Staring down Republicans' nuclear mind-set

Democrats won the filibuster standoff by actually showing backbone. The fight's not over -- and it will get harder

By Elias Isquith
Published July 17, 2013 6:05PM (EDT)
John Boehner, Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh                                                              (AP/Susan Walsh/Stacy Bengs/Reuters/Micah Walter)
John Boehner, Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh (AP/Susan Walsh/Stacy Bengs/Reuters/Micah Walter)

A power play-meets-standoff in the U.S. Senate reached its conclusion yesterday, and the Democrats … won? Yes; although the long-term consequences of averting the so-called nuclear option may prove ultimately injurious (anything that sustains the filibuster can’t be an unalloyed good) the short-term result of the deal struck is that seven vital Obama nominees will finally get to go to work, the filibuster will have undergone a rare setback, the nuclear option will remain a viable threat, and less important — but I must admit more emotionally satisfying — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will actually have reason for his perpetually glum stare.

I was especially interested in the nuclear threat drama because I saw it as a potential example of the Democrats adopting a more confrontational approach, as I’ve previously urged liberals to do. And I believe it was. After years of almost comically nihilistic filibustering and obstruction from their Republican colleagues, a bare majority if not more of Senate Democrats threatened to use one of their majority-party powers and won Republican concessions in return. For all its growing mythos as a titan of zealous implacability, the Republican Party could say the word “uncle.” Senate Democrats proved it.

Yet although basking in the light of self-aggrandizing vindication is good fun, I feel compelled to admit: When it comes to the House of Representatives, this approach will simply never work.

There are a few reasons. For one thing, the House is currently run, nominally at least, by Speaker John Boehner, a Republican. For another, Boehner is almost entirely at the mercy of his severely conservative Republican caucus. For another-another, a healthy portion of said caucus would sooner personally carve Howard Zinn’s face into Mount Rushmore than give the Democrats what they want. Boehner, doubtless the weakest speaker in a generation, is a puppet, a damaged one. And for fear of losing his job — which he clings to for reasons that continue to perplex — all he can say is no.

Even if the Democrats had the House majority, however, it’d still be unlikely to ever see them wield their power so brutishly. True, it wasn’t so long ago that Nancy Pelosi orchestrated the passage of the stimulus, Obamacare and other controversial bills through Congress. But those happened when the Democrats had a significant majority — and they were often tight all the same. The only place where Democratic Party discipline may be worse than the Senate is the House, where progressives jockey for elbow room among the caucus’s moderately corporate, corporate and hyper-corporate Blue Dog wings.

But with all that said, the truth that often goes forgotten while bashing the House is that prior to Jan. 20, 2011, it wasn’t the problem. Lord knows that at least from a progressive perspective, it’s been not so much a problem as a gaping wound of a catastrophe — but it’s not unreasonable to say that we got into this position in the first place because of the Senate in general, and the filibuster in particular. How many bills that could have helped the country, materially, and the Democrats, politically, fell into that legislative version of the Phantom Zone?

It’s for that reason — the weakening and outright abolition of the filibuster — that I still think confrontation is integral to fixing American politics. And it’s because change can often come from conflict that I hope Senate Democrats feel emboldened — not relieved, satisfied or confident, but emboldened — by the recent “nuclear” fracas. But make no mistake and harbor no illusions, the Republicans in the House have seen the Democrats’ version of change. They don’t like it. And they’ve got no problem going nuclear to prove it.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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