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.
Amid all the shouting on social media and cable television, it’s easy to forget that much of what Washington spends its time fighting over often amounts to nothing.
That was the case this week as Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson cleared the Senate with three Republicans and all 50 Democrats backing her nomination to become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Two Republicans—Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—cast their votes from the members-only lounge just off the Senate floor because they couldn’t be bothered to dress for the occasion. The whole scene unfolded in a way that may have electoral implications for Republicans.
As the week took shape, The D.C. Brief chatted by email with two pros who were keeping close tabs on how Congress was conducting its business, as well as how Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine was shaping global markets. On the right, Matt Beynon has been at the elbow of former Sen. Rick Santorum’s political operations for years. A former Leadership aide, he now advises a number of state, local and federal candidates on how to best deliver a message tailored for the market and the moment.
And on the left, Kristen Hawn has helped to define Democrats’ centrist ranks as a former strategist for the shrinking Blue Dog Coalition. She helped to shape how moderates navigated Wall Street bailouts, financial regulations and Obamacare.
The conversation has been lightly edited.
Philip Elliott: So, it’s Monday night and the Senate has decided it’s ready to start voting on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court after a long day of speechifying and posturing. In the end, only three Republicans joined the united Democrats to set in motion the vote. This is the new normal, isn’t it? Or are Supreme Court selections just one of those votes where you have no choice but to follow the party’s base unless you’re a notoriously mavericky figure like Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins or Mitt Romney? I’m especially curious about Matt’s thinking on this one, having worked in Senate Leadership early in his career.
Hawn: I’ll let Matt handle the Senate since I spent all of my time on the Hill in the lower chamber. Sen. Murkowski is right when she says that unfortunately the process has become toxic on both sides of the aisle. I was pretty shocked by some of the accusations during the hearing, but maybe I shouldn’t be shocked by anything anymore.
Beynon: Should a confirmation hearing cross lines of decency? Absolutely not. Have they at times over the years? Unfortunately, yes. But the Judicial Branch, specifically the Supreme Court, is an unelected branch of government and a confirmation hearing is the only real opportunity to test those nominees on what they believe, how they view the Constitution, and their perspective on the rule of law.
This is bigger than just checking boxes on a resume of where someone went to law school or who they clerked for. Once they are on the Court, they’re on the Court for life, and their records and philosophies should be publicly scrutinized. Add in the debate over issues like abortion and religious liberty, and you’re going to get a heated process.
Elliott: We now have the President of the United States calling for a war-crimes trial of the President of Russia. He, however, stopped short of accusing his counterpart of genocide and White House officials were very careful to stress that there is a very legalistic definition of that crime. Foreign Policy Twitter spent a lot of time on this today, but if you’re running a race in a competitive House district, does this matter a lick? And Kristen, how much are your corporate clients looking for you guys to use your decoder ring on this aspect of their fiscal and reputational-risk planning?
Hawn: Companies are certainly stepping up to the plate like never before when it comes to reputational risk planning. Particularly large employers. They are navigating a whole new generation of workers who care about what they have to say on major social issues. The same goes for the communities where they operate. We spend a lot of time working with companies trying to navigate how and when to speak up. Handled responsibly, it can be an enormously positive thing.
Beynon: Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, or Independent, you need to get gas, you need to get milk, and you’re feeling the pinch at the checkout line. I think people are universally horrified by the images they’re seeing on their TVs, but if you can’t afford to put gas in your car or food on your table, the war in Ukraine is a secondary issue when you head to the polls.
Elliott: I’m curious how you’re seeing the student loan-pause news play out. With every single slipping repayment deadline, it seems like the White House is laying the groundwork for student loan forgiveness in a big way. Am I misreading this?
Beynon: Call me a cynic, but I think this is less about laying the groundwork for permanent student loan forgiveness and more about the Biden Administration’s sinking poll numbers with younger voters, which were once one of his strongest voting blocs as they head into the midterms.
Hawn: I don’t know if this is about a political calculation over policy, but the truth is young people don’t turn out for the midterms in nearly the numbers they do for the presidential election. And there are a number of people across the political spectrum who don’t agree with student loan forgiveness for valid reasons.
Elliott: Folks, this has been a pleasant conversation, so I thank you for that. We just watched the Senate confirm Judge Jackson to the seat and I wonder how history is going to judge this chapter in an increasingly hostile confirmation system.
Beynon: I think history books will look back at the glass-ceiling Justice Jackson broke through her confirmation, and forget much of the hearings and floor debate. She’s on the Court now for life and her legacy will now be made through her rulings.
Hawn: Agreed on the Jackson confirmation. No one will remember the politically motivated and divisive remarks made by a few senators during the confirmation process.
Elliott: Separately, am I alone in thinking the Russia-Ukraine story is slipping from public consciousness too easily? I mean, the UN suspended Russia from its human rights panel and I wouldn’t be shocked to find local newspapers forget to mention it in tomorrow’s editions.
Beynon: Sadly, I think you’re right. We have such a short attention span as a society and want instantaneous results on pretty much everything, not just the Ukraine crisis. It’s really not a healthy thing, because you have global threats that do take the long view and are prepared to essentially wait us out.
Hawn: I agree with Matt here. Russia shows no signs of retreating, and the Ukrainian people need our support. An important part of that is the media’s continued coverage of the atrocities committed by Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately there does seem to already be a sense of fatigue, but democratic governments and their leaders across the globe should continue to provide the assistance the Ukrainian people need to prevail over the long term.
Elliott: Thank you both for a candid chat this week.
- Zero-COVID Protests in China Have Rattled Global Markets
- Column: Diversity Initiatives Are Failing the U.S. Muslim Community
- Why European Countries Are Giving Teens Free Money To Spend on Books, Music, and Theater
- Republican Skepticism of Trump Has Never Been Higher
- Column: The U.S. Prison System Doesn't Value True Justice
- How Green Is the Qatar World Cup’s Outdoor AC?
- 16 Funny and Whimsical White Elephant Gifts Under $25
- The 5 Best New TV Shows Our Critic Watched in November 2022