While Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., wanted an FBI investigation to clear his conscience and perhaps some of the allegations over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Democrats only ever wanted political cover. Case in point: Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.
Donnelly is running in deep-red Indiana meaning that Donnelly needs to inspire the nascent liberal electorate while placating his opponent’s conservative base. The allegations of sexual assault plus the absence of an FBI investigation provided the perfect cover.
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The senator pointed to his vote for Trump’s last Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, before panning his most recent pick. Donnelly wrote in a statement last week that:
I do not view Supreme Court vacancies through a partisan lens, which is why I have used the same thorough process to evaluate nominees regardless of who the president is at the time. That was the case regarding the nomination of Judge Garland and also when I voted for Justice Gorsuch, who was President Trump’s first nominee. It has remained my approach with Judge Kavanaugh.
The allegations made against Judge Kavanaugh are disturbing and credible. In the interest of getting as much information as possible, I believe the allegations should be investigated by the FBI. Unfortunately, despite having the time and opportunity to do so, Sen. McConnell has refused to allow that FBI investigation.
Notice how Donnelly withholds judgment on Kavanaugh. He doesn’t say one way or the other whether he thinks the nominee should or shouldn’t sit on the Supreme Court. It is the political equivalent of "thanks but no thanks," a sort of confirmation, nonconfirmation designed to maximize political cover.
I wrote at the time, and as David Freddoso predicted weeks earlier, the FBI investigation would always be meant to bail out red-state Democrats. It seemed almost tailor-made for Donnelly because that candidate could disarm Republican furor while simultaneously ingratiating himself to Democrats after voting for Gorsuch. He wouldn’t lose any support on the Right and he might even regain some on the Left.
Donnelly pinned his opposition not on the ideology or character of the nominee, but exclusively on the lack of an FBI investigation. That avoided coming down one way or the other on Kavanaugh as a whole or the allegations against him.
It was a foolproof plan, until Flake torpedoed it.
When Flake demanded an FBI investigation, he took Kavanaugh's nomination hostage and, in the process, the senator exposed Donnelly. It is impossible for him to fall back on his FBI excuse any more. He was forced to come down on the nominee and that is exactly what happened. See this exchange between Donnelly’s office and Seung Min Kim of the Washington Post:
I’ve been asking whether @SenDonnelly could change his opposition to Kavanaugh since it hinged much on lack of FBI probe and now there is one. Here’s what a senior aide tells me this morning pic.twitter.com/ZFldn5smpD— Seung Min Kim (@seungminkim) October 3, 2018
The statement is a perfect encapsulation of the current Democratic mood. Once Donnelly got his FBI investigation, Donnelly was forced to move the goal post to some other demand. Like the rest of the Democratic Senate caucus, he latched onto the latest gripe — Kavanaugh’s temperament — and revealed some harsh truths. Democrats don’t care about the actual allegations. Donnelly isn't actually moderate. He is just looking for an excuse to vote "No" and stay in the good graces of the Left.