In a different political world — one in which both parties acted, despite their ideological disagreements, for the good of the country — the prospect of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination being withdrawn in the shadow of an FBI investigation into allegations of sexual assault and evidence of lying to the Senate Judiciary Committee would have no discernable political impact at all.
Democrats would be pleased that a man of questionable character had been kept off the Supreme Court. Republicans would be disappointed but eager to move forward with a conservative nominee untainted by scandal. And the country as a whole would feel relieved that we'd all been spared the nightmare of a man credibly accused of sexual violence providing the crucial fifth vote needed to gut the reproductive rights of women.
But of course, we don't live in such a political world.
In the toxically polarized world in which we're all unhappy prisoners, all that counts is victory — and the political consequences of wins and losses are often the opposite of what common sense and ordinary decency would predict. To wit: Democrats are dying to derail Kavanaugh's confirmation. But that victory could well be pyrrhic — and lead to a midterm disaster for Democrats. Indeed, it's hard to imagine anything that would do more to dampen the party's prospect of taking control of the House and Senate next month.
Every poll shows Democrats leading on the generic congressional ballot, sometimes by double digits. But what will make the difference between, say, a nationwide popular vote victory of 3 points (which, given gerrymandering and the urban clustering of Democratic votes, might be insufficient to win a majority of seats in either chamber) and 12 points (which should be enough for a comfortable majority in the House and probably a seat or two of cushion in the Senate)?
The answer is turnout — or the relative mobilization of each party's base.
Ever since Trump's victory, through numerous special elections and primaries, Democratic turnout has been high. If that continues in November, the party should do well (as the party in opposition to the one that holds the White House usually does in midterm elections). But what will make the difference between Democrats doing well and riding a blue wave (or even a blue tsunami) to political power? Whether very high Democratic turnout is combined with low to middling Republican turnout.
Nothing would do more to motivate grassroots Republican voters to show up at the polls on Nov. 6 than watching Kavanaugh's nomination collapse less than a month before the vote, with the prospect of Republicans losing their chance to name a staunchly conservative successor to Justice Anthony Kennedy possibly hanging in the balance.
The reverse is true as well. Democratic turnout is likely to be high regardless. But would it likely be higher just after the Dems have helped to sink a Republican nominee to the high court — or after the Republicans forced him through despite the miasma of accusations swirling around him and in the wake his viciously partisan blast against the Democrats during last week's appearance before the judiciary committee?
The answer is obvious. If Kavanaugh takes a seat on the court just before the midterms, the Republican base will be mollified, but the Democratic base will be furious — and that fury will likely translate into a greater margin of victory at the ballot box.
That's how politics now plays out — as a perpetually intensifying pendulum swing, with each party's success inspiring the other party's stronger reaction, which then provokes an even stronger counter-reaction, and so on, through an endless series of impulsive responses.
The dialectical character of this pattern creates the exceedingly odd spectacle of each side secretly needing and hoping for short-term failures in order to propel longer-term victories. For a Democrat, the prospect of Kennedy being replaced by Kavanaugh is bad. But it might actually help boost the party's electoral prospects. By the same token, it would be bad for Republicans to lose control of Congress in January, but there's no doubt that President Trump would be in a stronger position to run for and win re-election in 2020 if he had a Democratic House and Senate to run against.
Combine a sharply polarized electorate with full-on trench warfare and you end up where we are — with each side poised to benefit at least as much by losing as by winning.
That's why, although most Democratic power brokers would certainly be unhappy to see Kavanaugh take a seat on the court, the prospect of him bowing out in the coming days or weeks probably secretly demoralizes them even more.