The Kavanaugh debacle reveals a fundamental and almost irresolvable problem for the Democratic Party. And while the ongoing battle over the Supreme Court is a particularly prominent manifestation of this problem, it is far from the only one. In fact, the Democrats face a real catch-22 today in Washington because, as Harold Pollack notes, they are trying to deter and punish GOP norm violations without, in the process, further undermining the norms and institutions they seek to defend. This is an almost impossible task.
There is a real sense among Democrats that the GOP has cynically worked to eliminate all norms governing acceptable political behavior in Washington. The Supreme Court example is highly salient, as the difference in Republican rhetoric between now and 2016 is striking. Today, calls to investigate and deliberate over credible allegations of sexual harassment are deemed to be cruel politicking by Senate Democrats, but there was not even a peep from the Right about Senate Republicans’ unjust treatment of Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. Democrats have rightly concluded, therefore, that Republicans have no interest in honoring established rules and norms, and liberals are now attempting to exploit the GOP’s tactics for their own gain. More broadly, Democrats are adopting the obstructionist tactics embraced by Republicans throughout the Obama presidency, and they have actually been reasonably successful.
Democrats are also increasingly pursuing Trump-like characters to lead their attacks on the president and his staff. Michael Avenatti is a case in point: He is loud, aggressive, known to bend the truth, and implicated in several catastrophic bankruptcies. This approach has seen a reasonable amount of success, as it has created an open scandal for Trump that continues to fester. Moreover, Avenatti’s bombast makes him Trump’s equal, at least in terms of personality. But that is the problem. By fighting Trump with another Trump-like figure, the Democrats are themselves contributing to the decline of political discourse and playing a part in the undermining of American institutions. The same is true regarding Democratic tactics in Congress, though I would note that assault allegations are certainly legitimate grounds for impeding the path of a Supreme Court nominee. What’s less legitimate are calls to pack the Court by expanding the number of justices.
The broader point is that we seem to be in a death spiral of sorts. One party, usually the GOP, makes a provocative move that undermines institutions and elicits some kind of response from their political opponents. Unfortunately, the response tends to magnify, not mitigate, the damage wrought. In the end, everyone ends up worse off and the country and its political system become increasingly damaged. As I have noted previously, political and social norms are far more important than laws or institutions because, quite frankly, laws and institutions only function if they are respected. It’s easy to grow frustrated and pursue tit for tat responses, but this is rarely productive. On the other hand, unilateral capitulation is also not an option, so what is a Democrat to do?