Thursday, December 5, 2013

Going Nuclear Was About Republicans, Not Democrats

I'll join those who are impressed that Chris Cillizza went back to assess why he was wrong when he asserted during the summer that the Senate would never go nuclear. Acknowledging past errors is absolutely admirable.*

So I hope I'm not being too crass by saying that, alas, Cillizza still doesn't really get it right. The problem is that he sets it all up as a story about the Democrats and about Harry Reid in particular. Back in July, he argued that Senate Majority Leaders by their nature were always going to seek to preserve, not blow up, the institution; now, he thinks that the key thing he missed then were all the new Democratic Senators who never served in the minority and therefore were less committed to preserving Senate traditional protections.

I don't think he gets Reid wrong (although he might have put more weight on the side of Reid that's all about being a tough partisan fighter), and he's right that there was a clear pattern of more senior Democrats being the most reluctant to pull the trigger.

I should get to the point: what Cillizza gets wrong, both in July and now, is that the key players here weren't Reid and the Democrats; this was all about the Republicans. As I've said many times, there's always going to be a tension between what's best for Senators as individual Senators, and what's best for them as party members. The more the minority obstructs, the more that party incentive kicks in. As obstruction ratcheted up in the 1990s, 2000s, and then the Obama era, it's not clear exactly where the line is where the party incentive clearly takes over, but it's certain that "nullification" obstruction was solidly over that line.

It took a while for nullification obstruction of executive branch positions produced an ultimatum and a showdown, but that's what this summer's confrontation was about. Since Republicans backed down, Democrats didn't have to follow through. When Republicans then extended nullification obstruction to judges, Democrats predictably reacted with a new ultimatum, and had little choice but to follow through when Republicans this time did not retreat.

Indeed: what happened during the original nuclear confrontation, over appellate judges during the George W. Bush presidency, is that Democrats mostly backed down. In other words, one could argue that in that case, too, the key was the minority party -- first in ratcheting up obstruction, and then in backing down when it resulted in a nuclear threat.

Sure, the majority isn't totally passive, and isn't purely just reacting. It's certainly possible that a more senior group of Democratic Senators might have been more patient at the end. But any analysis that doesn't mainly focus on the unprecedented obstruction of the Obama era is really just missing the biggest part of the story.

*And, again very much to his credit, it's something he does all the time. I thought that I had written something about Cillizza's claim back in July and went hunting for all the things I've written about him here, and while I found a lot of pretty harsh crankiness (he seems to have been one of the first inspirations for Cranky Blogging), I also found several times he was featured in "Read Stuff" for good pieces -- and, in particular, good pieces in which he looked at criticism of things he had written and decided the critics had a point. So being open about his mistakes is nothing new for Cillizza. It's an absolutely great but fairly rare quality for any pundit or reporter, or for that matter anyone, I suppose.


  1. Cillizza isn't quite at the level of a hack, but his cynicism gets the better of him. Sometimes I think he isn't really paying attention.

  2. Question: Would the GOP allowing just one Obama appointee to be confirmed for the DC Circuit have been enough to defeat the nuclear option?

    1. The reported rumor was that McCain made that offer, and it was rejected.

      I'm fairly confident that Democrats would have accepted something less than "confirm the three current nominees." I suspect they might even have accepted a blockade on one of the three seats, if the other two nominees were cleared; I also think they might well have accepted getting three seats filled, but with Republicans blocking even two of the three current nominees.

      But part of the problem was also the Watt nomination, which seemed to suggest to Dems that Republicans couldn't be trusted to keep their previous deals -- although they claimed they were against Watt on the merits, rather than as part of a blockade of the position, but I think that seemed to Democrats to be transparently false.

    2. Hard to parse out hypotheticals, since clearly Republicans weren't willing to allow a single DC Circuit nominee through. I don't know if such a compromise was even on the table for Republicans, something they'd be willing to even consider.

      The best counterfactual is that the Filibuster Nuke only came after several compromise "gentleman's agreements" had been made, whereby Reid et al. hadn't blown up the filibuster, and had shown willingness to live with a Senate that still had filibusters. Best as I can tell, Republicans were indeed "violating" the not-legally-binding agreements, rather than Reid unilaterally deciding to tighten things up.

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  4. There's also something interesting about people who admit errors, no? In a hyper-partisan world, there's regrettably little market for that sort of thing, but as a result the one who admits error is one of the few voices from which you're never sure what will come next.

    For perspective, I'm sure this audience is familiar with reports from the Vatican that Pope Francis sneaks out at night to minister to the downtrodden. That story sends a Chris-Matthews-esque thrill up my leg. In part because it is so admirable, and in part because its what a pope should do. But also to a large extent because it makes Pope Francis supremely interesting; it makes you excited to learn more about what crazy and awesome thing he'll do next.

    Admitting errors could have a similar effect, assuming the partisan noise machine doesn't drown out the error admitter.


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