If the disproportional outrage from the Right is any indication, it would appear that the Democrats did indeed come out ahead in the filibuster compromise. There is another way to interpret the initial reactions, though: Conservative activists are keenly aware of what's at stake in the judicial nominations, and are mobilized for a stiff, protracted battle.
George Will noted in yesterday's Washington Post that the seven Democrats among the "Gang of 14" are supported by their party, by and large, whereas the seven Republicans are rebuked by most of their party members. He ridiculed Democrats "extraordinary rhetoric" in this episode and their fatuous expression of support for the original Constitution, neglecting the fact that senators were not chosen by individual voters until the 17th Amendment in 1913. Will got to the heart of the matter, however, by laying some of the blame at the Republican leader's feet:
The compromise is a mere pause, and arguably a prudent one, in a protracted fight. However, it looks to many conservatives like a defeat, partly because of Frist's own rhetoric, which was tactically imprudent and mistaken as a matter of constitutional law.
Instead of just correctly arguing that the Democrats' obstruction of up-or-down Senate votes on judicial nominees was wrong -- a violation of the ethics of legislative statesmanship -- he incorrectly said the obstruction violated a constitutional right . Once he cast this controversy as the defense of such a glistening right -- one not enumerated in the document -- any compromise would seem to derogate the nation's foundational document.
The inability to find ways to compromise may be an indication of the disproportional role of religious conservatives in the Republican party, something that gives people like me qualms about legislators like Frist. The possibility that he may have risked his party's standing in order to rally his core constituency for a likely run for president is not encouraging. Frist is probably doing better than his predecessor -- the amiable, pliable Trent Lott -- would have done under these trying circumstances. That is not nearly as bad as what Sen. McCain did, however. I hope the Republicans manage to find better candidates than those two guys to run for president in 2008.
As mentioned one month ago, a Washington Post poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans supposedly opposed the anti-filibuster "nuclear option," but how many of those Americans are really aware of the recent history of its abuse? A year and a half ago, the Senate went through a marathon 30-hour session in which Republicans tried to outlast the Democrats' filibuster of judges, and Senator Frist slept on a cot. Senator Ted Kennedy said that Democrats would "continue to resist an Neanderthal that is nominated by this president" for the federal courts. (Washington Post, Nov. 15, 2003, p. A9) Have any leading Republicans uttered such vile language toward Democrats? One way to rebuild the fragile spirit of bipartisan harmony and thereby avoid the nuclear option being invoked would be for Senator Kennedy to apologize for using such obnoxious slurs against well-qualified candidates. Are you up to that Senator? Or does the long record of verbal abuse by Democrats suggest that hopes for bipartisanship are in vain?
No vote on Bolton
Democrats in the Senate refused to end debate on the John Bolton nomination yesterday, delaying a vote on his confirmation by at least two weeks. They claim they just want to get access to classified documents on past actions by Bolton. Sen. Harry Reid said, "We are not here to filibuster Bolton -- we are here to get information." See Washington Post. Sounds like a filibuster to me; why didn't the Democrats request those documents earlier? Freshman Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who defeated incumbent Tom "Mr. Obstruction" Daschle last November, came out against Bolton to protest the proposed closing of Ellsworth Air Force Base, the only major military base in the state. I must say, the tearful laments about Bolton by Sen. Voinovich of Ohio made me less likely to listen to complaints about him. He missed much of the hearings last month, and yet came out forcefully against the no-nonsense nominee. Very strange; is he the next McCain?