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15th of October 2018

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'Brett who?': Why Trump's Kavanaugh 'victory lap' makes sense a month before midterms | CBC News

U.S. President Donald Trump, who promised Americans would "get tired of winning" under his stewardship, is racking up a streak of political triumphs, capped by Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation over the weekend as the Supreme Court's newest conservative justice.

Trump's administration brokered a trade deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. The unemployment rate is at a 49-year low of 3.7 per cent. The stock market has hit historic highs. Republican voter excitement has spiked, closing the enthusiasm gap with Democrats. Even the special counsel's investigation into Trump-Russian collusion is off the front pages. 

Small wonder, then, that Trump would want to trot out his newly minted Supreme Court justice for a second, "ceremonial" swearing-in on Monday — airing on prime-time TV — following Kavanaugh's fraught nomination process.

"Those who step forward to serve our country deserve a fair and dignified evaluation, not a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception," Trump said at the unusual event. "What happened to the Kavanaugh family violates every notion of fairness, decency and due process."

Kavanaugh takes his oath during his ceremonial swearing-in as Trump and Kavanaugh's daughters Liza and Margaret look on. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

To critics, it didn't sound much like the president closing the door on an ugly period of partisan rancour so much as it looked like him prying it wide open for extended public display.

Trump's 2016 Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton slammed the second swearing-in as little more than a "political rally." Yet it would seem to make sense that the president would want to prolong the Kavanaugh saga.

Kavanaugh old news by Friday?

The judge's confirmation fight, during which he denied multiple sexual-misconduct allegations and which spawned an inconclusive FBI investigation widely slammed as toothless, was "the best thing to happen to the Republican Party" in months, said Steve Billet, who lectures at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.

That said, it may not have been the best timing to play out, with the elections still four weeks away — an eternity in political terms. 

"So Trump was trying to make an extra victory lap with this extra swearing-in ceremony," Billet said. "It's a smart political move. In this town, Kavanaugh could very well be old news by Friday, and people will say, 'Brett who?'"

The president's approval ratings this week ticked up by about 2.5 points to about 42.5 per cent, compared to his approval from Sept. 1, based on an adjusted average from the website FiveThirtyEight.

The Nov. 6 midterms have been billed as a referendum on his leadership.

Christine Blasey Ford testifies during the Senate judiciary committee hearing on Kavanaugh's nomination on Sept. 27. (Tom Williams/Pool via Reuters)

"If this was somebody other than Donald Trump — with the week he's had with the economy, with trade deals, with unemployment rates — they'd be killing the Democrats," Billet said.

Linda Fowler, a professor of government with Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, agrees Trump has won some impressive victories, though she notes the new NAFTA deal, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, needs approval by Congress.

As for who deserves credit for today's booming economy — Trump or his predecessor Barack Obama — that's been a topic of debate among economists.

Either way, Fowler said, "there's a difference between winning political victories and being perceived as governing effectively."

"The whole rush to confirm Kavanaugh may not have actually been that helpful to Republicans in the end because people have a whole month to think about something else," Fowler added. "That's a whole month where Trump will do something that could distract them."

Few recent issues have galvanized Republicans like the Supreme Court nomination fight, with "Never Trump" conservatives joining Trump's base in condemning what they perceived as Democratic efforts to sully a qualified judge on the basis of credible but uncorroborated sexual-assault allegations.

Rachel Bovard, senior director of policy for the Conservative Partnership, a nonprofit promoting limited government, counts herself among those who "weren't that enthused" about Kavanaugh in the beginning.

All the other eight Supreme Court justices were at the ceremony, including Clarence Thomas, left, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

But after the Democrats "broke every standard of decency in going after him," she wrote in an email, Kavanaugh "became a cause célèbre in the GOP the way he was not before. I think, overall, most GOP voters are far more motivated to keep Republicans in office than they otherwise would have been."

Polls show a spike in Republican excitement to vote, nearly wiping out a large Democratic lead in enthusiasm.

Trump's torquing the Kavanaugh issue might help mobilize the Republican base, but some analysts doubt it will go far toward winning over independents.

Bovard's concern is whether any of this will last. And she isn't sure how much Republicans can ride Trump's coattails.

"Outside of tax reform … Congress has done zilch. In the end, that may hurt Trump, because two of his biggest promises — repealing Obamacare and immigration reform, or the wall — can't be done without Congress."

Coming off a good week for Trump, Matthew Glassman, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, isn't surprised the president is experiencing a bump in approval.

Trump used his introduction of Kavanaugh to slam the judge's opponents. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

"But that doesn't negate the basic point here, that Trump is still quite unpopular. And that unpopularity is going to hurt Republicans in the midterms," Glassman said.

Kavanaugh's confirmation notched another accomplishment for the president, though Glassman imagines that had Kavanaugh's nomination failed, it would have riled up Trump's base even more.

Aggrieved voters are a powerful force at the polls, although Glassman expects Republicans enraged by what they saw as a lack of due process in the Kavanaugh debacle will cool off now their side has won his confirmation battle. 

"You've got 5,000 news cycles until the election, and I don't know if people a month from now on the right will think, 'Wow, we got a judge, now I'm going to vote.'"

Midterms favour Republican turnout

It was only a week ago that the New York Times published an astonishing 14,000-word investigation detailing alleged tax fraud and tax dodges that allowed Trump to amass more than $413 million through his father. Remarkable as the story was, it barely registered on the Sunday talk-show circuit while the Kavanaugh story continued to be all-consuming.

See what's at stake in the midterm elections:

Midterms historically draw much lower voter turnouts than presidential elections. They also tend to draw an older, more engaged, and more Republican-leaning electorate. Voters are likely to have already made up their minds before the Kavanaugh debacle, Glassman said.

Republican strategist Evan Siegfried said the party needs to talk more about immigration "as opposed to health care and the economy and the referendum on Trump."

The good news for Republicans is they have the momentum for now.

"Now, you have to sustain that for the next 30 days? That's pretty tough," Siegfried said. "How do you do that? That's the big question."

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