The Memo: Democrats hope GOP overplayed hand in Jackson hearings

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson answers questions during the third day of her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.
Greg Nash

The dust is beginning to settle on the most contentious part of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court — and Democrats are hoping Republicans overplayed their hand in their opposition to her.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) complained on Thursday that some earlier lines of questioning had been “beneath the dignity of the United States Senate.”

The previous evening, a Republican member of the panel, Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), had complained about “jack-assery” and “people mugging for short-term camera opportunities.”

Both Durbin and Sasse were perceived to be referring to aggressive questioning of Jackson the previous day by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Graham, in particular, received a lot of adverse comment on social media for his frequent hectoring interruptions of Jackson.

That doesn’t necessarily guarantee there will be a broader backlash, however. 

For a start, most Republicans remain staunch in their opposition to Jackson.

“I cannot and will not support Judge Jackson for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday.

Even some Democrats acknowledge that the combative tone of the questions was simply to be expected in an ever more polarized political environment.

“In terms of the Republican Party in a broader context, I think they know they probably went too far,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist. “But I feel like those guys [such as Cruz and Graham] probably feel like they did themselves well with the right-wing Republican base.

“If we were in a different time, with more swing voters, I think they’d be petrified. But in a polarized country…” Longabaugh added.

Some Republican senators declined to take such an aggressive tone with Jackson. Behind the scenes, conservatives take comfort from the fact that her confirmation, if it happens, will not change the ideological makeup of the court. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) joked that his wife had been more impressed with Jackson’s opening statement than his own, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters Jackson “seems like a very nice lady.”

That doesn’t mean they will vote for her, however.

“I think she held up very well and I think she is going to be confirmed — but I think it is going to be a party-line vote,” said GOP strategist Brad Blakeman.

An Economist-YouGov poll this week indicated that a plurality of adults, 42 percent, believe Jackson should be confirmed, against 25 percent who said she should not. 

A sizable 33 percent of adults in that poll — which concluded on Tuesday, the first day Jackson was questioned in earnest — said they were not sure either way.

There was much in Jackson’s hearing to strengthen partisans in their preexisting views. 

Republicans hammered Jackson over accusations that she was soft-on-crime, particularly in cases relating to child pornography, as well as trying to link her to hot-button social issues like transgender rights and critical race theory.

Cruz illustrated one line of questioning with blown-up images from children’s books that he said promoted critical race theory. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked Jackson if she could define what the word “woman” meant. Jackson demurred, saying she was not a biologist.

Cruz and Graham, along with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), were the most combative in attacking Jackson’s record of sentencing in the child pornography cases. 

While Jackson has indeed sentenced several people convicted of such crimes to prison terms beneath the federal guidelines, this is, in fact, commonplace.

But it was telling that those moments created far more heat than, for example, the questioning of Jackson over abortion. 

Her answer on that point — that she considered the landmark Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood cases to be “settled law” — barely caused a stir, even though abortion rights are one of the most divisive and immediate topics before the high court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on Jackson’s nomination on April 4 with a vote from the full Senate likely soon afterward.

When it comes to the full Senate vote, the real proof of how Jackson’s hearings have gone will be how many senators — if any — cross the aisle to support her.

Democrats hold out some plausible hope of getting the support of Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska), both of whom voted just last year to confirm Jackson to her current role as a federal appellate judge on the District of Columbia Circuit.

Graham, the third Republican who voted with them on that occasion, seems out of reach now.

But there could be some modest surprises in the other direction if Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) or Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo) or Richard Burr (R-N.C.), both of whom are retiring, voted to confirm Jackson.

There appears little chance of any Democrat flipping. Republicans have held out hope that centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W-Va.) or Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) could be persuaded to pull a shock and vote against Jackson’s confirmation. Manchin announced his support for Jackson on Friday, however, and while Sinema has not announced her decision it would be a big surprise for her to not vote with her party.

In the end, something close to a party-line vote appears the most likely conclusion.

The question is whether the heat generated by Jackson’s hearings still burns in voters’ minds come November when they cast their ballots in the midterm elections.

Strategists in both parties are skeptical of that — but some Democrats, like Longabaugh, argue that her confirmation, if it happens, could at least bolster his party’s case that they’ve done what they said they would do.

“From a progressive standpoint, I think the party is proud we’ll have put the first African America woman on the court,” he said, “And from Biden’s point of view, it’s a promise made and a promise kept.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Ben Sasse Chuck Grassley Dick Durbin Joe Manchin John Cornyn Josh Hawley Ketanji Brown Jackson Kyrsten Sinema Lindsey Graham Marsha Blackburn Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Richard Burr Roy Blunt Supreme Court Supreme Court nomination Susan Collins Ted Cruz
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