A New Kind of Fury

By Gerald F. Seib

Read the entire article at: WJS.com

Sen. Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor Wednesday morning and spoke for many in a capital that seems to have veered down a new and dark alley of partisan bitterness: “We have lit a match, my colleagues,” he said. “The question is, do we appreciate how close the powder keg is?”

Mr. Flake was referring, of course, to the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, which has now equaled and surpassed the epic drama of Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation 27 years ago. It reaches some kind of climax Thursday, when both Mr. Kavanaugh and a woman who has accused him of sexual assault appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But there is no chance that the debate ends with that hearing, or with a committee vote, or with a vote of the full Senate—or even with a Kavanaugh withdrawal, if one were to occur. The ramifications of this mess will live on for years to come, regardless of its outcome.

The question is, why this fight? Washington, after all, has been the locus of loud, angry, even anguished debate on a daily basis since the earthquake of the 2016 presidential election. Yet this debate has taken all that to a new level, and making what is left of the conventional political system go haywire in the process.

Here’s why: The Kavanaugh fight takes every raw divide in American society today—partisan, ideological, gender, class, generational—and rolls them all into one. It then folds in the anger of the #MeToo movement, the bitterness between President Trump’s supporters and Trump haters, and the profound concern that liberals and conservatives alike feel about the impact the Supreme Court on the society for decades to come.

Beyond that, Democrats remain furious that President Obama’s last Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, was refused a hearing by a Republican Senate, which has helped supercharge the current debate. And, both parties have come to believe that the Kavanaugh fight will play directly into the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections. They are convinced that if they show their base voters they are fighting as hard as possible for or against Brett Kavanaugh, they will be rewarded at the polls. And the November election will, in turn, decide both control of Congress and the arc of the Trump administration for the next two years.

Both the emotions and the stakes, in other words, are enormous.

All that is inflamed further by a social-media environment in which fury is the norm and facts are elusive, if not superfluous. In this environment, the one thing that used to keep even heated Washington debates under some kind of control—a willingness to at least consider the possibility that those on the other side are acting in good faith—has all but evaporated.

It would be hard to overstate the fevered atmosphere all this has produced in Washington in recent days. Many of those in the forefront of the debate—Mr. Kavanaugh, the women accusing him, key senators—report that they and their families have been threatened with violence, sometimes with death.

Some participants in the drama have gone into hiding; others have security details with them. Sen. Ted Cruz and his wife were chased out of a Washington restaurant a few days ago by a group of anti-Kavanaugh protesters. A journalist’s email inbox suddenly is receiving messages previously unheard of: results of a lie-detector test, a sworn statement about gang rape, a subject line reading, “Is Kavanaugh a War Criminal?”

By late Wednesday, the mix had expanded to include: sworn statements from four people backing up the woman who first accused Mr. Kavanaugh of sexual assault more than three decades ago; celebrity lawyer Michael Avenattiwith a sworn statement from a woman with alleged Mr. Kavanaugh was party to using alcohol and drugs to open the door to sexual assault during the same period; and sworn statements from Mr. Kavanaugh flatly denying the charges.

Amid it all, Mr. Kavanaugh has done something utterly unprecedented for a judicial nominee: Gone on national television to defend himself.

Nobody doubts the gravity of the issues—potential sexual assaults and the potential character assassination of an innocent man for political purposes. Yet in their quieter moments, even some committed partisans are starting to ask how some civility might be restored. “We have lost our norms,” says Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic activist and former head of the national party.

So how to restore those norms? Nobody quite knows. If the system appears to have blown a fuse, it’s because it’s trying to handle high-voltage claims on subjects never before discussed this way.

That path forward for the Kavanaugh nomination will become clear, one way or the other, in the next few days. It may take a lot longer to figure out the path forward for the political system.

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