Why We Lost

The organizer in me would say, "We lost because we didn't have the votes. It's that simple."

But the fight against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after being nominated by Donald Trump was the clearest example of our weakening democracy.

I had often said that when I was designing the direct action component of the campaign to save the ACA after Trump's election, that every single campaign I had ever worked on, every organizer I came to know, was somehow setting me up for that battle. I had hoped that the same math and the same karma would carry over to stop Trump from being able to appoint his first, of potentially four, SCOTUS nominees.

It was said that when Donald Trump interviewed Brett Kavanaugh to become his SCOTUS pick, he asked him two questions: 1. Would you rule the ACA unconstitutional; and 2. Would you overturn Roe v. Wade. Kavanaugh was the nominee, so we were confident that he would mark the death knell of the ACA.

The campaign strategy was simple. We needed to focus on Senators. The ones who were more likely to vote our way were the same ones, minus McCain, who sided with us in the healthcare fight. We felt that we could bring more people to DC to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to stop the nominee than we had at any other point in history around a SCOTUS confirmation. We figured that we could easily get Kavanaugh knocked out of the running, and buy ourselves some time before Trump chose the next potential candidate on the Federalist Society list.

With all of CPD's direct action campaigns, I've been training myself to be comfortable with chaos and an ability to go with the flow. Our first action around Kavanaugh included a rally with the typical DC groups and Ady Barkan, the newly internet-famous CPD organizer who was diagnosed with ALS four months after the birth of his son. Ady figured that the trip to DC would be his last arrest (his first was just a few months earlier in an effort to stop the Trump Tax Plan, which stripped the ACA of the individual mandate). As we were doing the teach-in, lobbyist friends were informing us that Kavanaugh would be on the Hill at the same time we were there and they were feeding us the list of appointments. The gathering and sharing of this information seriously delayed our arrival at the rally, but it gave the accidental illusion that as soon as Ady was ready to speak, an army arrived to back him.

Throughout the course of that day, we were moving 300 people through the Senate halls in an effort to meet up with Kavanaugh. Every time we arrived at his meeting spot, we would see an aide run down the hall texting his principle to go to another location. By the end of the morning it was clear that Kavanaugh was having all of his meetings in the Capitol building, where mere mortal visitors aren't allowed. Ady ended up getting arrested in front of Senator Grassley's office, the Chair of the Judiciary Committee. We would come to spend a lot of time in that office.

Our Strategy Going In

The first line in an article about the fight from reporter Emily Witt in The New Yorker says, “women did all but slit their wrists in the offices of Senators”. That is how it felt on the inside. It felt as though weshed collective blood.

I've said to colleagues that we lost because we were outworked and they, rightly, become incredulous. It is impossible to have worked harder than we did in that month and a half. Except that the other side worked pretty hard in that month; of coursethey also laid the groundwork for the past forty years. That's what being in power is, consistently protecting your power. Using the labor of others to increase your power, preparing, constantly preparing, to hold on, at all costs, to your power. It's not that they were “playing chess and we were playing checkers,”as a Huffington Post commentator said. It's that they bought up all of the tables at the casino and we were outside rolling dice in the alley. Or, more accurately, they bought up all of the country clubs and excluded us from playing golf for centuries and then invited us in for a game. It should be noted how well we played. How close we came. Or as I like to think of it - how incredibly bad they are at playing given their decades of game dedication. If chess is the game of brilliance and strategy and checkers is the game of lazy luck, then we are chess masters and the other side is putting round play pieces in their mouths.

We ran out of time. If we had another week, we could have defeated this nomination, and if our side was better at lining up inside support, we could have morphed this fight into one for impeachment which remains the only way to avoid Donald Trump from having another SCOTUS confirmed.

We had the stamina, the momentum, the passion, and as a Capitol Police officer said, "the goddamn heart". We were doing the right things, more or less, but just couldn't absorb the energy fast enough. This is a real critique. Absorption is a gap that we need to fix.

It's hard to remember now, but we entered this fight because Brett Kavanaugh was believed to have passed Trump's litmus test of being willing to rule that that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional and that he would be willing to overturn Roe V. Wade.

Given that, we went back to our playbook to win the Affordable Care Act. Now THAT was an eye opening campaign. It was the first time that I realized that anyone with any progressive values had absolutely NO access to power. I've organized under the Bush administration when we had little access to power, but we knew who we had to move to build it and it was possible. I worked on AIDS policy when he was elected. George Bush, Jr. giving a shit about people living with AIDS was as improbable as you can imagine, but he left office being credited as the world leader that, perhaps, had done more than any others to stop the pandemic. vHe did so much, that Bill Clinton made his presidential afterlife all about trying to do more than Bush for his legacy. Never underestimate the motivation of just pure human jealousy and competition.

