Monday, March 22, 2010

The damage is done

Seven years ago, when the Democrats in the U.S. Senate filibustered several of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, Republicans floated the idea of using a parliamentary maneuver to confirm them by a simple 51-vote majority. It was called the “nuclear option,” because of its power to cause havoc.

Republicans were frustrated. “The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to vote on nominees,” the White House said, adding that the process had become “worse than it’s ever been before.” Minority leader Tom Daschle (D–S.D.) denied that this was so. “If it ain’t broke,” he said of the Senate’s 60-vote rule, “don’t fix it.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D–N.Y.) agreed, placing the blame for the impasse on the President: “When the White House wants to show some degree of moderation, the system works well,” he said.

On May 27, 2003, the New York Times warned of the damage that would be caused to democratic legitimacy by such a change:

Republicans, who now control all three branches of the federal government, are not just pushing through their political agenda. They are increasingly ignoring the rules of government to do it. . . . These partisan attacks on the rules of government may be more harmful, and more destabilizing, than bad policies, like the $320 billion tax cut. Modern states, the German sociologist Max Weber wrote, derive their legitimacy from “rational authority,” a system in which rules apply in equal and predictable ways, and even those who lead are reined in by limits on their power. When the rules of government are stripped away, people can begin to regard their government as illegitimate.Two years later, without having detonated the option, Republicans backed down. Led by Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.), they fashioned a bipartisan compromise by which some of Bush’s nominees would be brought to the Senate floor for a vote (and some would be forever held up), avoiding the damage of “ramming them through.”

Fast forward seven years. What the Republicans either lacked the political audacity or showed the political diffidence not to do (depending upon your opinion of them), the Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama have now done, passing a deeply unpopular “health care” scheme by changing the rules to do so. Megan McArdle of the Atlantic writes:Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority? Republicans and other opponents of the bill did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn’t want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all.McArdle is terrified by what the Republicans may now do when (as, inevitably, they will) regain the majority. Victor Davis Hanson says much the same thing:In the future when the Republicans gain majorities (and they will), the liberal modus operandi will be the model—bare 51% majorities, reconciliation, the nuclear option, talk of deem and pass, not a single Democrat vote—all ends justifying the means in order to radically restructure vast swaths of American economic and social life.I hope both McArdle and Hanson are wrong, and I hope that Republican cowardice or restraint during the Bush years (again, depending upon how you view it), is the past that is prologue to future Republican “control.”

But the point is that, in Sen. Schumer’s words, the system worked well. The American public made itself heard through opinion polls, meetings, marches, petitions, and three elections in which Republicans handily defeated their Democratic rivals, in one case—the special election in Massachusetts to fill the term of the late Edward M. Kennedy—in which the Republican candidate explicitly campaigned to become the senator who would deny the Democrats sixty votes for “Obamacare.”

And as McArdle says, in the end none of it made any difference. Instead of showing “some degree of moderation,” the White House went nuclear. And whatever the harms that will be caused by “Obamacare”—the Wall Street Journal is particularly good on that question this morning—they will shrink to nothing, I fear, in comparison to the damage that was done last night to our democracy.


R/T said...

Perhaps you and I differ on perspectives, but I would argue that the problems and the damages as you have correctly cited them have roots extending further back than what you have documented. The "Great Society" from the 60s--as the unwholesome progeny of FDR initiatives from the 30s and 40s--was the pivotal point at which the inevitable downhill slide began. Since the 60s, government entitlements and popular dependency combined with voters' ignorance and politicians' arrogant hubris. This grotesque combination led to the events of the last few year, and we are now on the verge of having to sustain ourselves on the fruits of the carefully planted roots from earlier in the 20th century. However, since A COMMONPLACE BLOG concerns itself most often with literature, I use your recent post and my comments as catalysts for the nature question: Where are the writers who will employ imaginative literature as warnings about the nation's political and social maelstrom? Who is taking up the challenge? What are the books? Why is there silence? Or are writers now--much like those of the past--more interested in only liberal and progressive causes? I cannot think of a single, influential political and social "conservative" voice now working in American letters. If I am overlooking someone, let me know.

D. G. Myers said...


Charles McCarry comes to mind. Read Shelley’s Heart. The Republican ex-president in it expresses skepticism when his political mentor suggests that the Left will stop at nothing in its drive to “fundamentally transform” the United States.

“Right,” the mentor says in reply. “All that crowd has done in our lifetime is take over the federal budget, the universities, the schools, the do-good movement, the civil and foreign service, the news media, world literature, the theater, the ballet and the opera, plus the Democratic Party and organized religion minus the evangelicals.”

And now health care.

R/T said...

Postscript: Forgive the typographical errors in my previous posting. I hope readers will not think that I am less than literate but instead merely less than careful.

R/T said...

Thank you for the suggestion. My next stop at the library (later this week) means that SHELLEY'S HEART will be included among the books I borrow.

SE Martin said...

I second "Shelley's Heart."

Though I'm as yet unpublished, I don't expect to be mistaken for another liberal author.

All my friends are liberal; it should be no surprise that many of them also work in the arts. Few can say they have as many virtuous friends as I do.

It's a good thing I'm a writer; I've learned to love solitude.

Matt said...

Prof. Myers,
After a long flirtation with the idea, this post lit a fire under me that brought me to blogging; my first (and, at this moment, only) post is a reaction to this.

Let me say two things:
I am terrified at what such blatant disrespect for the ideas of the minority portends for American republicanism. I am delighted to know there are at least some others, curmudgeons we may be, who are also deeply troubled.