On Thursday afternoon, a gray-haired Republican jurist sat in a committee room in the U.S. Senate, fighting for his political life.
But one thing he is no more, thanks to some political theatrics and a metamorphosis act that would make a Vegas magician blush, is a dead man walking in the GOP of 2018.
If you thought bringing Kavanaugh back from his proverbial death as of about 3 p.m. Thursday was a trick to behold, be sure to go back and rewatch Graham’s outraged hectoring.
In the space of minutes, he went from guy who probably would get his butt handed to him in a primary to newfound political hero of Trumpites, Bushies, and traditional conservative members of the GOP base—no mean feat in a Republican Party that remains wracked with division, despite Trump’s high approval ratings among partisans.
Graham has always been viewed as potentially easy pickings from a political standpoint.
Oh, sure, he’s from South Carolina, so he’s tough to beat in a general election.
But he’s considerably more moderate than many conservative activists in his state, where Republican politics is so factional and cutthroat it makes Roman gladiatorial contests look like pillow fights.
He’s pissed off some Freedom Caucus-y types with his support for comprehensive immigration reform (“amnesty”).
He pissed off Trumpites in 2016 with his pointed attacks on then-candidate The Donald.
He was famously close to Sen. John McCain, who also feuded with these factions and the Bushies in the GOP.
But unlike McCain, Graham has never seemed to have much of his own following. Truth be told, the last year or so had proved a perilous time to be Graham, who had sharp elbows and a lot of enemies, but not a lot of friends. Not so now—whatever you think of his cable news spectacle Thursday.
Undoubtedly, President Trump will have loved it. Trump, seeing everything through the lens of “good TV,” “watch-ability,” “ratings,” and “toughness,” witnessed a former foe perhaps speaking out of principle but also majorly kissing butt live on TV while raking Democrats over the coals.
After Kavanaugh’s own opening remarks, in which he struck a Hulk-like tone of overwhelming anger and indignation but wound up crying on and off while diving into the minutiae of calendar maintenance—a spectacle it’s hard to imagine initially warmed Trump’s heart—Graham’s performance had to be a welcome relief.
In a matter of hours, thanks to Graham’s outrageous outrage, Kavanaugh went from critical condition to very much alive and well, putting Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeff Flake right back in the awkward position they were before Kavanaugh left millions of Americans wondering if this was what watching olden-day public executions felt like, when he began speaking mid-afternoon.
Yes, Graham’s act wasn’t entirely plausible. He’s no fire-breather like Sen. Ted Cruz, and it felt rehearsed and canned in places, calculated to have a self-serving, self-insulating effect.
But it was effective. If there’s one thing Republicans of really any stripe can and will rally behind—perhaps other than tax cuts—it’s railing against Democrats where Supreme Court nominations are concerned.
To be sure, any other Republican on the Senate Judiciary panel could have done it just as well and probably more convincingly than Graham.
But they aren’t the ones staring potential political doom in two short years in the face.
They’re also not the ones looking around the Senate and wondering where all their pals have gone and contemplating whether it isn’t worth taking a few simple steps to explore the existence of fresh opportunities—like, say, replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, should he be fired or quit—while locking down votes ahead of that potentially messy re-election.
That’s what Thursday’s Graham-ing it up was really all about; not the sober calculus reflected in retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s statement that “Judge Kavanaugh, like all Americans, deserves the presumption of innocence” and that “[he] has conducted himself as well as anyone could expect throughout this process.”
Of course, this should come as little surprise.
Whomever you believe, Christine Blasey Ford or Brett Kavanaugh, it’s clear that in this particular battle, the nomination process was politicized as hell.
OK, for some senators this really is about Kavanaugh’s judicial and legal qualifications, or his temperament, which should now be a big question mark for on-the-fence-senators heading toward actual votes on his nomination.
But for most, it’s about the prospect of delivering, or blocking, the biggest political win that will be on the table for decades: 40+ years of Kavanaugh ruling from the bench of the highest court in the land, something that will have infinitely further-reaching consequences than any presidential or congressional election possibly could.
This, fundamentally, is why it is so important to so many Republicans that Kavanaugh be confirmed, even though watching Thursday’s events unfold cannot help but leave a ton of Americans with the conclusion that there were better candidates for this job than Kavanaugh on pure dispositional grounds alone.
With his performance, Graham tapped right into what these voters (and volunteers, and donors) wanted. He may not have done the country a lot of good with a not-totally-authentic made-for-cable-news tirade, but he probably bumped up his own approval among Republicans in the modern, Trump-led party a good 30 or more points. Plus, should he get re-elected or succeed Sessions, he might now have a deeply, deeply grateful Supreme Court justice who effectively owes him one (or one hundred) for life. All commentary about the independence of the judiciary aside, that’s a chit that anyone with a brain would want.
Graham banked it Thursday, and for the time being that makes him a king in the GOP—though if Collins, Murkowski, and Flake were as appalled by Kavanaugh’s very human but not very judicial venting and sobbing, they—or indeed those Democrats Graham laid into—may yet bank the last laugh. Either way, Graham is safer now than he was on Monday, and that plus a possible nomination win where a loss appeared imminent is a massive victory for a guy once derided as “Senator Grahamnesty.”