In the past week and a half, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been credibly accused of attempted rape and other acts of sexual assault. One consequence is that public conversation about his confirmation has changed dramatically. But it’s important not to lose sight of arguments about Kavanaugh’s confirmation that were in play before the allegations came to light because they continue to shape how we assess his qualifications.
In the post-sexual-assault-accusation rush to attack or defend Kavanaugh, there are ample opportunities to identify doublespeak, including Mitch McConnell’s jaw-dropping assertion that Democrats have violated “standard practice and regular order” in their efforts to reopen the hearings.
But before the allegations came to light, there was a concerted—and unprecedented—campaign on the part of Senate Republicans and others to burnish Kavanaugh’s reputation as a “good man.”
One representative example is an advertisement put out by the Judicial Crisis Network, called “Brett Kavanaugh – Man of Integrity.” In the ad, Louisa Garry tells viewers she has known Kavanaugh for 35 years. Garry identifies herself as a teacher, a coach, and someone “not involved in politics.” She then lists a series of qualities she recognizes in Kavanaugh that she thinks should make him an attractive candidate. He is bright, curious, open-minded, thoughtful, and empathetic. Moreover, he is dedicated to his work and family and “of the highest integrity as a person.”
Based on Garry’s testimony, Kavanaugh is an ideal Supreme Court justice. She’s right, of course, that the characteristics she names are qualities a good judge should embody.
However, the ad is actually a clever sleight of hand because everybody should embody the characteristics she names. They’re necessary characteristics for a Supreme Court justice but not sufficient. They don’t qualify him for the job.
Were such characterizations of Kavanaugh restricted to this video, I’m not sure we’d be wise to linger over them for too long. They’re clearly intended to paint him in a positive light, and that’s hardly worth criticizing.
But for anyone who watched Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Garry’s words were reminiscent of many of the things Republicans, including President Trump, said about Kavanaugh in describing his qualifications.
As Trump mentioned in his nomination of Kavanaugh, “Beyond his great renown as a judge, he is active in his community. He coaches CYO Basketball, serves meals to needy families, and — having learned from his mom who was a schoolteacher in D.C. — tutors children at local elementary schools.”
As Republican senators reminded viewers, Kavanaugh loves his family. He’s an upstanding member of the community. He tutors kids. In other words, he’s a good man.
By contrast, questions about Kavanaugh’s judicial record have been deemed unfair by Chairman Grassley, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other Republican leaders. Likewise, questions about his time as an aide to President Bush have been ruled out of bounds, classified by Grassley as “committee confidential.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, Kavanaugh’s supporters are arguing, at least implicitly, that his “goodness” as a person outweighs any consideration of his professional conduct.
This is most clear in his supporters’ total unwillingness to acknowledge, much less investigate, charges he lied to the Senate during his previous confirmation hearings, charges he may have consulted on obstruction of justice, charges he knowingly passed along illegally-obtained campaign materials, and most recently charges that he sexually assaulted a college classmate.
The White House’s response to the most recent allegations: “This 35-year-old, uncorroborated claim is the latest in a coordinated smear campaign by the Democrats designed to tear down a good man.”
In fact, the response to every allegation has been some version of “he’s a good man,” as if that should mitigate concerns about his professional conduct.
The effectiveness of the “good man” argument can be seen even in the more recent allegations of attempted rape. Arguments opposing Kavanaugh based on how he will likely act as a judge on the Supreme Court have more or less fallen on deaf ears. Even some Democrats in conservative states, such as Joe Manchin, were committed to voting for confirming Kavanaugh. He’s a good man.
But, what derailed—or at least delayed—his confirmation is potential evidence that he’s actually not a good man. That is, his goodness is the central question for Senators of both parties—not necessarily because they believe it’s the most important thing. Rather, his goodness is the only grounds on which discussions of his qualifications have consistently been made.
The pervasiveness of the “good man” defense ultimately has to make us wonder about the candidate himself. In remarks during the confirmation, Kavanaugh said he would uphold the Constitution and defend the American rule of law. You would think a good judge would insist his hearings to focus on his ability to do so.