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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Kavanaugh hearings: Low expectations for that thing called righteousness

A friend used the word “righteousness,” and I decided to look it up because it struck me as almost archaic and I felt the need to confirm its meaning: “The quality of being morally correct and justifiable.” It means you speak or act with moral authority, that you’re principled and grounded in high-minded beliefs. Righteousness is not a permanent condition; for most people, it comes and goes.

The problem these days is that, in public life, there’s more righteousness going or gone than coming and staying.

The word popped up over the weekend in the context of the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and all that has transpired since Christine Blasey Ford, a California college professor, accused him of a sexual attack when they were both teenagers in Maryland 36 years ago.

My friend, a retired judicial clerk, appreciates righteousness in the public sphere; he has seen it appear at grand moments in the nation’s history and in individual behavior. But he warned against expecting any trace of righteousness in the way the Senate Republicans are handling the Kavanaugh nomination and Ford’s allegation — or, for that matter, in anything the current Congress does.

That’s not just the dark view of someone who prefers Democrats over Republicans; that’s the view of a majority of Americans. Look at the sorry numbers.

Public approval of Congress fell as low as nine percent in November 2013, following the federal government shutdown that resulted from a Republican effort, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, to delay or defund the Affordable Care Act. Public approval spiked, to a shocking 28 percent in February 2017, but it has been in decline ever since. Gallup placed it at 17 percent last month, with 78 percent of Americans telling the pollster they disapproved.

Years ago, the public’s approval of Congress was twice as high. It ran above 30 and sometimes 40 percent for many of the years since Gallup started measuring it, in 1974. That was the year President Richard Nixon, facing impeachment by the House and probable conviction by the Senate, resigned.

Public approval of Congress rose sharply after the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency. It soared to 84 percent in the months after the 9/11 attacks and George W. Bush’s first year in the White House.

But it fell after that. And the fall coincided with a long period of super-partisanship that continues today. That period commenced with (and probably because of) the Obama presidency. Hardcore conservatives — Maryland’s 1st District Republican, Andy Harris, for example — got elected to Congress and did everything possible to avoid compromise with Democrats. Most notably, they spent years trying to repeal the ACA even as their constituents started to benefit from it.

Super-partisanship is no longer a trend. It’s a way of life in Washington, reflecting the kind of cynical, in-your-face tribalism that seems to have taken hold with President Donald Trump. And I suspect the rise in super-partisanship tracks with the decline in righteousness: No need to do the right thing, for the good of the republic, when you’re in the game to win at all costs.

In the selection of Kavanaugh to join the highest court in the land, Trump went with a strident conservative and right-wing partisan whose record bears no resemblance to the moderating conservative he would replace and that the country needs. It’s clear why Kavanaugh was chosen — to give the Supreme Court a rock-solid conservative majority for decades to come — and Republicans, who abide Trump’s awfulness to get what they want, will let nothing derail the nomination. On Friday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a politician who would not know righteousness if it came in pill form, made clear that, no matter what happens this week, Kavanaugh will get a seat on the court.

So that signals — and pardon my low expectation here; it’s the only one I have at present — that the hearing about the charges against Kavanaugh is likely to be a sham. And that means there’s no need for Kavanaugh to do anything but continue to issue firm denials. No need to do the right thing and — hold on now — call for a delay in the proceedings while the FBI or sexual trauma experts conduct an investigation into the accusations leveled against him. And no, the emergence of a new accuser from Kavanaugh’s college years won’t change anything either.

Sounds crazy, I know. But a righteous man of Kavanaugh’s position, who has nothing to hide, should overcome his resentments and loudly and clearly demand a full inquiry. More than all others, a man who is a federal judge, and who covets a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land, should recognize and respect the need for an independent investigation. And even if that judge had something shameful to hide — or a furtive worry that he did something terribly wrong while inebriated as a teenager — even that judge should support bringing in the FBI.

Kavanaugh should want his confirmation hearing to be conducted as fairly as a courtroom trial would be.

Imagine if Kavanaugh were a Circuit Court judge in Maryland. If he heard a trial witness make an extraneous but serious accusation, he would tell the jury to disregard the statement. But he would also contact the state’s attorney or, depending on the nature of the crime, urge the witness or the witness’ attorney to contact police. As a judicial officer, Kavanaugh would feel compelled to see a criminal allegation investigated.

Kavanaugh should want more than just a “he said/she said” hearing where only the alleged victim and the accused testify. If he were presiding over an attempted rape case in a Maryland court, he would not impose such a limit on material witnesses.

I’m sure that, in an age of cynical politics, such a prospect sounds strange: Kavanagh and his supporters righteously supporting an investigation of something the judge says he didn’t do, urging the Senate to take more time and call more witnesses. Why would Kavanaugh want that when, with full partisan support and Republicans in the majority, he’s still a good shot to get the seat he wants? As my curmudgeonly old friend says: “Arguing what Kavanaugh would do if he were righteous seems beside the point.”

Yes, we are well past having that expectation in this age of super-partisanship.



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