For progressive activists, nothing better encapsulated their disappointment with how Senate Democrats handled Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings than the way ranking member Dianne Feinstein of California chose to end it.
Feinstein thanked Chairman Lindsey Graham for what she described as “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in” before hugging the South Carolina Republican.
Progressives wanted less collegiality and more aggressive opposition to Barrett, who would give conservatives a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court.
“Keeping Feinstein as the top Democrat on Judiciary Committee is a monument to our side’s weakness on the fight for the courts,” tweeted Brian Fallon, the executive director of the progressive judicial advocacy group Demand Justice, which later posted a petition calling for Feinstein’s removal as ranking member.
The committee wrapped up four days of hearings Thursday with little in the way of new details that might derail Barrett’s confirmation. Committee Republicans have scheduled an Oct. 22 vote on Barrett’s nomination and her confirmation is all but assured given Republican determination to get her on the court before the Nov. 3 election.
Keeping Feinstein as the top Democrat on Judiciary Committee is a monument to our side’s weakness on the fight for the courts.— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) October 15, 2020
Democrats had good reason to be restrained given there wasn’t much they could do to stop Barrett from going through, said Richard Davis, a professor of political science at BYU who has studied judicial nominations.
“Why expend political capital on something that is not going to do you any good?” Davis asked. “Clearly what they were trying to do is speak to the American public--voters out there--and try to get them to care about how they vote.”
That calculus did little to satisfy progressive activists, who made Feinstein the focus of their disappointment.
Rebeeca Kirszner Katz, a founding partner of progressive consulting firm New Deal Strategies, tweeted a video of Feinstein saying she was impressed by Barrett after it was originally tweeted by Senate Republicans, saying “Helluva job, Senate Dems.”
“Nothing says ‘this process is an illegitimate sham’ quite like hugging it out with the guy who’s in charge of the illegitimate sham,” Indivisible, a grassroots progressive group, tweeted after the end of the hearings Thursday.
In an email statement, a Senate Judiciary Democratic aide said, “Democrats effectively used their time to highlight what’s at stake with this nomination: health care, reproductive rights, climate change, voting rights and the many other issues important to the American people.”
A few hours after the hearings ended, Feinstein released a statement saying she would vote against Barrett’s confirmation. “Judiciary Committee Democrats had one goal this week: to show what’s at stake under a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court – and we did that,” she said in the emailed statement.
Chris Kang, chief counsel for Demand Justice said, “Senate Democrats should have done more to highlight just how illegitimate this entire process and nomination have been.” Kang said there were a few committee members that did that, but “overall I felt like they didn’t do enough to show what’s at stake.”
For progressives, the problems started before the hearing even began, when Democrats met or had a call with Barrett after her nomination. “It’s that mentality that seeped through the entire way they proceeded,” Kang said.
Demand Justice released a digital ad prior to the hearings saying Feinstein was “legitimizing an illegitimate process,” and urging voters to tell her “we’re counting on you.”
“If you looked at a clip from this hearing, you wouldn’t be able to tell if it were this hearing or any other hearing from the last 20 years,” Kang said. In reality, he said, “this is the most destructive hearing that’s happened during her entire time on the committee.”
Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy for Indivisible, said while there was a lot to like from Democratic senators like Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California during the hearing, there were other moments that fell flat.
“On the one hand you had a lot of Democrats saying this was an illegitimate process, and on the other hand you had Democrats, like Feinstein and Dick Durbin, apologizing to Amy Coney Barrett for having to go through this,” Hatcher-Mays said.
At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Durbin apologized if anything that was said at the hearing impacted her children and thanked her for being there. “They are innocent victims. They should not have to go through this,” Durbin said.
Hatcher-Mays said in many ways, Democrats succeeded in getting their message across to make the hearings personal by talking about health care and their constituents’ experiences, but moments like those from Durbin and Feinstein were “disappointing to see at all.”
“What people were looking for was to see Democrats put up a fight, and they got that to a degree, but I think they were disappointed in other respects,” Hatcher-Mays said.
Unlike hearings for Clarence Thomas or Robert Bork, Davis said, Democrats didn’t have much of a chance of changing the outcome of the final vote on Barrett, also nominated by a Republican president.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they weren’t as animated as they would have been had they thought they could win over somebody,” he said.
There isn’t a 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees anymore and Republicans already indicated they had the votes before the hearings began.
“They were in a tight spot,” Davis said of Democrats. “They knew there was nothing they could do that was going to change the outcome.”