lessons from the filibuster fight
The filibuster fight is over. If Republicans stick to the terms of their agreement, this is a huge win for Senate Democrats and for President Obama.Â
As several bloggers and journalists around the web correctly noted earlier today, Senate Democrats never wanted to change the institution’s rules. Democrats only threatened filibuster reform because unprecedented and illegitimate obstruction from Senate Republicans left them no alternative course of action. The threat worked, and because Democrats stood united, the GOP backed down. This fact underscores that Senate Republicans care more about their ability to obstruct Democratic priorities than they care about the specific nominees. As we argued:
How Republican Senators keep score. With immigration reform behind them and the recent executive branch â€œcontroversiesâ€ fizzling out or fading from memory, Senate Republicans are going to be looking for red meat to feed their base. They appear to be far more concerned about the fate of the filibuster than the fate of a few nominations. They want to hang on to the tools of obstruction for future use.
Messaging takeaway: Democrats should carefully avoid issuing threats and making demands containing conditions which Senate Republicans can weasel their way into meeting without genuine compromise.
We made a very similar claim about Senate Democrats. Both sides genuinely want to keep the existing set of filibuster rules intact, and for now they have done so.
But this particular skirmish left the larger issues of ubiquitous Republican obstruction and Senate dysfunction completely unresolved. As far as anyone knows, Republicans may continue to block an unprecedented number of judicial nominees, Senate bills, and even future executive branch appointments. As a result of today’s deal, seven nominees will be confirmed (two of whom have yet to be named), butÂ the Senate remains a fundamentally broken institution. The question isn’t whether there will be another battle over Senate rules — it’s how soon it will come and which side will have the upper hand when it does.
The outcome of today’s battle suggests four lessons that Democrats should take to heart.
1) Political hardball isn’t optional — it’s necessary. Republicans can be forced to compromise, but only when failure to do so will jeopardize their priorities. They will not accede to Democratic demands unless they are politically coerced. Whining about Republican radicalism and obstruction won’t change their behavior. If Democrats want to win, we have to be willing to fight fire with fire.
2) Leverage, solidarity, and credibility are essential. Democrats won this fight because they could credibly threaten something Republicans cared about without taking on any risk in the court of public opinion. Democrats stood united as a caucus, unwavering in their commitment to rules reform until Republicans made major concessions. Without leverage, solidarity, and willingness to follow through, the result would have been another watered down agreement without accomplishing any Democratic goals.Â
3) Divide and conquer. The Republican Party isn’t nearly as unified as it appears. Their leadership is extremely weak, and the GOP contains deep and growing divisions over the future of the party, it’s ideological posture, and the wisdom of relentless obstruction. Democrats can win political fights by pitting their members against each other. Even old foes like John McCain can be peeled off when push comes to shove.
4) Don’t delay — fight while it can make a difference. Why didn’t Democrats pick a fight like this in 2009 or 2010, when the party had huge majorities in both houses of Congress? Imagine how much difference a fight like this could have made back then. in the here and now, Democrats could lose their Senate majority in 2014 — along with any prospect for confirming judges during the final two years of the Obama administration. There’s never going to be a better time to pick a fight over Republican obstruction of judicial nominations — and the time to pick that fight is running out.
We hope that when the next battle begins over filibuster reform, Democrats high and low as well as progressives in the media will show considerably more messaging savvy than they did during this confrontation. Use of the term “nuclear option” by filibuster reform supporters is wildly counter-productive. Senators on both sides of the aisle are already deeply uncomfortable with filibuster reform. Implying that filibuster reform is like detonating a weapon of mass destruction won’t make our leaders more eager to change Senate procedures. Meaningful rules reform won’t happen if Senators look at it the same way they see the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The words you use matter, and we advise you to use words that make filibuster reform seem as boring and as inconsequential as possible. So here’s a better alternative: fixing the filibuster is a rules change — not a war crime. United States Senators definitely won’t learn to talk — or THINK — about filibuster reform in this way until you do first. So instead of lamenting the reality that filibuster reform will have to wait for another day, be the change that you wish to see — and learn the language that will make reform more likely next time.