The Democrats’ attempt to stop Trump’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court took some weird turns this week, when a couple of normal politicians tried (and failed) to channel Trump’s norm-breaking style.
It started when Senator Kamala Harris pressed Supreme Court hopeful Brett Kavanaugh over whether he had any conversations about the Robert Mueller investigation with anyone employed at a law firm founded by President Trump’s personal attorney.
When Kavanaugh was forming his answer, Harris warned him, “Be careful how you answer.” When he said he couldn’t recall without more information, Harris strongly insinuated that he was hiding something, saying: “I think you are thinking of someone, and you don't want to tell us."
Was Harris laying a trap with the specific charge, hoping he would lie? Will she later produce the receipts? Or was she conning him—trying to make Kavanaugh believe she had evidence about a conversation that is just hearsay? It’s unclear.
“They must have hard evidence of this supposed communication by Kavanaugh,” speculated Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels who is angling for his own presidential run. “I’m sure they do,” Avenatti continued, because “otherwise Harris would not have done what she did in light of the cardinal rule: Don’t over promise to the jury and then not deliver [because] you will lose all credibility and be crucified.” (It’s unclear whether Avenatti was acting here as a legal analyst—or as a future Harris rival.)
But it wasn’t just Harris who engaged in strange and overzealous behavior. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker also got in on the act, revealing information he believed to be exclusively available to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I understand the penalty comes with potential ousting from the Senate,” he said as if he were about to become a martyr. “I openly invite and accept the consequences of my team releasing that email right now.”
"This is about the closest I'll probably ever have in my life to an 'I am Spartacus' moment," he continued.
In my experience, people who are having an “I am Spartacus” moment don’t typically have to announce that they are having one. In reality, Booker was transparently jockeying for position in the already-begun invisible 2020 presidential primary.
At least one Senate colleague couldn’t help but comment on the transparent political pandering that was taking place. “Running for president is now [an] excuse for violating the rules of the Senate," Republican Senator John Cornyn chided.
Interestingly, the information Booker claimed to break the rules to release only proved that Kavanaugh is, in fact, not a racist. Booker didn’t actually break any rules because the documents in question had already been cleared for release. His stunt backfired.
If you’re keeping score at home, Booker made a huge show about releasing documents, which actually made Kavanaugh look good, all the while showboating about “civil disobedience.” How is it civil disobedience if you haven’t broken any rules?
The predictable “take” from the chattering classes will be about norm erosion. Donald Trump has lowered the bar, and henceforth, everyone will break the rules and behave in an uncivil manner.
The more interesting point here—the takeaway lesson for politicians—is that you actually can’t be someone you’re not. It may be a curse in today’s political environment, but Booker strikes me as a fundamentally nice and moderate guy. But because the Democratic Party wants someone to be a fighter, he has to operate outside his comfort zone. This makes him look inauthentic, which, of course, he is.
Harris might be more naturally combative, but it still looks like she's trying too hard.
And why do they feel so compelled to do this? Booker has Wall Street ties, supported charter schools and defended Bain Capital in 2012. Harris cultivated a moderate law-and-order reputation when she was a prosecutor. High profile interrogations help them earn resistance cred.
They’re both auditioning of course, but are they auditioning well? In attempting to learn the lessons of Trump’s victory, Democrats are missing some key ingredients. Trump’s appeal wasn’t (solely) about his status as a fighter. It also had to do with the fact that he was (a) authentic and (b) an outsider. Harris and Booker, conversely, are demonstrating the exact opposite attributes. Simply put, they look like phony politicians. (Another thing about Trump is that he is utterly shameless. You can’t fake that, either.)
As far as I can tell, there were really two winners on Thursday. And no, they weren’t Harris or Booker. Their names are Brett Kavanaugh and Michael Avenatti.