It should be noted that we have won impossible fights before. We have always done so by being willing to use every tool in the advocacy tool box and by holding on to our collective moral outrage. Connecting people to their humanity is our number one job. Itwins hearts and minds of the public, it might win hearts and minds in Congress, but more importantly, it paints the picture of a passionate electorate that will exact revenge the next election. If you are willing to get arrested in an act of nonviolent protest, you can bet that you will remember why. Whether that picture is an illusion or not is the bluff that the Republicans decided to call.

One of those impossible fights was stopping the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It was a foregone conclusion that we would see the ACA wiped away with the stroke of a pen. In that fight the math was not on our side. We needed three Republican Senators. With that in mind, we figured that we would literally try everything that we tried on the fight to save the ACA in the fight to stop the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.

We won the ACA because Republicans weren't aligned with Trump's agenda. Having them aligned means that we will never win again. We need to be the crowbar in the crack.

It's important to remind everyone that we were against Kavanaugh's confirmation not because he is a rapist, but because he would be bad for healthcare (anbd specifically reproductive rights). The whole first week where we disrupted his testimony every fifteen minutes with an act of civil disobedience was all done by healthcare activists.

The terrifying thing is that they were the ones were there the first few days after the credible rape allegation from Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford came out. They just happen to also have sexual assault stories to share too. Survivors didn't start coming until the following week. But it turns out that in our system of white supremacy, held up by the patriarchy, nearly everyone is a "survivor".

I had, what I've come to understand is my first panic attack in the office of Senator Grassley. I was sitting there, planning, typing, and all of a sudden I started listening. My boss texted me asking “how's it going”. Here's my reply: “ I was 12 years old at debate camp and I forgot my notebook. I went back into the dorm and an older student followed me.” “I was waiting for the bus afterschool when I was in 3rd grade.” “I went to my friend's house and her older brother was there. I was 8 years old.” The room was packed and I was kind of in charge so I felt trapped, but I was also consumed by the thought that I was suffocating in there. I haven't smoked since I was 21, but I desperately wanted a cigarette. This was only the first day of the second week. There were weeks and weeks of rape stories to come. I knew, but I didn't know and the knowing has made me fucking crazy.

Meeting the Other Side

I don't think I've ever met an organizer on another side of the campaign. I've had dinner with sheepish lobbyists who gave me information from their bosses at PhRMA. I've been dragged down the stairs by hotel security hired to protect the rich assholes we were organizing against, but I've never met an organizer on the other side. Until Kavanaugh.

He approached us on the bench where we set up our headquarters during the hearings with his phone in his hand. He was dressed extraordinarily well. We had slept out on the ground and looked and smelled like we slept on the ground in a swamp in August. He was polite. In fact, that's his thing. He's very into civility. He was talking to our volunteer activists and I thought it was better to have him talk to me. I tried to be careful. He asked us about paying protestors. I got in big trouble with the bosses for that. But I became fascinated. Obsessed. He looked so much like Commander Waterford in Handmaid's Tale. His organizing plan was brilliant - they park the buses at Kavanaugh country club! The women have their days off. Their kids come when they can. It's an extension of summer! An early reunion. I was reporting to a collection of leaders from CPD and the Women's March, barely able to get actual electeds on the phone and he spoke on the phone directly to Donald Trump, Jr. who was his boss in this fight. He never broke a sweat. We struggled to raise money, he had a blank check.

We spoke a few times that week. After the first time, I always asked him to put away his phone (he did end up recording me and putting it on his blog). I wondered if he was fascinated by us, or if he just wanted to put the red coats on us and send us to Aunt Lydia.

The Greatest Organizing Feat of My Life

I often tell people that organizing is 90% logistics. I used to think that there was someone out there making the grand plan and I was just filling the buses, taking the call notes and copying the flyers to implement it, but I've reached the highest levels of decision-making and they aren't there. Organizing is making lists, calling everyone three times, telling them clear information (meet up time and location) and letting them take action. I started my career as a secretary and I've often credited that experience as one that set me up for early success. Most people now can't believe that I think I'm good at logistics, but I am.

Here's the example of my greatest achievement in organizing except that we lost and lost bad.

