Democrats Recalibrate as Kavanaugh Impeachment Fizzles

Democrats Recalibrate as Kavanaugh Impeachment Fizzles
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Democrats Recalibrate as Kavanaugh Impeachment Fizzles
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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At the beginning of the week the Democratic presidential field exploded with calls for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s impeachment.

What a difference five days make.

Two New York Times reporters titled their book at the center of the controversy “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh.” This week, the entire country received an education about the dangers of rushing to judgment over first media accounts of writers’ supposed bombshell allegations.

On Sunday Sen. Kamala Harris “pinned” her weekend reaction to the story – that Kavanaugh “must be impeached” — to the top of her Twitter page as a sign of the priority she was placing on the crusade to take down the latest Republican addition to the nation’s high court.

Harris, whose campaign polling has plunged in recent weeks, doubled down on the impeachment demand on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show Monday night, then touted those calls for his ouster in fundraising appeals to supporters.

She had plenty of company. All of the 2020 Democratic candidates, except former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, angrily demanded that Congress force Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court after the Times reported a seemingly new incendiary allegation of college-era drunken sexual misconduct by him.

The story included a one-source charge that while at an alcohol-fueled party, friends pushed Kavanaugh, who had his pants down, into a woman, thus forcing her to touch his penis. Just 24 hours after the story’s posting, editors updated it with a note that said the alleged female victim in the incident declined to be interviewed and her friends say she does not recall it happening.

The Harris Kavanaugh pin is now gone, replaced by a gripping PSA about the children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting.

Her office has not responded to RealClearPolitics’ requests about where she stands now on impeachment after a week that included the correction to the Times’ essay, followed by a series of revelations about gaping holes and omissions in the story, and its authors alternatively defending it and admitting major missteps (and one of them deleting an off-base tweet about it in the process).

Resisting the urge to fire up the liberal base, Biden and Klobuchar called for more information and investigations into the matter. And despite the early hype, that’s likely the path Democrats will pursue – a much slower and plodding path to avoid getting burned again.

While Biden said the Times’ report raises “profoundly troubling questions,” he didn’t call for impeachment. Instead, he said, “we must follow the evidence wherever it leads.” In this case, Biden’s decades of Washington experience and prudence proved wise.

By the end of the week, CBS News was reporting some new, narrative-shifting revelations about the original Christine Blasey Ford sexual assault allegation that sparked the confirmation conflagration last year -- that all of four witnesses who were said by Ford to be at the house party where the alleged incident took place are now saying “no such party occurred.”

Leland Keyser, Ford’s close high school friend who was allegedly at the party, was among those saying they thought it never took place, and she made a new charge -- that she was pressured by Ford’s allies to toe the line last year when the saga was playing out on the nation’s televisions, lest allegations of her “addictions” as an adult come to light.

New media reports over the last three days also paint a fuller portrait of Max Stier, the source of the new allegation against Kavanaugh. Stier was not just a well-respected former Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s who ran a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, as the New York Times article first presented him.

Stier’s path crisscrossed Kavanaugh’s in Washington and he was ironically on the legal defense team of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- working opposite Kavanaugh, who was helping independent counsel Kenneth Starr in the late 1990s.

Kavanaugh wrote the rationale for impeaching Clinton over alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. Stier, who was working for the law firm Williams & Connolly at the time, co-signed a document ridiculing the removing of the president over “vague and nonspecific accusations,” the Washington Post reported this week.

A registered Democrat, Stier has a history of donating to Democrats — $250 to the Democratic National Committee in 2000 and $1,000 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007.

But he also had early ties to Republicans: He interned in college for Jim Leach, an Iowa congressman, before attending Yale, where he and Kavanaugh were classmates. After going on to attend law school at Stanford, Stier clerked for Justice David Souter while Kavanaugh clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy — both of whom were nominated by Republican presidents.

After his defense role in the Lewinsky scandal, Stier served as a lawyer in the Clinton administration before founding the non-partisan Washington-based Partnership for Public Service, which works to ensure that the federal government attracts the best workforce it can. 

Republicans also point to a possible motive against Kavanaugh: Stier’s wife, D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge Florence Pan, was nominated in 2016 by President Obama to be a U.S. district judge for the District of Columbia. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced her nomination, but it lingered in the Republican-controlled Senate and never received a vote. Trump was elected and he nominated someone else.

So how do the 2020 Democrats and brethren in Congress pick up the pieces after such a chaotic week of Kavanaugh news left them grappling for the right angle on a path forward?

