A Tale of Two Strategies: The Coalition Triumphant!
When the Gang of 14 forged an old-fashioned backroom compromise to prevent the ‘nuclear’ option from becoming operative, they were much vilified, and there was a feeling from much (most?) of the right that we had been sold down the river by those darn moderates. My own reaction was one of consternation. Why did people fail to see the victory we had achieved? And why where they so nasty about it? As a lark, I started a Coalition of the Chillin’ to combat the extremist rhetoric, and to my great surprise, I touched a real nerve, and the Coalition found itself deluged with dozens of requests for membership.
At this far remove, it is indeed somewhat shocking to recall the vilification of the Republican members of the Gang – and somewhat amusing (I hope) to read over the ‘manifesto’ I composed:
Whereas we, the Coalition of the Chillin’, think a lot of people are having a cow over this filibuster deal, we submit the following to our fellow Republicans, and Americans of other political stripes:
* it’s sometimes better to settle things in a bipartisan manner;
* we’re getting up and down votes on three very controversial appointees, and that’s three more than we had before this deal;
* the Republicans may want the filibuster preserved somewhere down the line;
* the media and the Democrats would have clubbed us to death if we went nuclear, and we don’t want a repeat of the ‘98 midterms; and most importantly,
* Frodo and Bilbo both could have killed Gollum, but didn’t, and he ended up destroying the One Ring, proving for all eternity that restraint can be a very good thing, indeed.
However, being that we are, by definition, kind of chillin’, any of us, jointly or separately, preserves the right to filibuster any of these points as long as we don’t make an ‘extraordinary’ fuss about it.
I think all of those points (but most particularly the one about Gollum) remain valid, and I’m as proud of that as I am of anything I’ve done since I started this blog.
The strategy had the added benefit that the Republican side gave up literally nothing! Hard to see what all the fuss was about now…
There was another strategy going on, we can now say with the benefit of hindsight, and it was an acknowledgment of defeat with a hopefully only delayed victory. The Democrats knew they did not have the votes to prevent the ‘nuclear’ option, and so they brayed and blustered and tried to appear as if they were bargaining from a position of strength, by agreeing to the face-saving ‘preservation’ of the filibuster. Of course, they were only agreeing to not give up one of their tools, not gaining a new one, and to cap it off, they hamstrung themselves on its future use by limiting its employment to nebulous ‘extraordinary circumstances’.
The Democratic strategy hinged on hearings: with memories of the ‘borking’ of Bork and the near-derailment of Clarence Thomas egging them on, they were convinced that they could succeed in forcing Bush to send up ‘acceptable’ nominees (i.e., non-conservatives) by holding the threat of ugly hearings up like a Sword of Damocles.
Yesterday, when Ted Kennedy attempted to use a thirty-year-old student group as a bludgeon, that strategy crumbled irretrievably. As Robert Novak put it:
Edward M. Kennedy, the 73-year-old liberal lion of the Senate, did not so much roar as huff and puff Tuesday, as he faced Judge Samuel Alito. He and other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who had spent weeks preparing for Alito’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing seemed to be shooting blanks at President Bush’s nominee.
Kennedy appeared to have lost his fastball in the 19 years since he eviscerated nominee Robert Bork. But Alito is a deceptively more difficult target. While Bork appeared a flamboyant scholar eager to expound his worldview, Alito came over as a cautious lawyer dealing in fine print and footnotes. Republican senators had feared the nominee’s uninspiring style would undo him, but they now feel it actually carried the day.
Failure to make a direct hit on Alito suggests a transcendent defeat for the Democratic judicial confirmation strategy crafted by Kennedy. It did not block all conservatives for appellate courts and failed to dissuade Bush from naming conservatives to the Supreme Court.
It was more than a temporary defeat for Kennedy – it was, we can only hope, the beginning of the end for the judicial nomination game as it has been played since the Bork hearings. When even as partisan and pompous a figure as Joe Biden is decrying the system, you know the game is up. Biden is not upset about the unfairness to the nominee, of course – he is admitting that tactically, the ‘smearing in the hearing’ has proven itself worthless. It succeeded once, with Bork, but Bork was a contentious personality who was far too willing to give rope to the other side. No one will ever make the mistake of being forthcoming again…
So here’s to you, Gang of 14, and particularly, of course, the Republican members: you proved the critics wrong…but for God’s sake, don’t let it go to your head; senators may have a lot of problems, but self-esteem isn’t one…
UPDATE 3:41 p.m.: The great James Taranto has similar thoughts in today’s Best of the Web:
…[L]ast May’s filibuster compromise has turned out to be extremely beneficial for the Republicans. As a practical matter, it ensures that the Democrats cannot filibuster Alito’s nomination, because doing so would require at least three of the seven compromising Democrats to violate the agreement and at least six of the seven compromising Republicans to abjure the nuclear option nonetheless.
But by averting the nuclear option, the compromise kept open the option of a filibuster in theory. The Democrats, however, must act as if the possibility is more than theoretical, because to do otherwise would be to admit that they suffered a total defeat back in May. (The seven compromising Democrats have a slightly different incentive: As long as they keep alive the notion that a filibuster is a real possibility, they get to pretend to be power brokers.)
The Angry Left, believing that the Democrats actually could stop Alito’s nomination through a filibuster, increases the pressure on Kennedy, Biden, et al., prompting them to behave like jerks, revealing their extremism and obnoxiousness to all the voters of America. We liked the filibuster compromise from the start, but even we didn’t imagine it would be this good.