We were told by staff in Senator Booker's office that they had emails that proved that Kavanaugh did not, in fact, believe that Roe vs. Wade was settled law. Brian Fallon from Demand Justice said that we should try to bring down some people from Maine to meet with Susan Collins to discuss the leaked email. Marie Follayter Smith said that she could activate the female lawyers that she had recruited onto an earlier letter. She brought close to 100 mostly female lawyers. Her idea was that Collins would argue the legal jargon of the leaked memos with everyday folks, so we needed lawyers. She filled the buses in two days. We thought it would be awesome if we could literally set up the meeting for the exact moment that the emails were leaked. It was hard to communicate this to Senator Booker and Senator Hirono's staff because we were using go betweens.

Nevertheless, we managed to get three meetings with Collins herself. The lawyers got in the room at the exact moment the emails were released. They stalled until they came out and then we called them when they did so they could pass her their phone. I told everyone that we would win as soon as that happened. She would be convinced. Instead, she looked at their phone, put it back down and said, “I've seen this, but I believe Brett that he sees Roe as settled law.” The biggest mistake that we made was not just writing her off right there and then.

Other Republicans

We leaned heavily into bringing constituents from key Senator's states. We had over 100 people from Alaska come. CPD's affiliate there was able to get a letter from their Governor (Republican turned Independent) that Kavanaugh would be bad for the state. Think of how incredible that is. And then think of how incredible it is that he was confirmed. Murkowski voted against, protected back home by that letter.

We looked around at other Republicans. Flake, of course, stood out and the story there is not mine to tell, but his role in my life and the life of CPD is truly otherworldly. But we landed on Capito and Ben Sasse.

The alumni from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's alma mater, Holton Arms, rushed in to protect her. They managed to pull off a powerful press conference asking their fellow alum, Senator Capito, to join them. We saw the look on her face. No matter how much you hate high school, having your high school say they are embarrassed by you is meaningful.

We knew some professors and students at Yale. Shockingly, the only Yale Alum on the Senate Judiciary Committee was Ben Sasse. He wasn't allied with Trump and he was far right religious, which sometimes brings you all the way back to the left. Within a few days, we got the entire Yale Law School to cancel classes to allow students to travel to DC. They told Sasse that they were ashamed of him. If we got the Yale History Department, I think we would have won. We also got a bunch of high-powered donors in LA to call Sasse and tell him that if he stood up on this issue he would have a shot at the presidency. My colleagues thought this was nuts - if Sasse ran, he might actually win against a Democrat. But you look for all of the cracks and you pull until you see what's underneath. Either way, it all has to be cleaned out.If we had more time and for the next fight, we will do more of this alma mater organizing.


In one day, we did 42 actions. We got arrested in the halls, we went to McConnell's house and held a kegger at 8am.e went to Collins' house and held a funeral and her neighbors cried with us, we held a funeral in the halls of Congress, we rushed the SCOTUS steps, we birddogged in the elevators, in the tunnels, in the hallways, we ate in offices, we occupied offices, 100 of us slept outside to be the first in the hearings, we had boring rallies, we had exciting marches, we brought in people from AZ, AK, ME, WV, IN and about 30 other states. We didn't sleep. We traded tips on which app to use to track your kids phone usage. We became friends. We cried and confessed things we never had before. We should have won. Every day I told people that this would be it. Surely. I knew we would lose the “war” and Trump would have a SCOTUS nominee confirmed but I didn't think they would fight so hard for that guy. It felt like a battle between the old guard and the new one. Sadly, the old guard had the bigger army.

I've said that the reason that we lost is that we didn't have the votes and that we ran out of power, but we also lost because we have electeds who are cowards. It's not their fault, it's ours, but our the Democrats could not even hold their entire caucus. There were discussions of Democrats voting for Kavanaugh - for Brett Kavanaugh! - throughout the entire campaign. In the end, only Senator Manchin crossed party lines, but when you think about how much heart and soul was poured into the campaign by thousands of women (mostly) from across the country, the least that the electeds could have done was sit this vote out.

The tear in our democracy is getting bigger because of Trump, but the fact that federal judges are being confirmed wholesale by the Democrats every day, including twenty recent appointees that don't believe that Brown v. Board of Education is settled law, shows that we are the ones doing the ripping.

If you want to stitch up that tear, then I encourage you to fight with us at SCOTUS on Oct. 6th, the anniversary of the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, October 7th when we will be fighting the confirmation of Steven Menashi to the federal bench, until Oct. 8th, when Kavanaugh's court will hear cases that might make it possible for employers to fire people due to their sexual orientation.


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