By selecting Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, President Donald Trump produced an unusually revelatory moment. The country has seen the president as impulsive and instinctive, but rarely as deliberative. It has seen the extent of his resentment of the old political order, but rarely has seen him struggle with the limits of resentment as a political strategy.
It has witnessed the sort of change that can be reversed -- a new Democratic administration can, for example, restore some of the economic regulations that the Trump team has eliminated -- but now is witnessing change of a more permanent nature. Judge Kavanaugh is 53 years old. If he serves until the age when Justice Kennedy retired, he will have been on the bench in 2046, the year minorities are likely to surpass whites as the majority of the population.
With one prime-time announcement, Trump laid bare the contours of the new political era that his election both reflected and produced:
• Trump's determination to remake the Republican Party.
Kavanaugh's sterling academic record and long service on the court commonly regarded as the farm team to the Supreme Court automatically made him a strong candidate. Still, Trump hesitated. He examined a half-dozen others and nearly settled on Judge Thomas Hardiman, whom his aides and Capitol Hill power brokers insisted would be easier to confirm.
Why the reluctance? It wasn't Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's concerns about winning a Kavanaugh confirmation. Instead, those close to Trump repeatedly argued that the president had to "overcome" Kavanaugh's ties to George W. Bush, the last Republican to occupy the White House. In a conventional presidency, such experience would be a shimmery credential; Barack Obama had no hesitation in appointing officials who had served Bill Clinton, his Democratic predecessor, and chose Clinton's wife for the top position in his Cabinet: secretary of state.
But Kavanaugh's deep roots in the administration of Bush, part of the first family of the traditional Republicanism Trump reviles, was a formidable obstacle that had to be surmounted. Judge Kavanaugh's role in the contested 2000 election that took Bush to power, his marriage to the 43rd president's top administrative assistant, his appointment to the court of appeals by Bush, his defense of the school-voucher plan of Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida -- all of these elements placed the judge firmly in the Bush orbit, and thus outside the president's vision of the new GOP he is sculpting.
• Trump's preference for confrontation politics over conciliation politics.
In choosing Kavanaugh, Trump made it clear that he is not concerned about setting off a bitter fight on Capitol Hill, despite his failure to win the repeal of Obamacare or an overhaul of immigration policies. Of all the candidates for the Supreme Court whom he considered, Kavanaugh ranked high -- perhaps second-highest -- on the list of potential nominees who would infuriate the Democrats and prompt political trench warfare.
That did not deter Trump, who was more interested in sealing his ties with his base, which has longed for a true conservative on the bench, than winning an easy confirmation in a Senate his party controls. The last time Kavanaugh came before the Senate, he was the center of a divisive partisan fight, prompted angry charges of deception from high-ranking Democrats and required three years to be confirmed. But now -- before the midterm congressional elections, likely to come after the Kavanaugh confirmation vote -- the Trump choice underlines the powerlessness of the Democrats. The Democrats will complain, but the Republicans will confirm.
• The "swamp" still hasn't been drained.
Trump prefers the "swamp" metaphor to describe the American capital, where an entrenched ruling class -- leaning left, preferring regulation of business, invested in the status quo -- has held sway since the John F. Kennedy years. His determination to "drain the swamp" was at the heart of his campaign and the governing theme of his first two years in office.
And yet, with the selection of Kavanaugh, he reached deep into the Washington swamp (and, not incidentally, the Yale alumni directory). Despite claims that the judge is from, but not of, the capital, he is clearly a denizen of Washington, where he was reared, where he worked most of his career and where he gained his judicial experience.
• The Supreme Court will be more "political" than it was a generation ago.
There is no denying that Kavanaugh is a political animal, characteristics he displayed as he assisted the Bush team in the overtime election in 2000 and as a staff member of Kenneth Starr's team examining the conduct of President Bill Clinton.
The Supreme Court has had political actors before, including a onetime chief justice, William Howard Taft, who conducted two presidential campaigns and served in the White House from 1909 to 1913. Without a former senator (Hugo Black) or a former governor (Earl Warren), today's court has only one political animal, Stephen Breyer, who, along with academic experience, was assistant special prosecutor on the Watergate team and special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he was a very close adviser to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The significance of a jurist with political skills is difficult to calculate, for even with new justices from the establishment, the removal of one jurist and the substitution of another has an impact greater than the 11 percent of voting power that a justice accounts for mathematically. That said, while mathematics often is the principal element in the character of the Supreme Court, chemistry matters, too.