Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings are going on now, and I followed it all day yesterday. Watched a bit on C-SPAN, listened on C-SPAN Radio, and when I couldn't watch or listen I followed along with the SCOTUSblog.com live blog. Which is terrific: they're non-partisan and they provide context for everything people say, for instance whenever someone mentions a precedent the live blog will link to the decision and their analysis of it.
The hearings are pure theater of course. I don't expect any shocking (or even mildly surprising) revelations to come out. It's just interesting to see the tactics that are used. And the hilarious posturing: everyone who supports the nominee asks questions along the lines of "Isn't it true that you love puppies and are kind to old ladies?" And opponents ask "Don't you agree that the president who nominated you is ruining our country and must be stopped at all costs?"
The only surprise is that Kagan has a good sense of humor. Lindsay Graham asked her where she was on Christmas Day (something to do with the Christmas Day bomber) and she said "Like all Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant." Which is first of all, hilarious, also interesting that she admitted not remembering exactly where she was on Christmas. Of course, why would she -- to a non-Christian it's just a day off.
The funniest line to me requires a bit more setup: someone, I think Grassley, was asking her about some statements she had made about Israeli judge Aharon Barak. Apparently Barak has a judicial philosophy that is at odds with the approach favored in the US, and Grassley was trying to associate her with Barak's philosophy. They went back and forth for awhile, then finally she explained that the remarks he was quoting about Barak were made while she was introducing him before his speech at Harvard. She said that it was her job as dean to introduce people, "and if any of you had spoken at Harvard, I would have given you a great introduction too." It really helped to deflate Grassley's argument.
I've decided that I prefer listening to the hearings on radio to watching them on TV. Because it's easier to take when I can't see the senators' faces. For instance, yesterday morning I heard Sessions sneeringly say "Miss Kagan, put your legal hat on for just a moment" and basically call her a liar, and thought to myself "Christ, what an asshole"* without reacting emotionally. In the evening I saw Coburn challenge her on something she had said in a speech once, and I wanted to punch him in the face.
My main impression of the first day of questioning is that Kagan's opponents have got nothing. Only a couple went on a serious attack -- even Big John Cornyn was fairly mild -- and the substance of the attacks have been pretty lame. Sessions went after her for blocking military recruiters from Harvard Law because Don't Ask Don't Tell violated Harvard's non-discrimination policy. Okay, I'm not a good judge of this one because I admire her for doing that, so an attack based on that doesn't seem very damaging to me. But it did seem to me that she parried well. Coburn's attack was all over the place. By the end he seemed to be making the bizarre claim that the original intent of the framers of the Constitution was to prevent any law that Tom Coburn doesn't like, and therefore the Supreme Court have failed to do their job because they allow Congress to pass laws. He ran out of time and said he'd go back to it in the second round. Can't wait.
The weirdest attack mostly happened on the first day, during the speeches. Apparently the new GOP party line is that Thurgood Marshall was a bad justice, and therefore Elena Kagan will be bad because she clerked for him and .. she's not capable of thinking for herself but will only mimic the man she worked for twenty years ago? Or something? All I can say is, if demonizing a legendary, beloved figure is all they've got, well, good luck with that.
*Have you seen that thing about how all comic strips are funnier if you replace the last word balloon with "Christ, what an asshole"? It works even better with Senate confirmation hearings.