Does McConnell still want this nomination to proceed?

Relax. There’s nothing in the news this morning to suggest that he doesn’t. To the contrary.

I’m wondering about his current mood, though, because McConnell is a bottom-line guy. All of the anger people like me have been venting for the past week over Democratic demagoguery and presumptions of guilt matters not a whit to him, I’d bet. He’s not invested in this fight because it’s now a big culture-war bar fight over #MeToo and due process. He’s not sentimental about individual nominees or their career ambitions. When push comes to shove, I’d guess he doesn’t even much care if in fact Kavanaugh is being railroaded. Remember, the NYT reported in the days before the nomination was announced this past July that McConnell favored other candidates. Why? Because, in the end, it matters less to him which conservative gets to fill a SCOTUS vacancy than that *some* conservative does. He preferred Raymond Kethledge or Tom Hardiman, even though the latter’s ideological bent is less solid than Kavanaugh’s:

While careful not to directly make the case for any would-be justice, Mr. McConnell made clear in multiple phone calls with Mr. Trump and the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, that the lengthy paper trail of another top contender, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, would pose difficulties for his confirmation.

Mr. McConnell is concerned about the volume of the documents that Judge Kavanaugh has created in his 12 years on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as well as in his roles as White House staff secretary under President George W. Bush and assistant to Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton.

A bottom-line guy. McConnell is a legislative Terminator on judicial vacancies: It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until a conservative is confirmed. Doesn’t matter which one.

Is a conservative still going to be confirmed here?

Yesterday morning I would have told you yeah, probably. Ford will give her testimony, Kavanaugh will give his, Flake and Corker and Collins and Murkowski will conclude that they can’t pronounce him a rapist based on a bare accusation, and he’ll squeak through. This morning, though, after Ed Whelan’s inexplicable self-immolation last night and Trump’s predictably stupid decision to elbow Kavanaugh aside and make himself Ford’s chief antagonist, I’d call it a toss-up. If Ford is a compelling witness next week and Kavanaugh seems anything less than utterly convincing, Flake and Corker now have room to say, “I don’t know whom to believe but we shouldn’t take any risks with the integrity of the Supreme Court by confirming someone who’s been credibly accused of something so grave.”

And if you think I’m being eeyorish about Kavanaugh’s chances at this point, well, I reportedly have company:

Here’s what McConnell’s staring at right now, with potentially another six days to go before the hearing finally happens:

1. God only knows how many more Trump tweets attacking Ford, possibly (probably) in nastier terms than he did today.

2. New and exciting half-assed theories by Kavanaugh allies like Whelan about which member of his youthful social circle might be the “real rapist,” which do nothing except highlight how little Team Kavanaugh has by way of a defense and how nasty they’re willing to be to get him through. (Various lefties and righties on social media last night agreed that if Kavanaugh had anything to do with Whelan’s attack on his former classmate, that in itself would be disqualifying.)

3. The possibility that another woman will come forward, which would end Kavanaugh’s chances. “There’s a constant rumor mill that X publication has more female accusers,” Axios reported this morning. It’s possible that Democrats already know that, have that person lined up, and are waiting for the evening of the hearing to reveal it. (It might also explain why Team Ford is so keen to delay. Maybe Dem leaders are still in the process of coaxing a second woman into speaking up and need more time.)

Any or all of the above would make an already painful political process for the GOP that much more painful. McConnell is keenly aware, I’m sure, that Republicans are getting blitzed by women voters already in midterm polling. Anything that exacerbates that, like, say, Trump swiping at an alleged rape victim repeatedly for days on Twitter, will make the party’s electoral prospects worse. Meanwhile, the GOP’s chances of nominating and confirming a replacement for Kavanaugh before Election Day if he implodes this week grow slimmer by the hour. They could try to do it during the lame-duck session, but if Democrats retake the Senate they’ll raise holy hell about Republicans trying to ignore the verdict of the electorate by ramming through a new nominee before the new Democratic majority is seated. McConnell’s own precedent on Merrick Garland governs here, they’ll say: The people knew full well that there was a SCOTUS vacancy when they voted and chose the Democrats, not the Republicans, to advise and consent to it. How would McConnell reply to that, knowing that most voters will agree? If he goes into Terminator mode and tries to confirm a nominee during the lame-duck session, what sort of political price will the GOP pay?

All of this is a long way of speculating whether, in his heart of hearts, he wouldn’t prefer to have the nomination yanked and to proceed with alacrity on the confirmation of a replacement. (Before you say “Barrett!”, note that the same NYT story from July that I quoted above claimed that McConnell told Trump that Collins and Murkowski might not support Barrett over abortion concerns. Barrett may be a nonstarter.) That might be doable before the big vote, although of course Schumer and the Dems will spend the next six weeks making endless hay of the rushed process. Even successfully confirming a replacement at this point might cost Republicans dearly on election night — but at least the seat would be filled, which would mean Terminator Mitch had fulfilled his mission. The process needs to start immediately, though. Assuming it’s not too late already.

And maybe it is. Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff and campaign manager, tweeted the following within the last few hours. He didn’t specify what it’s aimed at but I think all of us watching the confirmation Olympics know what he means:

Watch the clip below, also recorded within the last few hours, and you’ll find McConnell reiterating that he’s still 100 percent onboard with Justice Kavanaugh. You might take that as sincere, if only because McConnell may have concluded that it’s too late to confirm anyone else now and therefore everything rests on the current nominee. Or you might read it as … his only available talking point under the circumstances. What’s he supposed to say publicly if he has private doubts about Kavanaugh’s prognosis? “This guy might not make it”? That in itself might be enough to finish off the nominee, particularly with Flake and Corker wavering. McConnell has no choice but to express absolute confidence in confirmation in front of the cameras. But behind closed doors, I’d bet he’s already cobbling together a Plan B to at least try to nominate a replacement quickly, just in case. We may even reach the point soon if things get worse for Kavanaugh where McConnell starts nudging Flake and Corker to make their opposition public, if in fact they’re leaning no. That would give Terminator Mitch a reason to go to Trump and say, “Sorry, the votes just aren’t there. It’s time for Plan B, right this minute.” Remember: The Terminator doesn’t care which conservative is confirmed. Only that one is.

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David Strom 12:01 PM on October 07, 2022