The plight of the young soccer players in Thailand trapped in a flooded cave for 16 days in July produced important questions: How did we get in this predicament? And more important, how do we get back?
I found myself asking those questions while doing some research prior to the announcement of Brett Kavanaugh as President Trump’s nominee for Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Even before the pick was named, pundits were saying the next justice would be elected by just a vote or two, with the Senate split down party lines.
It hasn’t always been this way.
As recently as 1987, Reagan nominee Anthony Kennedy (the one now being replaced) was elected 97-0. Not a single dissenting vote. There were only three votes against Clinton nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, and nine votes against Stephen Breyer, another Clinton pick one year later.
After 1994, every confirmation election has drawn between 22 and 45 negative votes. How did it get this way?
This is not to imply that every confirmation has been smooth—or even successful. Nixon had two nominees rejected outright, Reagan lost the vote on Robert Bjork, and the election of George H.W. Bush-nominee Clarence Thomas was a squeaker.
But in the past several decades, the votes have gotten closer, the argument has gotten louder, and the grilling has gotten longer. For example, in 1975 John Paul Stevens was confirmed after six hours of questioning before the Senate judicial committee, while last year Neil Gorsuch was on the hot seat 20 hours.
We can be fairly certain that conservative Kavanaugh will meet a long interrogation and perhaps a hair’s breadth confirmation; but, given his anticipated impact on a more right-leaning court as it rules on right-to-life and religious liberty issues, the fight will be worth it. Still, we can’t help but wish the civil discourse in America were more civil. There was a time when public argument over important issues carried some respect for the offices involved and the weightiness of the issues, if not for the nominee on the grill.
When Hansel and Gretel ventured into the forest, they left a trail of bread crumbs (or popcorn, depending on your childhood version) to follow on the way back out. Of course, their edible GPS was gobbled up by some woodland creatures, and the pair soon found themselves lost and at the mercy of an ancient crone. Like that endangered pair, we munch on gingerbread shingles, speculate about the temperature of the oven, and hope to find a way out.