Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.
In Washington, there are political debates that consume the town but are expected to have absolutely no bearing on the actual outcome of the vote. Case in point: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing this week, during which Republicans seized on out-of-context quotes from the judge, made her a spokeswoman for the entire academic field of critical race theory and dredged up scraps of evidence to draw her as weak on child porn. They ignored that the quotes have already been fact-checked as wildly misleading, critical race theory is a graduate-level research area that has nothing to do with her role as a judge, and the pornography argument tilts uncomfortably close to QAnon followers’ obsessions.
It’s why, as the week unfolded and The D.C. Brief chatted by email with two professionals on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both agreed with Sen. Ben Sasse’s assessment that the whole affair was on the verge of veering into, in the Nebraska Republican’s own words, “jackassery.”
On the right, Kirsten Kukowski is a former top spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee during the era of Chairman Reince Priebus, having worked in several state-based and regional roles before that. She was also the top communications hand to Sen. Mark Kirk’s successful run for Senate in Illinois and served in the same role to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential bid.
On the left, Shripal Shah has served as a spokesman for Democrats’ House and Senate campaign committees, the Democratic National Committee, and two of the Democratic Party’s favorite super PACs. He got his start steaming U.S. flags for John Kerry’s presidential bid and later served as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s deputy campaign manager.
Both are natives of the upper Midwest and are now consultants. This conversation has been lightly edited.
Philip Elliott: Welcome to The D.C. Brief’s Back Booth, our running chat by email about the week in politics. Let’s dive right in.
It took me a minute to sort through what we just saw during day one of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing. I’m not quite sure what folks like Sens. Hawley, Cotton and Blackburn were doing when laying the groundwork for their expected no votes. It seemed to be a lot of dog whistles and not a lot of material facts. What am I missing? And how do Democrats keep this from going on the rails?
Shripal Shah: Blackburn’s portion underscored to me what a lot of Democrats have been saying for a few weeks now: the GOP lacks a coherent argument against Judge Jackson’s nomination because of her impeccable credentials, so that’s left Republicans grasping for straws. When you come to terms with that reality, you’re left with rambling rants like we saw yesterday.
Despite being entirely disingenuous and already debunked, Hawley’s line of attack has the potential to be the most harmful in the court of public opinion. His problem is that it’s already been discredited. I expect more Senators to run through their laundry list of grievances today while they seek for a viral moment to further their personal and political ambitions, but if their goal is to defeat the nominee, I don’t see a path forward for Republicans.
Kirsten Kukowski: With so much happening right now, SCOTUS has really taken a back seat. I have Fox on regularly because I book guests and right now it’s wall-to-wall Ukraine news with gas prices in the context of Russia mixed in. They had a very short segment on SCOTUS. That’s very abnormal for Fox and shows you that the GOP isn’t focused on it. Or visa versa. Some of that is also due to this seat not changing the ideological balance of the court.
The narrative on this being a nicer process is convenient because Republicans know they can’t stop the nomination. It won’t make a difference, and voters won’t notice if they are nicer than the Democrats were during Kavanaugh.
Shah: Kirsten’s point on the ideological balance of the court remaining unchanged is a smart one that has been a bit lost. When you factor that in, the Senate Republican posture makes a lot more sense.
Elliott: Meanwhile, I cannot get the aerial images from Ukraine out of my head. President Zelensky seems as defiant as ever, but I do question how long he can hold out from Russian advances. At what point do Americans lose their interest in this war?
Shah: I’m concerned that Americans have already lost interest, which is terrible to admit considering how tragic the situation continues to be. I’m not sure what if anything can be done on that front. In recent years we’ve seen that everything—COVID being the only exception I can think of—has a ridiculously short shelf life, unless there’s a very direct, personal, and sustained impact on American lives. Gas prices are the obvious exception, but even then I’m not convinced that the country fully grasps the direct link to the crisis.
