Gail Collins: What the Kavanaugh vote really meant

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NEW YORK — Well, on the positive side, we probably won't have to spend the autumn watching the leaves turn and listening to people talk about Brett Kavanaugh.

Sen. Susan Collins pushed Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination over the finish line Friday with a dramatic 45-minute speech that must have taken ages to compose. I think Collins knew all along that she'd be voting yes and was just trying to teeter dramatically on the fence for as long as humanly possible.

The political world is divided between those who think Collins is a brave and independent voice for moderation and those who think she's a person who enjoys playing that role while keeping herself safe, snug as a bug in a rug.

But we really have more important things on our agenda than calibrating any one senator's spine. Give Collins credit for a calm, reasoned pro-Kavanaugh argument that gave careful respect to the issue of sexual assault.

And try to imagine what would have happened if Donald Trump had behaved a fraction that well. Instead of turning everything into a debate about whether the #MeToo movement was really about persecuting men.

"I say that it's a very scary time for young men in America, when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of," he told reporters. Adding that "women are doing great."

RANTING BOOR

Trump was reportedly very angry when Kavanaugh, first responding to the allegations that he'd committed sexual assault as a young man, gave a somber interview on Fox News in which he assured the world that he had been a virgin for a very, very long time. And to be honest the virgin part was a little weird. But the president was thrilled when Kavanaugh transformed himself into a ranting boor who demanded to know whether one Democratic senator had a drinking problem and who blamed all his trouble on leftists and Clinton Democrats.

In the end, the decision facing the Senate was not whether Kavanaugh had a good judicial record but whether he was a politically paranoid jerk. And whether sexual assault had to be taken very, very seriously. The ultimate challenge was not filling a seat on the Supreme Court; it was standing up to yelling men who feel the only problem in this world is that they're not getting what they deserve.

As Sen. Lisa Murkowski said when she announced she'd be a "No" vote, "We're dealing with issues right now that are bigger than the nominee." Nobody owed Kavanaugh a Supreme Court seat. His hearing was a job interview, and the Senate had a perfect right to simply decide there was more to consider than whether he had ever molested anybody.

We've been struggling with this all year. Al Franken resigned from the Senate after various women accused him of forced kissing and inappropriate grabbing. In another era Franken could have gotten away with an apology, but he was at the center of a historic moment, when the country had to turn its back on the old boys-will-be-boys ethos that worked when women were supposed to stay home where they'd be safe from wandering fingers.

"Boy did he fold up like a wet rag," Trump laughed at a rally this week in Franken's home state of Minnesota. "He was gone so fast. It was like: `Oh, he did something.' `Oh, I resign. I quit.'"

SYMBOLIC VOTE

This is exactly what the Kavanaugh nomination has come to represent. A vote for the nomination became a symbolic vote for a political ethos that thinks grabbing private parts is fun and complaining about sexual assault is a threat to young manhood.

Murkowski understood. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., didn't care and took a dive. It's a real shame. This is a senator whose he-man image is so critical to his identity that he always runs campaign ads in which he shoots offensive legislation with a rifle. Imagine if someone like that had come out against the Kavanaugh nomination — just to say that Americans can behave better than this.

"I didn't look at this from a political standpoint," he fibbed.

Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, another red state Democrat, understood the symbolism of the moment. When she listened to Christine Blasey Ford testify, Heitkamp said, "I heard the voices of women I have known throughout my life who have similar stories of sexual assault and abuse."

Heitkamp won her first senate race by fewer than 3,000 votes, and cynics assumed she felt free to be brave and vote "No" because polls suggested her re-election campaign is a lost cause anyway. It is my experience that politicians never believe they're doomed to defeat unless the mail carrier ceases deliveries because no one has sent a contribution in six months.

Heitkamp is pitted against Rep. Kevin Cramer, who called the Kavanaugh controversy "even more absurd" than the Anita Hill case. And, he added, Blasey's charges just amounted to "an attempt or something that never went anywhere." Basically his position was that if there's no penetration, it doesn't count.

Do you get the pattern here? A vote for Brett Kavanaugh delivered a message to women who've suffered sexual assault: If the powerful can find a way to not take your claim seriously, they will.

We have to do better.

Gail Collins writes for The New York Times.

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