Bob Franken: The country’s road ruts

”Country roads, take me home,

To the place I belong,

West Virginia, mountain mama,

Take me home, country roads.”

If John Denver were to write that song these days, its lyrics might become “Trump country roads.” After all, Donald Trump won West Virginia by a margin of more than 42 percentage points over Hillary Clinton. And West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s “mountain mama” didn’t raise no fool. Sen. Manchin is fighting for his political life, doing whatever he can to make sure the state’s voters don’t take him home from Washington, D.C., and replace him with a member of Trump’s party. It’s one of those tacky little games they play in Congress and, for that matter, in legislative bodies everywhere. When facing a really tough issue, particularly during a campaign, a member will tell his party leaders: “I’ll be with you if you absolutely need me, but if you don’t, then I’ll avoid making the unpopular decision and go with the politically expedient one. No sense endangering my re-election chances for nothing.”

Manchin waited to commit until after it was clear Brett Kavanaugh would have the senator majority votes necessary to be confirmed. Therefore he didn’t have to make that dangerous choice between antagonizing his party or antagonizing a huge chunk of West Virginia’s fanatic pro-Trump majority. By the way, recent polling shows Joe Manchin leading his GOP opponent by about 9 points, and he probably didn’t harm himself by supporting Kavanaugh.

Heidi Heitkamp is another story. She’s a Senate Democrat running to save her skin in North Dakota, which Trump won by whomping Hillary Clinton by a more than 32 percentage point margin. Unlike Manchin, Heitkamp is badly trailing in her race, by about 12 percentage points. Also, unlike Manchin, Heitkamp decided to vote her conscience, and she declared ahead of time that she would oppose Kavanaugh. That could doom her chances, but she did it.

Hers also was a wasted effort, because Republican leader Mitch McConnell was able to make Judge Brett Kavanaugh into Justice Kavanaugh, finally pulling off the ultraconservative takeover of the Supreme Court that should last for decades. The hard-right-wing Supremes outnumber the hard-left 5-4, although on the right there is a bloc within a bloc — two justices, Clarence Thomas and now Brett Kavanaugh, who have been charged with sexual improprieties.

Already there is hand-wringing about the credibility of the nation’s highest rung in our judicial system, where legal disputes can go to be ultimately decided. The damage will become apparent over time. But here in D.C., we avoid such farsighted thinking and focus on immediate results. We are preoccupied with what effects the bizzaro developments might have in the short run, specifically the midterm elections less than a month from now. Never mind that the ludicrous conduct of almost everyone involved has further eroded the already crumbling credibility of our institutions. It’s all about who can take advantage of the fallout.

Pick your poison. There are plausible scenarios on both sides: Either the Brett Kavanaugh snit storm benefited the GOP Trumpsters by inflaming their passions over their perceived unfairness of uncorroborated accusations against him. That would include many men who are feeling mighty exposed these days. It’s a feeling of vulnerability that was deftly exploited by Trump and his gang. Or, it will push the buttons of the antis, particularly women who have embraced the grievances accumulated over eons of sexual oppression. This really becomes a question of turnout. Who will show up on Election Day? Will those who were loudly demonstrating during the Kavanaugh debacle appear at the polls next month? Will they be outnumbered? Will all of this really make a difference, or will we and they be distracted by some other government fiasco or outrage?

Let’s face it, the Democrats as an organized party are easily befuddled. Donald Trump is a master befuddler. What’s yet to be seen is if he can be stopped before he takes the country further down the road to disaster.

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