CNN’s John King offered one of the sharpest bits of commentary on Thursday in the aftermath of Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery defense of his reputation. This was the day, King noted, that Kavanaugh went from being a “Bush Republican to a Trump Republican.” If there’s any moment in time that captures the GOP’s evolution from the party’s last president to the current one, the cultural showdown over Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination is it.
Kavanaugh, after all, is a card-carrying member of the Republican establishment. He’s a George W. Bush loyalist who served as the former president’s staff secretary after working for him during the 2000 Florida recount. Bush appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. His elite upbringing in the Washington suburbs is worlds away from Trump’s blue-collar political base in the American heartland. When Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, his fulsome praise of Trump felt a bit discordant.
But the events of the last week show how Trump’s no-holds-barred brand of politics have overtaken the Republican Party. Defending himself from the allegations, Kavanaugh transformed from a mild-mannered judge into a Trump-like figure. In a powerful but partisan opening statement, he criticized certain Democrats for desperately trying to stop his nomination at all costs. He brought up the 2016 presidential election and Clintonian dirty tricks as reasons for his predicament. Facing questioning, he even belligerently asked senators about their own drinking habits. It was captivating television, something all too common in the Trump era.
It wasn’t just Kavanaugh who was evolving. Sen. Lindsey Graham, once an anti-Trump maverick, has emerged as Kavanaugh’s most dogged defender. His “have you no shame” moment decrying Democrats for smearing a respected judge to hold onto power turned the tide in Thursday’s hearing. Many anti-Trump conservative pundits have rallied to Kavanaugh’s side since the allegations broke. Bush himself was lobbying wavering senators to back the embattled judge, even as he’s steered clear of politics since leaving office.
It’s remarkable that Trump picked a nominee to satisfy the GOP’s elite establishment, yet he’s being dogged by the same issues of sexual misconduct that drive so much opposition to the president.
The political implications from Thursday’s hearings are still unclear. The early conventional wisdom is that the GOP base is more energized to vote in the midterms because they see Kavanaugh being unjustly smeared without much corroborating evidence, while many women are as motivated as ever to vote Democratic after hearing Christine Blasey Ford’s compelling testimony. Indiana's Sen. Joe Donnelly, a red-state Democrat facing a tough reelection in 2018, decided to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination after the hearing. It’s a sign that he’s betting public opinion is turning against the judge.
The longer-term takeaway is that after 2018, there will no longer be an anti-Trump rump of the Republican Party. Jeff Flake will be out of the Senate, along with his Trump-bashing colleague Bob Corker. A sizable share of the remaining Republican pragmatists in the House will have either retired or lost reelection. Voters will be faced with a binary choice heading into 2020: Join the party of Trump or be part of the #Resistance.
Kavanaugh, as a past political hand, surely understood that dynamic. A judge who would be culturally out of place at a Trump rally turned to tribal partisanship to rally support for his defense. If he is confirmed by the Senate, it will be on a party-line vote (unless West Virginia’s Joe Manchin decides to support him). And the GOP’s remaining Trump holdouts will have either made their peace with his presidency or defected to the Democrats.