Republican Obstruction is Routine, Not Revenge
There is something deeply wrong with all of these headlines. Can you guess what it is?
Here’s Politico: “The Senate’s ‘Nuclear’ Fallout: The GOP slow-walks Obama’s nominees in the wake of changes to filibuster rules.”
Here’s Talking Points Memo: “Mitch McConnell Exacts Revenge By Slowing Down Obama’s Nominations.”
And here’s Mediaite: “McCain: GOP’s Loretta Lynch Delay ‘Payback’ for Dems Using ‘Nuclear Option’”
All of them were the result of an ill-tempered and inaccurate statement from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): “I also told them when they did the ‘nuclear option’…that I was not going to be in any hurry to confirm nominees that were not very important. And I’m not going to be embarrassed about saying that.” Translation: Republicans are blocking nominees in retaliation for Democrats changing the Senate’s filibuster rules — and I’m not going to apologize for it.
McCain may be a grouchy, vindictive, and surly old man. His statement certainly validates the media narrative that portrays him as such, and it makes for a compelling headline. But McCain wasn’t “in any hurry to confirm nominees” before the November 2013 Senate rules change, sometimes called “the nuclear option.” Neither were his Senate Republican colleagues.
Republican obstruction is not “payback” or “retaliation” or “revenge” for anything. It’s what Senate Republicans have been doing all along since President Obama took office. As far as anyone knows, it’s what they will continue doing in perpetuity until a Republican assumes the presidency.
The revenge narrative peddled by Sen. McCain — and repeated in the media’s headlines — is misleading because it insinuates that today’s Republican obstruction is a retaliatory consequence of filibuster reform. It isn’t. Republicans have been waging a campaign of maximal obstruction since 2009 and have never showed any signs of letting up. In November 2013, when Senate Democrats reformed the filibuster rule and lowered the threshold for confirmation from 60 votes to a simple majority, that action was the result — not the cause — of the GOP’s block-everything strategy.
Indeed, the political calculus in favor of filibuster reform was premised on this very fact. At the time, many moderate Democrats were worried that if Republicans won the Senate in the 2014 midterms, they might retaliate once in power. “But retaliate how?” asked reform proponents. What could a Republican majority do that the minority wasn’t already being allowed to do? How many more nominees could Republicans block than all of them? Their threats of retaliation were empty.
The only real threat was what might happen if Republicans won control of both the Senate and the White House in 2016. Freed from the constraints of minority opinion, Republicans might stack the judiciary with dangerous right wing ideologues. This remains a possibility, but a remote one when considering the 2016 electoral college and Senate maps. For a variety of reasons, both maps are stacked heavily in favor of Democratic victories. Even as early as 2013, the prospect of losing in 2016 wasn’t enough to strike fear into the hearts of Senate Democrats wary of filibuster reform.
If by some twist of fate Republicans won a trifecta, it is likely that their first order of business would be to eliminate the filibuster entirely. At least, that’s what many Democrats suspected in 2013 and still do. Congressional Republicans have openly discussed the idea on a number of occasions, so Democrats had good reason to carefully consider the potential consequences of their actions.
But after finding themselves on the receiving end of constitutional hardball for more than two decades, Democrats correctly reasoned 1) that Republicans are willing and eager to abuse and subvert the democratic process whenever it suits them, and 2) that well-meaning gestures of conciliation and restraint do not in fact prevent current or future Republican extremism and excess. In other words, Republicans are gonna do what Republicans wanna do, and they leave no good deed unpunished. Why should Democrats show procedural restraint when Republicans will just take advantage of them?
If the political calculus overwhelmingly favored reform, then the procedural calculus favored it even more strongly. Democrats gave Republicans multiple opportunities to change their ways and multiple warnings to let at least some nominees through, or else a unilateral rules change would soon follow. Senate Democrats did not want to initiate this change. But by remaining intransigent, Republicans forced their hand. No one was entirely sure whether Senate Democrats had the votes to go through with filibuster reform, but no one can honestly claim that the rules change came as a surprise.
And how have Republicans responded since then? By continuing to block virtually all of Obama’s nominees — exactly as they had done for the previous five years. As the old saying goes: plus ça change…
Clearly Republicans don’t like the rules change. No one ever said they would. But they would still be blocking most of the president’s nominees — or at least trying to — had the rules remained the same. To suggest otherwise is to imagine Republicans waking up one morning having decided to give a free pass to many or all of the president’s nominees — and to imagine that the Republican Party’s base would be unconcerned with this new and inexplicable spirit of cooperation.
What’s telling is that it’s quite easy to imagine an alternate history in which filibuster reform never happened, but in which Senate Republicans nevertheless make vindictive-sounding public statements to justify their continued obstruction. “I told them when they (insert right wing grievance)…that I was not going to be in any hurry to confirm nominees that were not very important. And I’m not going to be embarrassed about saying that.” Any grievance will do.
McCain’s statement is what political psychologists call rationalization — in two senses of the term. First, it’s an excuse for something that’s difficult to justify. Second, as a purely causal explanation for McCain’s behavior or that of the Senate Republican caucus, it is demonstrably and empirically false.
Congressional Republicans settled on a strategy of maximum obstruction and pitched confrontation before President Obama assumed office. The GOP’s infamous 2009 pre-inauguration meeting is the closest thing there is to an origin point for the GOP’s block-everything strategy under the current administration. To understand the determining factors which produced this strategy or the justifications behind it, January 2009 is where we must begin our search. Filibuster reform, still years in the future at that point, had nothing to do with it.
It doesn’t matter whether McCain sincerely believes he’s avenging filibuster reform, even if the reality is that he’s just maintaining a pre-existing routine. McCain’s personality is such that he may not know the difference. But rationalizations don’t have to be sincere or factually true to fool other people.
And boy, did it fool the media! The proof is in the headlines that have repeated McCain’s message uncritically. The proof is in the reporting that accepts McCain’s framing of the GOP’s ongoing obstruction as an act of revenge. The problem is that this narrative is a distorted work of fiction.
The GOP’s blanket obstruction of Obama’s nominees is automatic and unavoidable — and has been for a long time. That’s not revenge. It’s routine pretending to be retaliation. By accepting McCain’s interpretation of events uncritically, reporters are creating the false impression that filibuster reform led to the current Republican obstruction — rather than the other way around.
It’s bad enough when politicians try to rewrite history. But it’s particularly troubling when journalists allow themselves to be bamboozled for the sake of a good headline. There’s nothing at all wrong with covering or quoting what McCain said. What’s wrong is reporting it as if it were true.