By eschor@politico.com (Elana Schor)

It hardly mattered for their primary audience that Kamala Harris offered no firm evidence to support one of her sharpest lines of questioning. Or that Cory Booker’s “Spartacus” uprising amounted to a demand for documents that had already been authorized for release.

One thing Democrats are learning from President Donald Trump as the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh draw to a close: Floating an incendiary charge, with little to no factual basis, can draw the spotlight and force the opposition to prove a negative.

In the run-up to 2020, it isn’t the details that resonate with base voters. It’s the show.

Democrats were never expected to derail Kavanaugh’s nomination in a Republican-held Congress. But his confirmation hearings served as a test for Harris and Booker ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign. And in a pre-primary measured in social media mentions and YouTube-ready moments, Harris and Booker this week came out ahead.

Their handling of the hearings wasn’t in the same category as some of Trump’s prevarications. But both Democrats showed, during their first high court hearings on the Judiciary Committee, that they too know how to elate their base and wound opponents without an airtight case.

From the opening minute of the hearings, Harris muscled to the forefront, kicking off Democrats’ protest on Tuesday by charging that “we have not been given the opportunity to have a meaningful hearing.” She successfully challenged Kavanaugh on the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as gay marriage, voting rights and abortion.

“Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?” the former prosecutor asked at one point, causing Kavanaugh to stammer.

The next day, Harris featured the exchange in an email fundraising appeal, while running Kavanaugh-related ads on Facebook throughout the week.

“If you’re with me in this fight, can you sign my petition opposing Judge Kavanagh’s nomination to the Supreme Court as Republicans rush through his confirmation hearings this week?” said one ad running Thursday.

The ad featured a photograph of Harris next to bold type reading, “Stop Brett Kavanaugh!”

But Harris puzzled observers when she pointedly asked Kavanaugh if he had discussed special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe with anyone at a law firm that has long represented Trump. Kavanaugh was initially unable to answer the question, before definitively saying Thursday that he had not had such a discussion. Having never followed up on what she described as a “reliable” lead on the matter, Harris’ bid to undercut the nominee seemed to lack a firm foundation by the end of the committee’s marathon hearing.

When it comes to exposure, however, the confrontation with Kavanaugh was a success. A C-SPAN video of the exchange posted on social media had nearly 6.5 million views as of Friday morning. The radio host Jerry Quickley played a clip of the exchange on the leftist KPFK radio station in Los Angeles, to which a caller glowed, “That senator was great!”

For Harris, the anti-Kavanaugh campaign had its intended effect. Her fans swooned.

“Dear @senjudiciary, where do we send @KamalaHarris all the mics to drop?” the comedian Samantha Bee wrote on Twitter.

And Harris’ doggedness, for many in her party, mattered more than her ultimate lack of evidence to back up her questioning.

One Democratic aide pointed to Kavanaugh’s own “evasive and tortured answer on the first day of hearings” as the reason that Harris and other Democrats kept digging in about the Trump-connected law firm.

“If he had just given a straightforward answer to a simple question, he could have saved everyone a lot of time,” the aide said.

Harris has spent more than a year raising her profile by confronting the president’s nominees, starting with her vote against the confirmation of John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. She was one of only 11 senators to oppose Kelly’s confirmation, and she attracted another round of attention when Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told her at a confirmation hearing last year to be more “courteous” on the dais.

While Harris and Booker appeared only to cheer their Democratic base, Republicans saw a longer-term opening for a future counter-attack. Mike Murphy, a Republican political consultant who has long opposed Trump, criticized Democrats for adopting a tone that he said mirrored the president himself.

“Listening to the junior Senator/Presidential candidate from CA,” Murphy said on Twitter. “The sneering tone of many of these questions from D’s on the Judiciary Committee is really offensive. Amazing how they can (correctly) condemn Trump for his tone yet act like this.”

Yet Harris’ Republican colleagues were relatively restrained in their response to her opaque inquiry. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) even rephrased her questions in an attempt to make it easier for Kavanaugh to answer — a seeming nod to their effectiveness.

If Booker had an opening to overshadow Harris, it appeared to come Thursday, when he vowed to release once-confidential records from Kavanaugh’s years in the George W. Bush White House. In what he likened to an “‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” Booker said he would risk expulsion from the Senate to release the documents himself.

But Republicans said the records had already been cleared for release, and the GOP spent days mocking the New Jersey senator.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) quipped after Booker let loose his confidential-documents gambit that “running for president is no excuse for violating the rules of the Senate,” while Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) made a subtle joke Wednesday about Booker’s lengthy monologues.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), known for his dry humor, asked Booker at one point “how long you’re going to say the same thing three or four times.”

The Republican National Committee distributed a memo criticizing Booker under the subject line, “Spartacus Of Newark’s Performance History,” and Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.) ridiculed Booker on Twitter.

“On this day in 71B.C. the Thracian gladiator Spartacus was put to death by Marcus Licinius Crassus for disclosing confidential scrolls,” he wrote. “When informed days later that in fact the Roman Senate had …read more

Read more here: Harris and Booker borrow Trump’s tactics in Supreme Court fracas

About the author

Leave a comment