From the Weekly Standard:
For some reason, I find myself thinking a lot about Paul Wellstone’s funeral lately. A popular and outspoken liberal Democrat, the Minnesota senator died tragically in a plane crash just weeks before the 2002 election. Not surprisingly, emotions ran high, culminating in a nationally televised funeral that morphed into a raucous political pep rally.
Some of the speeches took on a harsh partisan tone and the crowd booed Trent Lott, then the Senate Republican leader, when he entered the arena at the University of Minnesota for the service. Afterward, some of the organizers apologized for the tone of the event, but the damage had been done. Democrats assumed that former Vice Presidential Walter Mondale would be able to ride the tide of emotion and hold Wellstone’s seat, but Mondale wound up losing to Republican Norm Coleman (who would, in turn, lose to comedian Al Franken six years later). Many observers blamed the backlash to the funeral at least in part for his defeat.
Which brings us to the latest iteration of over-the-top political theatricality—last week’s hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Democrats are understandably concerned about the nomination, but the histrionics of senators Corey Booker, Kamala Harris, and even a few who are not running for president, suggest that he Democrats have a deeper problem: Demagoguery is a helluva drug and some Democrats apparently cannot help themselves from over-reaching, even it undermines their case.
That may not be decisive in the upcoming midterms, but it poses a longer-term problem for the party, especially in 2020. And it seems awfully familiar to those of us who watched what has happened to Republicans and conservatives over the last decade.
Given the shifting standards of judicial politics, the overwrought tone of the Kavanaugh hearings was perhaps inevitable; there are plausible reasons why Democrats might be leery of Kavanaugh’s constitutional conservativism. But any serious discussion of judicial philosophy was effectively drowned out by Booker’s histrionic and thoroughly bogus “I am Spartacus” moment and by Harris’s attempts to demonize Kavanaugh with misleading soundbites and insinuations that she failed to substantiate.
In particular, Harris’s suggestion that Kavanaugh was confusing birth control with “abortion-inducing drugs,” drew pointed rebukes from the fact checkers at the Washington Post, who awarded her four Pinocchios. Even the often tendentious Politifact rated her charges “false.”
But not to be outdone, other Democrats on the committee have taken to suggesting that Kavanaugh perjured himself during the hearings. This brought a mild rebuke from Ben Wittes, the editor of Lawfare:
Wittes, a political centrist who often aligns with the Democrats, followed up by pushing back on allegations that Kavanaugh was a liar. “He’s not. Full stop,” Wittes tweeted. “There’s no need to demonize ones opponents. And there’s no need to gin up a ’perjury’ issue here.”
And with that, Wittes’s Twitter feed was set on fire, as progressives swarmed to denounce him. Within days, the mild-mannered Wittes announced that he off Twitter, at least for the time being.
L’Affaire Wittes illustrated again how the frame of acceptable rhetoric has shifted toward the extremes. Emotional overstatement has no patience for anything short of the most hysterical denunciations. As Nebraska’s Ben Sasse noted, Kavanaugh “has been accused of hating women, hating children, hating clean air, wanting dirty water.” It is not enough to disagree with his jurisprudence on executive power, he must be “declared an existential threat to the nation.”
This reflects the incentive structure of Trump-era politics that rewards bombastery over substance or nuance.
All of this is so familiar to those of us who watched this scenario play out on the right. Politico noted the obvious parallels in a piece headlined, “Harris and Booker borrow Trump's tactics in Supreme Court fracas.”
It hardly mattered for their primary audience that Kamala Harris offered no firm evidence to support one of her sharpest lines of questioning. Or that Cory Booker’s “Spartacus” uprising amounted to a demand for documents that had already been authorized for release.
One thing Democrats are learning from President Donald Trump as the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh draw to a close: Floating an incendiary charge, with little to no factual basis, can draw the spotlight and force the opposition to prove a negative.
This is, of course, the problem with asymmestrical ethics: If your opponent lies and distorts as a business model, it becomes more difficult to hold yourself to a higher standard. On the right, attempts to hold the line on telling the truth were denounced as signs of weakness and “cuckservativism.” If your opponent is an existential threat then you must be prepared to believe any vile thing about them, no matter how implausible. This opened to door to all manner of mendacity, as well as trafficking in conspiracy theories. And so we got Trumpism, with all of its appendages.
But much of the progressive movement is adamant in denying that there are any parallels on their side of the aisle, even as the evidence mounts that they are mirroring the tactics of their opponents. To suggest any sort of “false moral equivalency,” or “whataboutism,” is an arch-heresy on the left, and there is massive pushback against any suggestion that the left has any need or responsibility to police its own borders or clean up its messes.
To be sure, there are responsible voices who were troubled by the eagerness of some liberals to latch onto the bizarre conspiracy theory that a young lawyer named Zina Bash (with both Mexican and Jewish heritage) was flashing white power signs during the hearings. But those who object to the falsehoods of Harris or Booker run the risk of being considered insufficiently woke.
This raises several questions: Will it be like this if the Democrats take control of Congress? Will they realize that woke emotionalism is not a substitute for sober, substantive politics? Will they discredit their legitimate investigations with illegitimate allegations? Will they embrace Trump’s own ethos in their efforts to overthrow him? Will they overreach and propel Republicans to a 2020 victory? Can they even help themselves?