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Shields and Brooks on Kavanaugh confirmation showdown

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the dramatic decisions made by senators on whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, as well as the deeper national impact of the contentious process.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    David, I heard Senator Susan Collins today talk about how the Senate — Supreme Court confirmation process has been on a steady decline, and she hoped it's hit rock bottom with what we have watched with Judge Kavanaugh.

    Have we?

  • David Brooks:

    I hope so.


  • David Brooks:

    It's hard to see any down here.

    I would say this was most — one of the most unpleasant and undignified and depressing spectacles I have seen covering in my career. And I say that because we had essentially a mystery here, a very complicated case of two different stories that were thrown before us.

    It was very hard to tell how to sort them out. How much importance do you give to high school behavior? It was just a mystery that required investigation and honest conversation.

    And what I saw in the Senate among commentariat and in the country at large is that everybody returned to their tribal corners. If you support Democrats, you believe Ford. If you believe Republicans, you believe Kavanaugh. And you just returned your tribal corner.

    And, to me, the core problem is that the Supreme Court, which used to be held up above politics as a series of wise men and women who could interpret the Constitution, now, on the key issues, falls on party-line votes. It's just another tribal institution in American life.

    And when the Supreme Court falls on party-line votes, then the Senate confirmation process falls on party-line votes and the American public falls on party-line votes. And so reason and investigation and intellectual humility and conversation, any attempt to persuade, that seemed to play no role in this process. It was about base mobilization and the mobilization of power.

    And so, to me, it's a depressing commentary on democracy, really.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Depressing commentary, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I'm not quite as dark and bleak as David.


  • Mark Shields:

    But, of course, I have always been cheerful.

    I think, Judy, the reality is, our politics is broken. It's broken in the Congress. We can argue about why. I think the central source is money and gerrymandering. But that — that's for another day to argue.

    But there's no question that, if you're going to deal with important political public policy questions, the Supreme Court is the only place it's been done for the last generation. It's become the legislature of last resort, or in many cases first resort, whether you're talking about the legality or illegality of gay marriage, legality or illegality of abortion.

    I mean, the big questions, big societal questions, it isn't the Congress that deal with them. The Congress is happy to pass them. They're locked in gridlock. It has been the court.

    And the court for the most part, I think, have acted as grownups. I think particularly aware of this is Chief Justice John Roberts, I think who basically preserved the court and our electoral process in upholding the Affordable Care Act, that this had been a political decision, politically made, arrived at, people knew what they were doing, and he refused to overturn it.

    So right now, Judy, what we have, we have — this was a campaign. And David's right. It was this bitter and ugly campaign. But Kavanaugh became the candidate. And there were millions spent on his behalf on television, millions spent against him. There was mobilization.

    To make his case, he went on FOX television to present himself as a family man, a loving father, a devoted husband,a solid citizen. And a week later, under siege, he chose FOX's own Wall Street Journal editorial page to make his case of apology for perhaps his overreaction.

    I say this only because I contrast it in 1960, when John Kennedy, under siege for his religion, went to the Houston ministers, a rather unfriendly venue. In this case, he chose — again, in our political — to go to your own silos.

    And I just think that's where we are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, was there another way this could have been handled to avoid this? I know there's criticism of Senator Feinstein.

    But once there was this accusation out there that then unleashed the backlash, the reaction from Judge Kavanaugh, was there any way to have a real, legitimate conversation about this charge against him, and have it dealt it, ever?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I mean, you can — this is an alternative universe, but there's a universe somewhere out there in the cosmos where people say, OK, we have this charge.

    She's making the story, this very compelling story she's telling, this very passionate story he's telling. What is the record of memory in these cases? How well do people remember 36 years ago? How well do people who've been traumatized by something remember that?

    And just go through informationally how to evaluate this evidence. What's the record with other cases like that? Go back into his past.

    Instead, we got Michael Avenatti and these people saying, oh, he's been in gang rapes. We had — which was, I think, the crucial turning point in really rallying Republicans.

    And so it just became, immediately, everybody decided. And then, if you agree that there was some uncertainty about the core issue, what happened at that party 36 years ago, people then decided, well, he was really a big drinker. He threw ice at people while in college.

    They have arrived at post hoc rationalizations for their previous ideological positions by some other means. And that happened on both left and right.

    And so, basically, I think — I just look at where everybody came down, and in a rational world, we look — the story wasn't an ideological story. It was two people telling different stories. It wasn't about capitalism. It wasn't about immigration. It was not about abortion, the things we really disagree about.

    It was two human beings. And what I saw was the pulverization of two human beings for ideological reasons. And so in an actual case, you would sit down and say, well, there's this person, this person. Let's try to see — deal with it on a personal level. Didn't happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, was Christine Blasey Ford, was her — she and her story just basically doomed from the start? The message is, if you have a story like this, if you have something that you — you believe is true, forget it.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I mean, I hope not.

