The Back Booth is 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. Get The D.C. Brief Here.
Washington is home to a variety of political disputes that are consuming the community but have no impact on the final outcome. 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.”
To the right: Kirsten KukowskiHer former position as the top Republican National Committee spokeswoman was during Chairman Reince Priebus’s era. She has previously held various regional and state-based roles. 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.
To 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.
They are both natives to the Upper Midwest, and now work as consultants. This conversation has been edited lightly.
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 some time to process all the images from day one. of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing. I’m not quite sure what folks like Sens. Blackburn, Cotton, and Hawley were doing what they could to prepare for the expected. No votes. There seemed to be quite a few of them. Whistling of dogsI don’t know a lot about the material. Are there any other facts I am missing? How can Democrats stop this train from going off the tracks?
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 all the current events, SCOTUS is really taking a backseat. 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. A very short segment was given on SCOTUS. That’s very abnormal for Fox and shows you that the GOP isn’t focused on it. Or visa versa. This seat doesn’t alter the ideological balance of 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. The Senate Republican position makes more sense when you consider that.
Elliott: I am still unable to get the aerial. PhotosMy head is in Ukraine. President Zelensky seems as DefianceAs ever. But I am unsure how much longer he will be able to resist Russian advances. Is this the point at which Americans stop being interested 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: I worry about the Americans losing interest in Ukraine. I’m glued to it, but that’s because we are news freaks. Fox News is still the only source of news about Ukraine. We feel too distant from war in Europe. We don’t feel impacted on a daily basis. Gas prices will continue to rise, which may cause people to pay closer attention. Especially if it’s still happening around Memorial Day weekend. Is it possible that Russia could engage in cyberwarfare with the United States or other Western countries? If so, would this alter dynamics and cause us to be 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. Although a topic may be covered by wall to wall cable, it is rare for people who are able to watch TV all day. That’s not how normal people live, so it’s no surprise that interest has diminished.
Elliott: I wonder how much President Biden’s TripThis Wednesday’s visit to Europe is going to be significant. Although he seems to be holding back with global leaders, his direct WarningCybersecurity was a topic that I raised with U.S. businesses today. Not from Homeland Security or the press office—directly from the President. This was very precise, ReminderI remember the time when Blinken et. al. tried to convince Russia of Washington’s view.
Kukowski: I’m not hearing very much about Biden in Europe in the Midwest. This seems anticlimactic. Your assessment that the White House is leading cyber-threats would be correct. 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 is due to my last comment about how news nowadays has a very 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: The hearings look like a test run at list building for future campaigns. It’s a pity candidates can’t simply lift from C-SPAN the VideosThey want. The ad-makers would have it much easier.
Shah: If I was leading the charge, filibuster reforms, the public financing of elections, non-partisan redistricting and wholesale election reform (not only on voter registration, but on how and when elections will be administered), higher salaries for staff and members, as well as term limits, would all need to be part of the conversation. They can all work together to change how we send people to Washington, which could go a long ways towards fixing these 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: Sen. Sasse’s performance was near perfect, I believe 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 understand that nationalizing issues now will help them in their fall politics. All of this is part of it.
Elliott: Thanks for a lively and excellent discussion. I’m glad we were able to be so candid during such a busy—and frustrating—week.
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