Democratic leaders are working overtime to stop the party from walking the plank by calling for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, but rank-and-file members and 2020 presidential contenders can’t resist the impulse to try to score political points.
It is not the first time that Democrats in Washington have rushed to embrace the most sordid storyline to try to curry favor with prized slices of the electorate. In 2017, Democrats sacrificed one of their own, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, when he was accused of sexual mischief.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that the Kavanaugh impeachment push isn’t going anywhere on Capitol Hill.
“Everybody knows that’s not going to happen,” he told The Washington Times, adding that lawmakers would be better off focusing on whether Senate Republicans rammed through the confirmation without carrying out a proper investigation.
“Do you think for one second that [Senate Republicans] will allow an impeachment vote on this?” he said.
Mr. Leahy was among the Democrats who demanded Mr. Franken’s resignation. In hindsight, though, he said he wished he had let the Senate Select Committee on Ethics complete its investigation into the accusations. Although he said he doesn’t “equate” the Franken and Kavanaugh episodes, others see parts of them through a similar lens.
Justice Kavanaugh survived grueling confirmation hearings last year after a series of decades-old allegations of sexual assaults further polarized Washington and the nation. None of the accusations have been proved true.
Lawrence R. Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said the sort of sober reflection that came out of the Franken scandal has been missing among the 2020 presidential candidates and left-wing activists.
Those groups, he said, insist that Justice Kavanaugh is a liar and that he should be impeached in the wake of a New York Times story that rehashed unproven allegations against President Trump’s Supreme Court pick.
“There was a learning, among some Democrats at least, that a rush to judgment on allegations of sexual harassment or abuse can lead to unfair treatment and maybe miscarried justice in terms of the penalty and whether it matches the crime,” Mr. Jacobs said.
“I think the lessons that were learned by Democrats in the way Al Franken was treated are not appearing in the way that Kavanaugh is being treated,” he said.
Among the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas have called for Justice Kavanaugh to be impeached.
“Brett Kavanaugh lied to the U.S. Senate and most importantly to the American people,” Ms. Harris tweeted Sunday.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and House Judiciary Committee chairman, threw cold water on the idea by saying lawmakers are focused on their investigation into whether Mr. Trump should be impeached.
Pressure continued to build Tuesday after Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, a member of the far-left “Squad,” introduced a resolution calling on Mr. Nadler’s committee to investigate whether Justice Kavanaugh should be impeached.
Ms. Harris also sent Mr. Nadler a letter urging him to open an investigation into the accusations laid out in the New York Times report and into “how and why the FBI’s investigation was limited in scope.”
The opinion piece in The New York Times rehashed allegations that Deborah Ramirez made against Mr. Kavanaugh during the confirmation process — namely that he thrust his penis in her face at a party when they were both students at Yale University.
Republican leaders say the Ramirez accusations were thoroughly investigated. They also say they didn’t know about a charge in The New York Times story about the future justice supposedly having his genitals shoved into a woman’s hands.
The woman in question did not make that charge, and The New York Times later clarified in an “editor’s note” that she declined to be interviewed and didn’t remember the episode. The Times reporters knew about these facts, which were left out of the original story.
The political saga raised questions about whether Ms. Harris and others talked too quickly about impeachment.
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, said candidates would pay a political price for jumping onto the impeachment bandwagon.
“Let the elections play out, and you will see it live,” he said.
The events also provided Mr. Trump and his administration with fodder to make the case that Democrats and mainstream media are in cahoots.
“The Democrats and their allies in the media are obviously getting desperate,” Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday at The Heritage Foundation. “This week, they’ve taken to smearing a sitting justice on the Supreme Court of the United States with discredited allegations.”
Scott Ferson, a Democratic consultant, said the Democrats calling for Justice Kavanaugh’s impeachment are not interested in claiming the moral high ground or wooing middle-of-the-road voters.
“They are talking to Democratic primary voters. It is 5% of the Democratic Party. They are the hard-core activists, they are horrified by Donald Trump and whatever the latest outrage is,” he said.
Alex Conant, a Republican political strategist, said the entire episode is emblematic of a broader trend.
“I think it is a lot of politics is such a team sport right now, and everyone thinks that their side is telling the truth and the other is a bunch of liars, and so when there are things like The New York Times’ Kavanaugh episode, that just confirms what everyone on the right thinks about the left, but it doesn’t really discredit the left to liberals,” Mr. Conant said.
“Liberals look at it and think The New York Times made an innocent mistake, but Kavanaugh is a bad guy, so I am not going to fault reporters or candidates for being aggressive,” he explained.
“It leaves the independent voters hating everybody and disgusted by Washington,” he said. “That is why we keep having to change elections because they think whoever is in power is a bunch of liars, and they are not completely wrong.”