The confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson have produced plenty of memorable moments. One that stuck with me came during a Ted Cruz monologue. And I’m not talking about his “racist baby” riff.
It happened on day one, when Cruz referenced the Democratic attacks on Robert Bork, the legendary conservative legal scholar whom Ronald Reagan nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987. Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, said Democrats had gone “into the gutter” in order to block Bork’s confirmation.
That’s not a very accurate reading of history, for reasons I’ll explain in a second. But the statement says a lot about the modern GOP worldview — and the way Republicans are approaching Jackson’s nomination now.
The invocation of Bork wasn’t some offhand comment. Republicans always bring up Bork in confirmation hearings, because they believe he was a victim of character assassination and lies about his record.
In their telling, the Democratic assault on Bork forever poisoned the nomination process, making it more partisan and more dishonest — and, implicitly, justifying whatever Republicans may do to Democratic nominees nowadays.
Republicans get especially worked up about a floor speech by then Sen. Ted Kennedy, the famous Massachsuetts liberal, in which Kennedy said “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions” and “Blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.”
But Bork truly didn’t think the Constitution protected a right to abortion. In the 1960s, in the middle of intense fights over civil rights, he really did argue that the government had no right to prohibit segregation in restaurants or hotels.
Democratic senators said these and other views put Bork well outside the mainstream of American politics. Lots of Americans agreed with them and, judging by the final vote blocking Bork’s nomination, several Republican senators did too.
Fast-forward to the confirmation process playing out now and the big arguments lurking behind them.
Republicans don’t want Jackson on the court because they believe she would rule like a liberal.
They figure she would protect a right to abortion and a right to same-sex marriage. They think she would interpret the right to bear arms narrowly — and the government’s power to regulate polluters broadly. And so on.
These suspicions are probably correct. But attacking Jackson over these positions risks a political backlash, because they are well within mainstream opinion and generally in line with what the majority of Americans think.
That is one reason Republicans are focusing so much on other issues, portraying Jackson as somebody who supports light sentences for child pornography and for violent crime — positions that really could alienate the public.
But Jackson’s sentencing decisions from the bench have been typical for what both liberal and conservative judges have issued. Her positions on a federal sentencing commission have strong bipartisan support.
My HuffPost colleagues wrote about distortions of her record last week, although you don’t have to take their word for it — or mine. No less a conservative outlet than National Review has called the Republican attacks untrue, citing the widespread consensus that federal sentencing guidelines are a mess that even prominent conservatives want to fix.
Not that Jackson’s interlocutors are listening. As I write this, she is getting still more hostile questions about her sentencing record — this time from Josh Hawley, the GOP Missouri senator who first launched this attack.