Harris kept the impeachment campaign going for a few days even after the Times’ correction before lifting her foot off the gas and turning to other top Democratic priorities. Over the last 24 hours, her tweets have focused on guns, climate change and the national conversation about her own electability. Elizabeth Warren hasn’t tweeted about Kavanaugh in four days.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in Congress hit the full stop on impeachment quickly. By Monday night, Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate were dousing the flames 2020 Democrats and progressives in the party had tried to ignite.

“Get real,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin told Politico Monday afternoon. “We’ve got to get beyond this ‘impeachment is the answer to every problem.’ It’s not realistic. If that’s how we are identified in Congress as the impeachment Congress, we run the risk that people will feel we’re ignoring the issues that mean a lot to them as families.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer also wouldn’t take the bait, sidestepping the question on impeaching Kavanaugh.

“I’ve said this before: Very simply, I never thought Kavanaugh should be on the bench, and I still don’t today.”

Asked if she sees the House spending time on the new Kavanaugh allegations, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was curt and to the point: “No.”

Jerrold Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, who has aggressively pursued the impeachment investigation against President Trump, also seemed anything but eager to add Kavanaugh’s ouster to that plate.

Still, he was more nuanced than other senior Democrats in his response. He left the door open to addressing the issue of last year’s FBI handling of the Kavanaugh investigation next month when FBI Director Christopher Wray is scheduled to testify before the panel.

“It’s too early to form a judgment one way or another,” he told a New York radio station earlier this week. “We’re going to start looking into this; we’re going to start with the FBI director coming in front of us next month. And we have our hands full with impeaching the president right now.”

After Durbin’s threw cold water on Kavanaugh’s impeachment, he revised and extended his remarks in a written statement arguing for a House investigation into the FBI’s review of the Kavanaugh allegations and whether Republicans or the Trump administration tried to improperly constrain it.

“The American people deserve transparency, not concealment,” Durbin said, arguing in favor of a probe into any actions the administration and Senate Republicans took to “stifle a neutral FBI investigation” and calling on the FBI to preserve all records relating to its “limited” Kavanaugh inquiry, including records about who tried to contact the FBI to share information.

Durbin also said he supports the House Judiciary’s Committee’s work to request records from Kavanaugh’s tenure as a lawyer for the Bush administration from the National Archive and urged the panel and others to investigate “how and at whose direction FBI investigators were prevented from interviewing witnesses, following leads, and pursuing the facts.”

While it’s a risky strategy, Democrats will likely take some type of more tempered action even as Rep. Ayanna Pressley and other far-left liberals continue to clamor for impeachment.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee, is carving out a slower, more deliberate path to follow once the dust settles on the chaotic Kavanaugh news this week. He told the Washington Post that Stier approached him during last year’s battle over the confirmation and was “gravely concerned about coming forward” with his recollection of the alleged drunken dorm incident.

Coons said Stier telephoned him after Blasey Ford testified and agreed to let him write to the FBI and urge them to speak to Stier about his recollection. Coons penned a letter to Wray on Oct. 2 asking that an “appropriate follow-up” be made with Stier. But the FBI never interviewed Stier — and that revelation from the Times authors’ book is what has many Democrats incensed and pressing for a thorough congressional review of the FBI investigation.

“I think it was too narrow, too brief and too constrained, and the American people need to know why,” Coons told CBS News this week, referring to last year’s truncated FBI investigation into the allegations.

Re-plowing the Kavanaugh terrain is a perilous prospect for both parties, though Republicans and President Trump have said they relish the thought.

“There is no lost battle that Democrats won’t revisit in order to satisfy the extremists in their party,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh told the Washington Free Beacon.

Even though the issue fires up the Democratic base, Republicans point to exit polling showing it played a decisive role in four Democratic senators’ losses in 2018 in Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and Florida. Claire McCaskill, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp and Bill Nelson all went down in defeat after voting to reject Kavanaugh.

Liberal judicial activists woke up to this USA Today headline after Election Day 2018: “Democratic Senators lost in battleground states after voting against Kavanaugh.”

Sen. Susan Collins, a centrist Republican who cast a pivotal vote to confirm Kavanaugh and is facing a tough 2020 reelection battle, seemed prescient in pushing back at a prominent Democratic challenger’s decision this week to use the new sexual misconduct allegation to hit her again over the vote.

“The news stories today are not adding anything to what has already been reported,” she said, noting that “the only new part of the story was the alleged incident. … But this is an accusation that lacks an accuser.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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