CNN’s Chris Cillizza is worth reading because he often presents, albeit sometimes unintentionally, the unspoken assumptions of the mainstream left, including most journalists. Today’s Cillizza column is like a master’s class in unacknowledged bias and unearned smugness.
Before we get to Chris, you may have heard that Judge Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual assault. The incident allegedly happened back when Kavanaugh was in high school. You may not have heard that Senator Cory Booker also groped a woman when he was about the same age. How do we know? Because Booker wrote about the incident himself for the Stanford Daily:
New Year’s Eve 1984 I will never forget. I was 15. As the ball dropped, I leaned over to hug a friend and she met me instead with an overwhelming kiss. As we fumbled upon the bed, I remember debating my next “move” as if it were a chess game. With the “Top Gun” slogan ringing in my head, I slowly reached for her breast. After having my hand pushed away once, I reached my “mark.” Our groping ended soon and while no “relationship” ensued, a friendship did. You see, the next week in school she told me that she was drunk that night and didn’t really know what she was doing.
In short: Booker groped a drunk girl who he probably knew or at least had a good idea was drunk. He doesn’t say whether he was drunk but clearly there was alcohol at the party. At first glance this certainly sounds similar to the allegation about Kavanaugh, i.e. both were young, both stories involve a bed and alcohol. But if you’re wondering why one story is the only thing we’re talking about this week and the other one never got talked about until this week, Cillizza says there are “a lot of reasons” for that:
First, and most importantly, the reason we know about the groping incident involving Booker is because Booker told us about it. He wrote publicly about it — and used it as a way to explain how he evolved as a person. While that doesn’t absolve him of his behavior — just because you admit something publicly and apologize doesn’t mean you didn’t do it — it does make for a very different situation than faces Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh has never mentioned the alleged episode with Ford publicly before. (Kavanaugh and his defenders would insist that’s because he didn’t do it.) We are learning about the accusation from the alleged victim, not from the alleged perpetrator. No one — including Booker — disputes that he behaved badly as a teenager. The memories of Kavanaugh and Ford are totally contradictory, with both arguing that the other is simply wrong or misremembering the facts.
Let’s step away from the specifics and look at this another way. Is the person who admits to a crime, say bank robbery, a better person than the one who is accused but denies robbing a bank at all? The only fair answer is that it depends on the facts. If the denier is actually guilty and he’s lying about it to avoid prison, he’s a worse person than the guy who admitted he’s a crook and repented. On the other hand, if he’s innocent and telling the truth about not being a bank robber, then he’s a much better person than the guy who is a bank robber.
This level of nuance seems to penetrate Cillizza’s awareness and yet the fact that Kavanaugh could be innocent is literally a parenthetical. That suggests he’s not taking this real possibility very seriously. The only fair thing to say here is that we don’t know the truth and therefore we don’t know if Booker’s story is better or worse. But Cillizza isn’t done yet:
Second, the situations of Kavanaugh and Booker are different. Booker is an elected official who, every six years, stands before voters. If voters believe his groping incident — or any other element of his past or present — is disqualifying, they get to have their say. They can vote him out. That’s not the situation in which Kavanaugh finds himself. He has been nominated to a lifetime appointment on the most powerful court in the country. The public won’t ever get to offer up its judgment on his character — that will be up to the 21 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and, if he makes it through that vote, the full Senate. Just 100 people in the country will get a one-time-only vote on whether or not Kavanaugh has the judgment and temperament to sit on the Supreme Court and offer his opinions on the pressing issues of today — and lots of tomorrows. That’s a very different thing than a senator — or even a president — who has to face millions (or tens of millions) voters every four or six years.
Since Booker is already in office and since he wrote that groping confession 26 years ago, it’s fair to say the voters decided it wasn’t a reason to keep him out of the Senate. Is that because his confession blunted the potential impact of the story? Or is it because the media never insisted this story was worthy of saturation coverage? Will Cillizza bring this up when Booker runs for president? The red flag of “lifetime appointment” seems to be a potential cover for a lot of other reasons to focus on the Kavanaugh accusation that don’t have to do with its veracity or reliability. Cillizza concludes:
All of that is important — not just for whether or not Kavanaugh gets confirmed but for us as a society. For too long, these sorts of questions were dismissed. The rise of the #MeToo movement and the cavalcade of high-profile men admitting to behavior that ranges from boorish to criminal has opened eyes and forced uncomfortable and important conversations. The accusations against Kavanaugh are another moment to examine our assumptions and talk openly about how we should bets approach these situations — both now and going forward.
What we don’t need amid all of this is an epic bout of “whatboutism.” What Booker did as a teenager wasn’t right. And he has been and will be judged by voters on them. But to turn Booker into a political missile to prove hypocrisy misses the mark. This isn’t about Booker. This is about Ford, Kavanaugh, and how we, together, figure out the right way forward.
Whataboutism has become the go-to charge for left-wingers who want to avoid talking about the rules. Cillizza is right that this isn’t about Booker. The point of raising Booker’s story isn’t to create a distraction, it’s to focus the mind on those same underlying questions: How do we want to deal with old allegations? How much should they matter? How much do we believe accusers from long ago? What do we do if we can never fully know the facts? What is the price that should be paid in these cases? Calling the Booker story “whataboutism” is a dumb way of shrugging off those questions rather than trying to come to some sort of answer that rises above the politics of the moment. Why is that so hard for people on the left to understand?
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