Amy Klobuchar’s moment in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings

Posted at 6:40 AM, Oct 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-01 13:50:21-04

She certainly wasn’t the loudest. (That was Lindsey Graham.) Or the most well-known name among Democrats eyeing 2020. (That was Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.) But Amy Klobuchar, who, like Harris and Booker, is considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination was, for my money, the single most effective Democratic senator in last week’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. And what’s remarkable is that the Minnesota Democrat did it by being, well, not terribly partisan.

When it came time for Klobuchar to ask questions of Kavanaugh, the judge, who has come out throwing 95 mile-per-hour fastballs at the head of, well, everyone, praised her for being fair with him during the previous confirmation hearings — which came before California professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school in the early 1980s — an allegation Kavanaugh denies. “I appreciate our meeting together, and I appreciate how you handled the prior hearing, and I have a lot of respect for you,” Kavanaugh told Klobuchar.

Klobuchar took Kavanaugh’s praise in stride and quickly got down to business. She noted that her father had long battled alcoholism and used that as a segue to ask Kavanaugh about the nature and depth of his own drinking. Here’s the key exchange between the two (it’s long but important):

KLOBUCHAR: OK. Drinking is one thing, but the concern is about truthfulness, and in your written testimony, you said sometimes you had too many drinks. Was there ever a time when you drank so much that you couldn’t remember what happened, or part of what happened the night before?

KAVANAUGH: No, I — no. I remember what happened, and I think you’ve probably had beers, Senator, and — and so I…

KLOBUCHAR: So you’re saying there’s never been a case where you drank so much that you didn’t remember what happened the night before, or part of what happened.

KAVANAUGH: It’s — you’re asking about, you know, blackout. I don’t know. Have you?

KLOBUCHAR: Could you answer the question, Judge? I just — so you — that’s not happened. Is that your answer?

KAVANAUGH: Yeah, and I’m curious if you have.

KLOBUCHAR: I have no drinking problem, Judge.

KAVANAUGH: Yeah, nor do I.

KLOBUCHAR: OK, thank you.

It was a hugely awkward moment. Kavanaugh, clearly annoyed, lost his temper and tried to turn a tough but fair question asked by Klobuchar back on her. It was, to my mind, the single lowest point of Kavanaugh’s performance in Thursday’s hearing.

Kavanaugh — or someone advising Kavanaugh — seemed to agree. When he returned from a break that followed Klobuchar’s questioning, the nominee said this:

“Just going to say I started my last colloquy by saying to Senator Klobuchar how much I respect her and respected what she did at the last hearing. And she asked me a question at the end that I responded by asking her a question and I didn’t — sorry, I did that. This is a tough process. I’m sorry about that.”

She accepted his apology — and the hearing moved on.

In her speech before the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Friday, Klobuchar made an impassioned plea for a further FBI investigation into the allegations by Ford and other women about Kavanaugh’s behavior as a way of showing the American people that the rule of law still matters. “The Constitution does not say, ‘We, the ruling party,'” said Klobuchar in announcing her “no” vote on Kavanaugh. “The Constitution says, ‘We, the people.'”

Klobuchar appeared on “State of the Union” on Sunday with Jake Tapper and talked about her exchange with Kavanaugh about his own drinking — and his response. “I was really stunned by how he acted at that hearing,” she told Jake. “This is basically a job interview for the highest court of the land.”

Which brings us to today. As the FBI continues its planned week-long investigation into Kavanaugh and the allegations against him, one of the central questions is whether he lied to the Judiciary Committee about the nature and extent of his drinking in high school and college and, if he did, whether it will be disqualifying for a very small group of undecided senators including Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

That conversation was started, in earnest, by Klobuchar. And started in a powerful, personal way by talking about her own father’s struggles with alcohol.

Because anything and everything that happens matters politically in high-stakes moments like the Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Klobuchar’s standout performance will occasion a conversation about what it all means for her 2020 prospects. While Klobuchar has been slightly less aggressive in positioning for the 2020 contest than some of her colleagues like Booker, Harris and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), she has also been clear that she is looking at the race.

The question is what this moment with Kavanaugh means for Klobuchar going forward. What was on display last Thursday was not Klobuchar the partisan attack dog. It was Klobuchar the quietly persistent questioner, the woman who wouldn’t back down in the face of bullying from Kavanaugh.

And broadly speaking, that’s the image Klobuchar has cut in the Senate. She’s not the flame-thrower that Booker — “I am Spartacus” — or Bernie Sanders are (or are trying to be). And yet, her polite insistence was what won the day — or at least what proved most effective — in the Kavanaugh hearings.

Sifting through the 2018 Democratic primary results looking for clues for what the 2020 Democratic primary voter will want suggests they want a fighter, someone who will push President Donald Trump in the nose (rhetorically speaking) every single day. The question that Klobuchar’s standout performance in the Kavanaugh hearing raises is whether someone who doesn’t run that hot might actually be the better choice to take on the incumbent.