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After the Kavanaugh Trauma, the Senate Needs an MRI

Senators, on both sides, must stop assuming the worst of colleagues’ motives

Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ defense of Sen. Dianne Feinstein in her floor speech Friday, she offered her colleagues one way forward to fix the stalemate they find themsleves in, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ defense of Sen. Dianne Feinstein in her floor speech Friday, she offered her colleagues one way forward to fix the stalemate they find themsleves in, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — The Brett Kavanaugh confirmation saga is over, but the worry I hear most around the Senate is that the damage done to the institution during his nomination battle may be permanent.

How does the institution go on after a mess like that? How do colleagues, especially on the Judiciary Committee, work together after the accusations, attacks and name-calling that went on? How can they fix a Senate that looks so broken right now?

In my head, I keep a running list of reforms that senators could consider to get back to regular order — don’t you? — including getting back to regular order. Returning the filibuster would also make for instantly less partisan nominations, while going back to an open amendment process would make legislation instantly less partisan, too. And don’t get me started on the effectiveness of “congressionally directed spending” (aka earmarks) to grease the skids around the Capitol.

But all of the reforms in the world will be useless in the Senate if the most corrosive element on the Hill today continues — and that is the willingness, and even the eagerness, of senators to assume the worst about the motives of the people around them. If senators could change that single dynamic, the chamber might actually function again.

On a recent podcast, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, a leader at William Morris Endeavor, said she requires her staff to use “MRI,” meaning, the Most Respectful Interpretation of what other people are doing instead of jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst.

Watch: Highlights of Susan Collins’ Speech Confirming Vote for Kavanaugh

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Assume the best

What would the last month in Washington have looked like if senators assumed their colleagues at least had good intentions, even if they totally disagreed with their judgement? What if Sen. Lindsey Graham had allowed for the fact that Democrats were genuinely worried that Kavanaugh had more troubling information in his background than anyone knew? Instead he looked across the dais and said to them all, “You must really want power!”

And what if Democrats had assumed the GOP senators were genuinely concerned about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s horrendous memories of sexual assault, but also worried about making accusations against Kavanaugh before they had more evidence of his role in it?

By the end of the whole mess, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley went to the Senate floor to defend the committee process he ran. But instead of doing just that, he called the Democrats’ behavior over the nomination “nothing short of monstrous,” adding that “the political motives behind the Democrats’ actions are obvious to everyone.”

And when Sen. Joe Manchin announced Friday that he’d vote to confirm Kavanaugh, he was drowned out by shouts of, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” But in addition to being up for re-election in a state that went for President Donald Trump by more than 40 points, the majority of people Manchin represents want him to vote that way. Manchin may have had no other motivation than to reflect their views.

It’s true that assuming good motives from every person in Washington is naive. Some of the senators — no, many of them — have ulterior motives of power, prestige and a paycheck at the end of their Senate run. But it’s also true that assuming respectful intentions from fellow senators most of the time would make for a better, more productive, less toxic Senate. It would probably make it a more pleasant place to work, which couldn’t hurt either.

It’s a lesson that Sen. Joe Biden said he learned early in his career following a conversation with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. In a commencement speech at Yale University, Biden described watching Sen. Jesse Helms, a staunch conservative, excoriating Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole about an early version of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Biden told Mansfield he thought Helms had no social redeeming value, especially what he saw as Helms’ disregard for disabled Americans.

Mansfield then told Biden about the time Helms read a story in the local paper about an orphaned disabled boy whose only wish was to be adopted and loved by a family. So Helms and his wife adopted him. The lesson, Mansfield said, was: “It’s always appropriate to question another man’s judgment, but never appropriate to question his motives because you simply don’t know his motives.”

Friends indeed

Not questioning his colleagues motivations, even when he disagreed completely with their actions, is probably why Biden became so close with so many senators that he has given the eulogies for everyone from Sen. John McCain to Strom Thurmond and Ted Kennedy. His friendships with them were real and enduring, and they also resulted in major legislation. Taking the less cynical route in the Senate didn’t shorten his career, it led him to the vice president’s residence. He may go higher still, and it’s because he usually thinks the best of people, not the worst.

When Sen. Susan Collins went to the floor on Friday to explain her vote for Kavanaugh, she could have talked about the threats against her that required her to have a police escort everywhere she went. Or she could have dismissed Ford’s allegations as a last-minute partisan smear, which even Kavanaugh himself did.

Instead, the Maine Republican  used part of her time to defend Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose motives have been attacked and demeaned since the contents of Ford’s letter, which the California Democrat guarded closely for weeks, leaked to the press.

“I know Sen. Dianne Feinstein extremely well and I believe she would never [leak] that,” Collins said. “I believe she is a person of integrity and I stand by her.”

That may have been the most important part of Collins’, or any, speech Friday. Because it has always been certain that President Trump would get a conservative nominee on to the Supreme Court one way or another. And it was always certain that most Democrats would oppose that nominee.

But with the future function of the Senate in danger and doubt, Collins showed the one way forward to fix it for us all.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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