The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has been a series of drawn-out charades. Notably, there was Arizona Senator Jeff Flake dithering over his vote to advance the nomination out of the Judiciary Committee; he huddled in a side room with various colleagues before finally emerging to exchange his “yes” for a new FBI investigation—an investigation so limited in scope that it served little purpose other than to offer cover to Flake and other senators nervous about voting in favor of a man credibly accused of sexual assault.
Then, on Friday afternoon, came a lengthy speech from Maine Senator Susan Collins, announcing that she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, effectively sealing the deal in his favor. With a saccharine half-smile pasted on her face, Collins took her audience through an excruciating 45-minute defense of the judge, which sounded mostly like an effort to justify her vote to herself. Collins praised Kavanaugh’s “invariably thoughtful and fair” opinions, offered assurances that he’d uphold Roe v. Wade, described him as a “centrist,” and criticized “special-interest groups” who opposed him—never mind that the big money actually came from the Judicial Crisis Network, a group funded almost entirely by a single, anonymous donor and which spent some $12 million to get him confirmed.
When she finally got around to the accusation of sexual assault levied by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Collins deployed a sleight-of-hand that has become the default for Kavanaugh’s supporters: that something happened to Ford, just not something involving Kavanaugh. “I believe that she is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has upended her life,” Collins said of Ford. Then Collins devoted several minutes to pointing out all the ways in which she found Ford’s testimony unreliable, and inadequate, concluding that her charges cannot “fairly prevent Judge Kavanaugh from serving on the Court.”
Almost immediately after Collins finished her speech, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin announced that he, too, would be voting to confirm Kavanaugh, which will make him the only Democrat to do so. Manchin deployed the now-familiar line: “I believe Dr. Ford,” he said. “Something happened to Dr. Ford. I don’t believe that the facts show it was Brett Kavanaugh.”
This is a clever political trick, allowing Collins and Manchin to avoid saying explicitly that they think Ford is a liar, or that they believe her story and simply don’t care. Either of those claims would at least be honest. Instead, Collins, Manchin, and a whole host of Kavanaugh’s defenders have settled on a rationalization that is as a patronizing as it is incoherent: that Ford must be confused about the very crux of her claim, the thing she testified under oath that she was “100 percent” certain of. It’s Kavanaugh’s face she remembers, and his laughter, and his hand over her mouth.
Collins and Manchin were reading from a script that appears to have been written by Kavanaugh’s inner circle. Ford must be “mistaken,” Senator Orrin Hatch said on September 17, shortly after speaking on the phone with Kavanaugh himself; “Clearly,” Hatch went on “somebody’s mixed up.” A few days later The Washington Post reported that “Kavanaugh and his allies have been privately discussing a defense that would not question whether an incident involving Ford happened, but instead would raise doubts that the attacker was Kavanaugh.” The same line of argument was floated publicly on Twitter by Ed Whelan, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center and one of Kavanaugh’s friends, who suggested that Ford mistook another one of Kavanaugh’s classmates for the judge; Whelan went so far as to name the supposed doppelgänger publicly. He later apologized for his “appalling and inexcusable mistake of judgment.” But a version of that theory spread nonetheless until it became the dominant Republican narrative.
Collins and the rest are trying to have it both ways: to justify their support for someone credibly accused of attempted rape while also claiming, as Collins did, to be “listen[ing] to survivors.” (“The #MeToo movement is real. It matters,” Collins went on to say.) Listening to survivors, however, is not the same thing as taking them seriously. The painful corollary is that speaking is not the same as wielding power. “I found her testimony to be sincere, painful and compelling,” Collins said of Ford. And even so—and this is what matters in the end—Collins found it irrelevant.