It’s been 27 years since Anita Hill made her explosive sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
And while American attitudes towards sexual harassment may have changed considerably over the decades — the way they’re handled in a Supreme Court nomination fight on Capitol Hill hasn’t.
Republicans are using many of the same tactics they adopted during the Anita Hill hearings in October of 1991 to defend their current nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, against allegations of sexual misconduct from psychologist and professor Christine Blasey Ford and others.
Then, as now, it’s partly a matter of controlling the optics: Thomas’s wife seemed always positioned where she was sure to be near her husband in the shot during the hearings; Kavanaugh, meanwhile, had his wife next to him while he answered questions about the allegations on Fox News this past weekend.
It’s also about managing the message. Thomas and Kavanaugh both responded to the allegations against them with similar rhetoric — each categorically denying any wrongdoing, and describing themselves as the real victims in politically-driven attempts at character assasination. Both in 1991 and today, Republicans took aim at the accusers, raising questions about their credibility.
The tactics seemed to work for Clarence Thomas — he was ultimately confirmed to the bench. But Manus Cooney, a Republican lawyer on the Judiciary Committee during the Anita Hill hearings, said the aggressive questioning from a panel of all-male Senators hurt the GOP in the election the following year.
“The legacy of that hearing is a woman made an allegation of sexual harassment, and was taken to task by a committee of white men. That had consequences.  was the ‘Year of the Woman,” he told VICE News, referring to the nickname given to the 1992 elections after four new women were elected to the Senate, bringing the total number of women in the chamber to five.
The room for error may be even greater for Republicans this time, with Election Day just six weeks away. And that may explain two major differences between the 1991 hearings and Thursday’s: Republicans brought in a female outside counsel to question Ford, and Thursday’s hearing will be considerably shorter, with Senators allowed just five minutes each to question Ford and Kavanaugh, rather than the two days they had to question Hill and Thomas.
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