    I mean, I think that she has — what she has going for is that she made the case long before he was nominated. She didn't — she didn't join in some parade. She didn't come out. She was obviously reluctant to do so.

    She had registered her own belief, conviction, memory. This is not uncommon that a person who is a victim remembers vividly the aftershave lotion worn by the attacker, and can't tell you the address. That is not — that is not uncommon.

    Connie Chung had a rather persuasive piece on that, her own experience with a family physician.

    At the same — at the same time, there's no question — David's right — they went to their camps. I do think there was sort of a facile response on the part of Republican senators, who said, oh, she's so convincing, she's so compelling, she is so believable, something happened, but she just has to be wrong about it happening with him.

    I mean, I just found that off-putting and patronizing.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I agree with that.

    The one thing the polling seemed to suggest, that people believed her. They were uncomfortable more or less convicting without some corroborating evidence. And so you got 60 percent of the American people say, if another witness says, yes, I remember that, or if there's some physical piece of evidence, yes.

    But without that, a lot of people who felt — just felt uncomfortable really changing the trajectory of a man's life over this, without that corroborating evidence.

  • Mark Shields:

    And I would just add one thing, Judy, how important the court is.

    It's only 18 years ago that the Supreme Court resolved Bush v. Gore. That was a case where the vice president of the United States had won the popular vote, and the court chose his Republican challenger as the winner by a 5-4 vote.

    In an act of enormous statesmanship and generosity of spirit, Al Gore accepted it and called upon his supporters to accept it.

    I don't know, given today's climate, as David described it, if a court decision would be accepted without fighting in the streets. And I will say to this. The supporters — the critics of Judge Kavanaugh who are holding basically rallies in the Capitol today tomorrow are only hurting their cause.

    They aren't helping anything. They are not — they are not serving their — there are purposes of protest. This is — the time for protest on this and shrieking is over.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But — and, meanwhile, David, you're hearing — you're being told that it's the backlash, that it's the — what you mentioned a minute ago — it's the pro-Kavanaugh — that he has unleashed a powerful force in his behalf that's going to be out there on behalf of Republicans and the president.

  • David Brooks:


    There's no question that, over the last week, over the last couple weeks, Donald Trump's approval rating has gone up eight points. There's a — in the red states, which is where a lot of these Senate races are, there's a strong tide.

    You pay a real political price if you're against Kavanaugh right now. Heidi Heitkamp paid — is probably going to pay this very serious price for the position she took.

    So, the political wind, at least in the red states, was — is pretty strong right now. And Republican fortunes — Democrats, as we said last week, were super engaged, have always been engaged. Now Republicans are equally engaged. And so the enthusiasm advantage is down, though, as our colleague Amy Walter wrote today, Kavanaugh's support tracks Trump's support.

    If you like Trump, you like Kavanaugh. It's like — it's just a tribal thing. And so it's not about the individual.

  • Mark Shields:

    I disagree.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You disagree?

  • Mark Shields:

    On one — yes, on the point David was making.

    I do think, Judy, in the final analysis, a midterm election is a referendum on the president of the United States. And it will be an up-or-down vote on Donald Trump.

    And make no mistake about it. Women in this election are — women who didn't go to college, working women are now trending Democrat. You have women, white women voting Democratic. And that is — that's a new — that's a new development in this country. And that's a change. Yes, it is.

    It's a change. And because…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because college — before this, college-educated women…


  • Mark Shields:

    Without a college education, a group that Donald Trump carried by 27 points.

    I don't think there's any — this will be a factor in the election. I don't think by any means it's resolved on which side it comes down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the last — we have probably only a little more than a minute, but my last question was going to be, how do we heal from this?

    But it doesn't sound like there's a whole lot of healing going on.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think a lot of people — the valley is a valley of vision, as the prayer used to say.

    And so, when you see how far we have gone, a lot of people have e-mailed me and said, how do we learn how to persuade each other again? And so people do react. People are not stupid. They react to bad things.

  • Mark Shields:

    I hope — I hope David's right. I hope — I don't think we have a leader who wants to heal.

    I mean, we have 3.7 percent unemployment in the country, and yet we're still talking about driving ourselves into other corners and writing people off, and disdainfully.

    I think it has to — it has to begin at the bottom, because it's not beginning at the top.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Words to remember. We will remember them.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can follow our coverage of the final Kavanaugh confirmation vote. That is tomorrow on Saturday. We will be streaming it live on our Web site.

    That's at PBS.org/NewsHour and on air on "PBS NewsHour Weekend."

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