly public-facing. His aides conceded that the president would not have much sway with the trio of Republicans who were on the bubble. “I think in terms of the people that we needed to in the end win over, it’s sometimes the less said is better,” Thune said, referring to Trump’s role.
This, by the way, is an example of the symbiosis that has long existed between the mainstream media and Trump. They want to portray Republicans as motivated by cheap mockery and tribal appeals, rather than reason—and Trump fits that narrative.
But this is not the actual story of how Kavanaugh was confirmed. The key players were a group of politicians who are very much the opposite of Trump. None of this would have happened, for example, if not for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the embodiment of the GOP establishment. The Kavanaugh confirmation was shepherded through by a moderate Republican Senator, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee bulldozed over Democratic members who refused to cooperate with the Senate investigation because they wanted to drag out the process. The most public face in Kavanaugh’s defense was Lindsey Graham, once derided by Trump supporters as a liberal squish who is soft on immigration. The deciding vote was cast by an outright RINO, Maine’s Susan Collins, whose vote was deeply influenced by her connection to George W. Bush, who lobbied wavering Republicans on behalf of his former aide.
So you can understand my befuddlement when people point to an accomplishment involving a bunch of conventional, establishment Republicans—McConnell, Grassley, Graham, Collins, Bush, and Kavanaugh—and ask me: aren’t you glad Donald Trump totally changed the Republican Party? It just doesn’t compute.
But one of the hallmarks of Republican politics right now is that it is defined, not in terms of issues or principles, but in terms of loyalty or antipathy toward a single man: whether you are “pro-Trump” or “NeverTrump.” So we’re seeing a lot of pressure on wayward Republicans to finally give in to Trumpism, and in The Federalist you can see the more timid or befuddled of them using this as an excuse to return to the fold. (You won’t see it from me. More on that soon.)
This is the right’s form of blindness: pretending that there is nothing wrong with Trump, that no criticism of him is really legitimate, and blaming it all on the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” of a group of NeverTrump saboteurs who seem to claim an ever larger space in the heads of Trump supporters the more our numbers dwindle. There is even an internecine version of “Republicans Pounce,” the trope in which a story about wrongdoing by a Democrat is always turned into a story about predatory Republicans “pouncing” on the news. The new version is “NeverTrumpers Pounce.” Thus, for example, when both Trump’s lawyer and his former campaign manager got into serious legal trouble, that wasn’t the news. The news was “yet another example of overreach from an elite establishment out of touch with the American electorate that put Trump in power.”
Much as I hate to intrude on the current Era of Good Feelings prevailing among Republicans, my experience is that any time a political party is feeling this pleased with itself, they’re in trouble. By talking themselves into the idea that they are exclusively in touch with the true wishes of the American people and agreeing to disregard Donald Trump’s very real and deeply unappealing flaws, Republicans are wrapping themselves in their own bubble.
Both sides would do well to keep in mind a recent poll in which a robust majority of voters disapprove of the way Democrats handled the Kavanaugh confirmation—exactly one percentage point more than disapproved of the way Republicans handled it. And Donald Trump’s approval ratings remain in the low 40s, still lower than his disapproval rating, which is over 50%—just as it has been throughout his presidency.
But as I said, this is a contest over who can confuse the resounding of its own echo chamber with the voice of the people—while the sobering reality is that voters pretty much hate both parties and their leadership.