Supreme Culture Wars
The Republican approach to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings is a preview of their midterm message.
There is an odd, yet predictable spectacle to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown-Jackson. Her performance to date has been flawless. Her credentials are impeccable. Her confirmation is likely (fingers crossed). Unlike the confirmations of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett, there are no explosive scandals or contentious battles over Mitch McConnell’s court rigging. In some ways, Republicans are performing more for the cameras than putting up an actual fight.
It’s nice to sit back, pop some popcorn, and watch Judge Jackson toy with these conservative avatars of mediocrity. The fact that a Black woman is on the cusp of being elevated to the Supreme Court for the first time in U.S. history is a testament to all the hard work everyone did to win the Senate and the White House. In addition to being enjoyable, these confirmation hearings are instructive about the Republican message for 2022 and beyond.
It’s All About Race and Crime
Major cases to determine the fate of Roe v. Wade, the Second Amendment, and the government’s power to address climate change were before the court. There was an abundance of serious topics about judicial philosophy to discuss. But, of course, Republican focus was elsewhere. The GOP’s unserious approach to this serious moment was embodied by this GIF put out by the Republican National Committee:
In addition to a series of absurd, racist attacks trying to connect her to Critical Race Theory, Senators Cruz, Blackburn, Hawley, and others accused Jackson of being soft on crime and overly sympathetic to child sex offenders. As Jonathan Weisman and Jazmine Ulloa wrote in the New York Times:
The message from the Texas Republican seemed clear: A Black woman vying for a lifetime appointment on the highest court in the land would, Mr. Cruz suggested, coddle criminals, go easy on pedophiles and subject white people to the view that they were, by nature, oppressors.
The attack, the most dramatic of several launched from inside and outside the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing room, contained barely coded appeals to racism and clear nods to the fringes of the conservative world. Two other Republican senators, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, had already signaled they would go after Judge Jackson by accusing her of having a soft spot for criminals, especially pedophiles, and an allegiance to “woke” racialized education. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, also pressed the issue on Tuesday night.
To be clear, in this context, race and crime are the same issue. The Republicans have a long history of using crime to scare White people into voting for the party that wants to keep their wages low, deny them healthcare, and cut their Social Security. Attacking an accomplished Black woman as soft on crime based on fabricated arguments is certainly not subtle. And as if the whole thing wasn’t gross enough, the repeated focus on child sex offenders was an explicit appeal to the QAnon movement which has become an important part of the Republican coalition (seriously).
Since the attacks are unpersuasive to the Joe Manchins and Kyrsten Sinemas of the world and are rebuked by some Republicans, it’s clear this message is about more than the confirmation battle. It’s a preview for the midterms and a reprise of some of the tactics used in Virginia and New Jersey last year.
Opportunities for Offense
Due to the power of the Right-Wing disinformation and propaganda machine, Republicans will largely set the terms of the political conversation in the country. Democrats cannot avoid these attacks and must head to more favorable terrain. It’s hard to talk about a $15 minimum wage when your opponent is accusing you of coddling sexual predators and calling babies racist. It’s a terrible mistake born of learned helplessness to think that any discussion of race and/or crime is a winning issue for Republicans.
Democrats should go on offense and make the Republicans pay for racist pandering by reframing the issues on our terms. One such opportunity for offense emerged earlier this week when Republican Senator Mike Braun (I promise I didn’t make that name up) decided to open his mouth. According to the Washington Post:
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said Tuesday that he would be open to the Supreme Court overturning its 1967 ruling that legalized interracial marriage nationwide to allow states to independently decide the issue.
Yes, you read that correctly. A Republican senator said the Supreme Court wrongly decided legalized interracial marriage was permissable and would, therefore, be okay with a state banning it today. Braun’s office put out a nonsensical statement trying to take back the comment, but his meaning was clear. Unfortunately, few Democrats pounced. There were no statements from leadership calling on Republicans to disavow Braun. No floor speeches or ads. Braun’s colleagues were not hounded by rabid reporters demanding a comment. It all came and went. Maybe there was too much going on. Perhaps Democratic senators took Braun at his word that he misspoke. It’s possible some thought it was an unfair attack. But imagine if the shoe was on the other foot and a Democratic senator made such an outrageous statement. Would the Republicans and their allies have been silent? Would every other Democrat feel no pressure to disavow?
I think we know the answer.
The Republicans are clear about their strategy. The offensive antics of this confirmation hearing are only more evidence of the kind of campaign they want to run. Politics is a battle about what the future is going to look like. Republicans very successfully painted a picture of a future scary enough to cause some Americans to yearn for the past — to Make America Great Again. But that backward-looking message has flaws too. That past was far from great for the emerging American majority. The only question is this: will Democrats face the message head on, correctly define what it means, and then make a positive case about our agenda and vision?
We can’t do that if we keep letting pitches go by.