In a Perfect World
Following-up on my previous post about Obama’s forum with House Republicans, I want to emphasize that none of Obama’s efforts at public persuasion matter if they are not combined with an aggressive effort behind the scenes to push forward on important reform and recovery legislation. In one sense, the new emphasis the White House reportedly intends to place on financial reform and job creation is smart, because it will force Republicans to publicly side with the corporations and against the middle and working classes. However, it’s also vitally important that health care reform not be abandoned or even postponed for too long.
In a perfect, fantasy world where I alone control and coordinate Democratic strategy for both the White House and the Senate, I would shift immediately to an aggressive and multi-pronged campaign against the current pseudo-filibuster arrangement in the Senate. I say "pseudo-filibuster," of course, because the new way of business in "the world’s greatest deliberative body" is that the minority party need not actually filibuster with speeches and debate aimed at slowing down or reconsidering proposed legislation, but can kill legislation outright by doing nothing more than threatening a filibuster, resulting in the current de facto rule that 60 votes are "required" to pass Senate bills as a matter of standard procedure.
A recent poll showed that only 26% – a mere quarter – of Americans even realize that this is how the Senate is being run by the Republican minority. Even fewer, I would suspect, know that filibusters and threatened filibusters have spiked to an unprecedented degree since the Republicans lost their majority status in the Senate, and that this is a radical departure from traditional Senate practices. A coordinated campaign against the pseudo-filibuster would not only educate more Americans about this revolting state of play, but would also provide the perfect symbolic focal point and target for popular outrage that "things aren’t getting done" in business-as-usual Washington, DC.
Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of both parties in Congress (the GOP only slightly more so), while approving much more of President Obama, due to this lurking and accurate sense that Congress is where good ideas go to die or be pumped full of special interest garbage. Having the more popular, executive branch President Obama lead the charge against the filibuster would galvanize and direct this frustration into a productive solution that directly targets a critical cause of these widely known problems. This would then dovetail perfectly into the narrative behind particular pieces of financial reform and jobs legislation, which is that wealthy, corporate interests have for too long hijacked our economy and political process at the expense of middle class Americans.
Combined together, this procedural and substantive package would constitute the ultimate "populist" framework from a liberal perspective, countering the current anti-majoritarian arrangement in the Senate, while simultaneously championing middle class-friendly legislation that would itself most benefit from abolishment of the pseudo-filibuster.
In trials, a winning strategy is to settle on an overarching theory of one’s case, and then tie all the particulars into that unifying theory. This works because the theory of the case acts as a heuristic aid for jurors and judges to remember the specific details, as the human brain remembers things more effectively when they connect under a single, coherent message. In a perfect world, Democratic leaders would borrow this page from the trial strategy playbook and focus on a unifying, populist "theory of the case," as exemplified and spearheaded by a crusade against the pseudo-filibuster.
In a perfect world.
Chris Bowers at Open Left yesterday had a post on this topic, about his participation in a roundtable discussion with Obama adviser David Axlerod. It’s a fascinating post, so do read it all. Among other things, Bowers says this:
Mixing lobbying with journalism, I told Axelrod it was not think [sic] it was possible to make Republicans pay a political price for their egregious use of the filibuster. I told him about the Pew poll released today showing that only 26% of the country knew it took 60 votes in the Senate to end a filibuster. I also told him about Pew polls during the nuclear option fight back in 2005 showing that the public never really took an interest in news about the filibuster, even when it was the top political news story for a couple weeks. Concluding, I told him that, given how few Americans know what the filibuster is, given how little interest they have shown in the past when it became a big political story in the past, there is no way that the White House can engage in a public education campaign large enough to ever make Republicans pay a meaningful political price for their use of the filibuster. As such, wouldn’t it be easier to for 51 Senators to change the Senate rules on the first day of Congress in 2011, so that only 51 votes are required to pass anything through the Senate?
Obviously, I don’t disagree with the proposition that a simple majority of Senators change the Senate rules at the beginning of the first 2011 session, but I disagree that the situation today is comparable to the 2005 "nuclear option" fight. Not only do I think the public right now views the political environment as much more intensely partisan than that period in 2005, but the issue related to the filibuster fight then (Bush’s judicial nominees) was far less emotional and central to the national discourse than today’s slate of health care, financial reform, and economic recovery proposals.
With popular anger at Congress at an all-time high, and so much of that frustration having to do with the peception that wealthy interests are subverting democracy and Washington is being prevented from "getting things done," I think a high-profile campaign against the pseudo-filibuster would pay substantial political dividends. Not only that, but such a push would make the ultimate goal of actually abolishing this stultifying parliamentary practice more likely, as well as placing Obama and Senate Democrats squarely on the better side of that battle.
In other words, both things need to happen: Senate Democrats should do what they can to change the pseudo-filibuster rules and the White House and Democratic Party needs to pick a high-profile fight with those rules, while fitting that effort into the larger theme that surrounds all their other legislative efforts.