Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The First Battle
There's a story out this morning that Harry Reid and Bill Frist are discussing a judicial compromise by which the Democrats would permit two of Bush's nominees to be confirmed immediately in exchange for the Republicans dropping their demand for the elimination of the filibuster. The judges in question are two of the less egregious ones--Brown, Owen, Myers, and Prior, the worst of the lot, would still face Democratic opposition--and Reid reportedly would confirm a third if Bush would replace the current nominee, from Michigan, with another nominee approved by Michigan's two Democratic senators.

Josh Marshall seems to have the best take on the proposed deal: it could be worth it for the Democrats to deal if it takes the nuclear option off the table permanently. Such a deal retains for Democrats the necessary leverage they will need to fight judicial nominations another day; and second, it would cause the wingers to lose their minds, thereby putting Frist and his party in the catbox. The latter is probably why Frist won't deal--and even that isn't entirely a bad thing for the Democrats, if the polls are right and the public thinks ending the filibuster is a bad idea. Bottom line is that Harry Reid seems to know what he's doing on this, as Josh observes--and Reid's plan to push some terrific progressive legislation in response to the nuclear-option threat is an excellent, counterintuitive idea. The conventional wisdom has been that the Democrat response to a loss on filibusters would be to shut the Senate down completely, and that such a shutdown would boomerang on them, just as the shutdown of the government boomeranged on the Repugs during the Gingrich years. It doesn't sound like a do-nothing shutdown is in Reid's mind at all--and if he could deliver what he's promising, it's hard to imagine it being unpopular, at least outside the precincts not already colonized by the Borg.

So Reid seems to get that the filibuster fight, win or lose, is not just a tactical matter, it's a strategic one as well. In any successful operation, the two will be closely related, but separate: tactics are short-term and strategy is the long haul. Repugs understand how tactics feed strategy--Democrats, not so much. As James Ridgeway wrote in the Village Voice this week, you've got Hillary Clinton moving right on abortion, and even Howard Dean is quoting the Bible in Florida. The Nation reported that Hillary and John Kerry have signed on as co-sponsors of "the Workplace Religious Freedom Act," which would, among other things, permit the vile practice of pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions on religious grounds to continue. Hillary and Kerry have presidential aspirations for 2008, and the temptation to try peeling off middle-of-the-road voters (or to preemptively find shelter from the inevitable right-wing shitstorm that will envelop both of their candidacies) is probably too much for them to resist. But it's tactical rather than strategic thinking--what's good for me right now versus what's good for my party in the long run. It's the kind of thinking that keeps Democrats playing catch-up, and then getting beaten anyhow.

So here's what I've been getting around to. I like what Reid is doing, but whether he's successful isn't entirely up to him. I'm afraid we'll win this battle on filibusters, but fumble it in one of many different possible ways: by losing our nerve for the confrontation (which doesn't seem quite so likely now), or by settling for a compromise that merely postpones the nuclear war, or by taking a crumb now that causes us to forfeit the whole loaf later on (the possibilities Josh Marshall considers).

Another way we could blow it is to confuse a tactical win with a strategic one: by thinking that because we won on filibusters, the radical clerics of the Religious Right will shut up and go home. The only way a holy war ends is for one side to admit their god is a loser, and these people show no sign of being ready for that. Which is why defeating the right isn't a war of a single battle, any more than the Civil War was decided at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Our war can't be won at all if some of our highest-level soldiers are going to play footsie with the enemy. Because what strategy does that tactic ultimately support--the continued blurring of the distinctions between Democrats and Republicans? We've seen, in a series of national elections, how well blurriness has worked for the greater glory of the Democratic Party.

Recommended Reading: Thomas Frank, of What's the Matter With Kansas? fame, on the persistent power of backlash in American politics, and how liberals don't get it and can't fight it.

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