Kukowski: On Ukraine, I do also worry that Americans have lost interest. I’m glued to it, but that’s because we are news freaks. However, Fox is still all Ukraine news. In general, war in Europe feels too far away for us. We don’t feel impacted on a daily basis. If gas prices continue to go up, that may make people pay attention longer. Especially if it’s still happening around Memorial Day weekend. One unknown: if Russia engaged in cyber warfare with us or any Western country, does that change dynamics again and force our hands to get more involved?
Shah: Building off of what Kirsten noted, I think it’s easy for people in Washington to lose sight of the rest of the country’s consumption habits. Even if a subject is getting wall-to-wall cable coverage, people like us who have TVs on all day while working are rare exceptions. That’s not how normal people live, so it’s no surprise that interest has diminished.
Elliott: I wonder how much President Biden’s trip to Europe on Wednesday is going to matter. It seems like he has been holding his powder dry with world leaders, although his direct warning to U.S. companies today about cyber certainly got my attention. Not from Homeland Security or the press office—directly from the President. It was also very specific, reminding me of the run-up to war when Blinken, et al., were trying to show Russia that Washington sees them.
Kukowski: I’m not hearing very much about Biden in Europe in the Midwest. It feels like it might be anticlimactic? I would agree with your assessment of the White House leading on cyber threats. I’m thinking the White House wanted him to have something strong as he headed to Europe. Maybe that will be the focus while he’s there.
Shah: The President’s trip to Europe will definitely make news, as it should, but the likelihood that the coverage lasts beyond the initial surge of stories is low. This speaks to what I mentioned yesterday and how most news now has a ridiculously short shelf life.
Back to SCOTUS—is it me, or do these hearings underscore just how broken the Senate is as an institution? I’m struggling to find the value in these three days of theatrics. They’re not very informative for the public because again, the country isn’t really tuned in, but perhaps most importantly, they’re not going to have an impact on the vote. So what’s the point?
Elliott: These hearings seem like a first pass at list-building for a future campaign. It’s a pity candidates can’t simply lift from C-SPAN the clips they want. It would make life a lot easier for the ad-makers.
Shah: Filibuster reform, public financing of campaigns, non-partisan redistricting, wholesale election reform (not just on voter registration but also on how and when elections are administered), higher pay for members and staff, and term limits would all have to be a part of the discussion if I were leading the charge. Together they have the ability to fundamentally change the kind of people we send to Washington which would go a long way towards fixing the institutions.
The problem is that these structural reforms are already viewed to be inherently partisan, which will prevent them from ever becoming a reality, and that’s before we even get to potential constitutional barriers. I’ve thought about this more than most normal people should and don’t know the path forward, but hopefully the next generation can figure it out. All I know is that the path we’re on right now isn’t sustainable. I worry we’re going to reach a breaking point sooner rather than later.
Kukowski: All of those things could be reformed, but it’s too partisan already to reform them in this atmosphere. I’d also call out cable news and the phenomenon where Americans are getting their news from like-minded people and living in places where they identify politically with their neighbors. So I’m not even sure redistricting reform is super helpful. We’re almost creating these red and blue districts on our own.
I do work on the Georgetown Politics Battleground Poll and the issue is yes, we’re at a breaking point and Americans believe we’re close to civil war. However, in the same breath, they say they want elected officials who don’t compromise on their beliefs. Also known as: I want people to get along, but don’t you dare compromise on something I don’t like.
Elliott: I think Sen. Sasse had a near-perfect diagnosis when he said: “I think we should recognize that the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities.”
Kukowski: Sasse is spot on: it’s all for cable TV and getting clips for social and fundraising emails, unfortunately. Republicans know nationalizing the issues right now is helpful to their politics this fall, so crime, etc. is all part of that.
Elliott: Thank you, both, for an excellent and lively discussion. I’m glad we were able to be so candid during such a busy—and frustrating—week.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org