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How the parties have and haven’t changed since the Thomas-Hill hearings

Democrats now take sexual harassment much more seriously; Republicans have moved in the other direction.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford And Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Testify To Senate Judiciary Committee
Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), are seen during testimony by Brett Kavanaugh during the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images

Political observers have rightly called attention to the similarities between Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation process and that of Clarence Thomas in 1991. But in many ways those comparisons reveal how the parties have changed over the past three decades.

Democrats, importantly, have become much more receptive to allegations of sexual harassment and assault and take the issue much more seriously. By contrast, Senate Democrats in 1991 hardly covered themselves in glory in their questioning of Anita Hill, who testified about Clarence Thomas repeatedly harassing her in the workplace.

Sen. Joe Biden (DE), then the Democratic chair of the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, essentially asked Hill to relive her own harassment in the hearings.

Biden asked, “I would like you to recount for us where each of the incidents that you have mentioned in your opening statement occurred, physically where they occurred.” He later asked: “Can you tell us how you felt at the time? Were you uncomfortable, were you embarrassed, did it not concern you? How did you feel about it?” He repeatedly pressed her for the most lurid and embarrassing details of her experiences.

Republicans at that time sought to alternately minimize Hill’s experiences or undermine her credibility. Sen. Arlen Specter (PA) went the first route: “You testified this morning that the most embarrassing question involved — this is not too bad — women’s large breasts. That is a word we use all the time. That was the most embarrassing aspect of what Judge Thomas had said to you.”

Sen. Howell Heflin (AL) went the other route, asking Hill if she was a “scorned woman” or a “zealot civil rights believer.” Sen. Alan Simpson (WY) questioned why she continued to have a professional relationship with Thomas if he’d repeatedly harassed her, suggesting her story wasn’t very credible. Democrats and Republicans certainly saw the world differently back in 1991, but the behavior of the men on the Senate Judiciary Committee of that era did not vary dramatically across party lines.

What’s happened in the years since that, for one thing, the Democrats have become a very different party. Notably, their gender composition has changed dramatically. The Senate of 1992 had three women, one of them Democratic. Today, 23 women serve in the Senate, 17 of them as Democrats.

The Senate Judiciary Committee itself now contains four women, all Democrats. The percentage of women in our Congress and state legislatures is, of course, nowhere near their percentage of the population, but their numbers have grown substantially in elected offices, and that growth has been almost entirely on the Democratic side. Most of the women running for office this year — a record number — are Democrats.

This was visible in yesterday’s treatment of Christine Blasey Ford during her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on her accusation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh (which he has denied).

Democrats were largely encouraging, praising Ford for coming forward and simply allowing her to tell or repeat details of her account. Ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) noted Ford’s courage and warned her colleagues about putting victims on trial. Democrats on the committee reported later that they found her testimony both compelling and credible.

This party shift was perhaps made even more notable by an important absence from this committee — Sen. Al Franken (MN) was on the committee until his Democratic colleagues forced his resignation in December after sexual misconduct allegations from several women. Committee Democrats’ statements overwhelmingly illustrated that they consider sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault a serious issue and incompatible with public service.

The Republican shift since 1991 was evident in Ford’s hearing. Rather than directly challenge her testimony, as they did Hill’s, they hired Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to speak to Ford on their behalf. Most committee Republicans said almost nothing during Ford’s testimony. They quickly dispensed with Mitchell once Kavanaugh took the stand.

Their later references to Ford’s testimony were all qualified statements. Senate Republicans consider her allegations serious, but they objected to how late they were produced and suggested something nefarious in the timing. They praised her honesty, but they were concerned that she might have misremembered her attacker’s identity.

Republicans conceded something bad happened to her, but lamented the lack of corroborating evidence (and did not seek any prior to casting a vote). They never really attempted to tear her testimony apart. Rather, as Vox’s Ezra Klein noted, they largely ignored it, and said they believed Kavanaugh more. And they expressed great concern that it was Kavanaugh who was the wronged victim, the person who was most deserving of sympathy and rage and even vengeance.

But we didn’t really need this committee hearing to see how the modern Republican Party prioritizes concerns about sexual violence. We saw that two years ago, when the Access Hollywood tape surfaced. Republican officeholders initially expressed horror in Donald Trump’s boasts of sexual assault.

Some, notably House Speaker Paul Ryan, claimed they would no longer work to back his campaign, although most fell short of actually pulling their endorsements. Some privately urged Trump to drop out of the race. According to Bob Woodward’s account in Fear, many in Trump’s own campaign, including Reince Priebus and Mike Pence, said Trump should drop out.

But a few days passed and it turned out that Trump hadn’t lost that much public support after the bombshell. The information hadn’t really changed most voters’ perception of Trump. And slowly Republican leaders came back to support Trump, although some more tepidly than others.

Modern Republican leaders continue to demonstrate that their concern about sexual violence is qualified. They care about it, but only if accusations are made public on the right time line, if their voters care about it, if the accused doesn’t deny it, etc. Otherwise, it’s just not that much of a priority.

Those who claim there’s not much difference between the parties would have a hard time finding evidence for that claim while watching the Senate Judiciary Committee over the past few days. And it’s worth noting how they got to be that way.