Wednesday, June 01, 2005

When is a Compromise Not a Compromise?

My last post argued that the filibuster showdown would be a referendum on the power of moderates in the U.S. Senate. Now that a compromise has been reached, these pesky moderates have, at the very least, temporarily staved off the radical efforts of the Republican leadership and successfully neutralized Democrats who were intent on shutting down the Senate while throwing political caution to the wind. However, immediately after the agreement was announced, interest groups and bloggers on both sides complained that the moderates compromised too much and had unwittingly handed their opponents a major victory. As a general rule, when the activists on both sides are upset, it usually means that a sensible, measured, and nuanced agreement was hammered out, but these accords can also prove to be especially fragile.

On the Democratic side, some liberals insist that President Bush and Senator Frist outmaneuvered those hapless and soulless Democratic centrists again, by guaranteeing a vote on three controversial nominees and retaining their right to the nuclear option for future battles over the Supreme Court. I agree that Brown, Pryor, and Owen are conservative judges with problematic records for liberals, but what was the alternative? If no compromise was reached, the nuclear option would be used and all of President Bush’s nominees would probably be confirmed by a majority vote, including Supreme Court nominees when vacancies arose. In response, Democrats would have slowed Senate business to a crawl, but also likely lost the war over public opinion. Newt Gingrich’s attempt to shut down government was a political disaster for him, and while a slowdown of the Senate is less extreme, does anyone out there believe that Democrats could win a public relations battle on a nuanced issue like this, when they cannot even successfully marshal public support for initiatives that most Americans agree with them on? Instead, Fox News and the right wing media machine would have successfully labeled Senator Reid and Senate Democrats as obstructionists (remember former Senator Tom Daschle?), and created a powerful issue for the 2006 midterm elections. The only caveats to offer here are that it is possible that Republicans did not have enough votes to secure the nuclear option (doubtful) or that a more favorable compromise could have reached for Democrats (we cannot really know). Excluding these possibilities, it appears that Democratic moderates served their Party well.

For Republicans, the true implications of the compromise depend on whether the observer is loyal to the Party or a single issue. For the GOP itself, destroying Senate tradition would have resulted in short term gain, in the form of lifetime appointments for conservative judges, but would have empowered social conservatives even further within the Republican Party, since they were the most vocal supporters of the nuclear option. Senator Frist would have possibly used this victory to jumpstart his Presidential campaign with the enthusiastic support of social conservatives. However, as the Terri Schiavo case illustrated, social conservatives are prone to overreach on “culture of life” issues and an electoral backlash is always a distinct possibility. Allowing these interest groups too many victories in such a short amount of time would probably be bad for Republicans in the long run. To properly burnish their image as a big tent party, the GOP has to beat back efforts like the nuclear option from time to time. It’s a better long term strategy for the Republicans to bolster their own moderates with compromises like these, and allow for a dramatic but losing Presidential primary campaign for Senator McCain, after which he will undoubtedly support the Republican nominee. From the standpoint of socially conservatives voters who care only about radically reshaping the judiciary with the historic opportunity presented by Republican dominance in Washington however, the compromise was a defeat.

So what will happen when Supreme Court vacancies arise? Will the compromise even hold? Will Democratic moderates use the compromise as political cover from liberal interest groups and vote for nominees that are supported in their home states? Or, will they instead toe the party line and vote against Bush’s nominees, arguing that “extraordinary circumstances” require it? The beauty of the compromise is that the moderates left themselves wiggle room to go either way, and subsequently wield more power because of it.

P.S. On a completely unrelated note, does anyone remember the Economist cover from 2004, where Bush, Blair, and Howard, and Aznar were pictured with a tag line that read something like: “1 Down, Three to Go?”, referring to the defeat of Aznar’s candidate in the Spanish elections and implying that the other three may too lose elections over their support of the Iraq War? In 2005, we now know that Bush, Blair, and Howard were all reelected by their people, and Iraq War opponents like Chirac and Schroeder now face political problems of their own. What a difference a year makes!

R.C.

J.S.’s Novel: As It Was In The Beginning

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