Monday, February 8, 2010

Filibuster Politics

A snapshot of the current online "progressive" debate about the filibuster: Paul Krugman conjures the specter of national dissolution in order to show the purported dangers of the filibuster. Ezra Klein, not exactly a friend of the filibuster, offers a few contrary points. Meanwhile, Steve Benen keeps up the "progressive" attack that the inability of Obama and Congressional Democrats to get their way on crucial issues is a sign of a dysfunctional society.

Chris Cillizza has an interesting piece up about the political dynamic of the White House's increasing emphasis upon the filibuster as a campaign issue. He puts forward two theories for this renewed interest:
The first is that the White House believes that the filibuster can be used as symbolic image for why the government (still) isn't working and why it's Republicans fault.

The second theory on the focus on the filibuster is that it is a play to energize what has been, of late, a very listless Democratic base.
I think these are both solid observations. Attacking the filibuster could certainly be an effective tactic for rousing the Democratic base.

Cillizza's first theory also ties neatly into the "progressive" narrative that the United States is somehow "ungovernable" if "progressive" policy positions cannot swiftly become law. There certainly has been increased noise about how the lack of action makes a nation ungovernable (avoiding the argument that sometimes frustrating bad actions is itself a sign of good government), and the filibuster, as an obstacle to "progressive" dreams, could certainly become an image of inaction.

Another possible theory for the White House's increasing vitriol against the filibuster: a desire to get rid of it. There is much institutional deference for the filibuster, as Cillizza acknowledges, but there is a certain "progressive" wing that sincerely would like to get rid of it. Part of the escalating attacks upon the filibuster---how it will cause the dissolution of the nation, the destruction of America, and so forth---may be an attempt by this wing to push to borders of debate in order to begin to make the gutting of the filibuster seem a reasonable course of action.

However, it's not hard to see why many institutional power players in DC like the filibuster in its current incarnation. The filibuster is one of the great facilitators of Beltway kabuki. Senators of various ideological stripes can craft their rhetoric (playing to the base, playing to moderates, or whatever audience they choose) knowing that the filibuster will be there to let them avoid casting black-and-white votes. It can provoke a continued sense of frustration, encouraging donors to give ever more to the party in order to ensure that it can overwhelm the filibuster (see Cillizza's second theory).

So there are all sorts of ways that the filibuster can benefit incumbents while frustrating certain ideologues. And that conflict of expediency and ideology in part explains the various, sometimes contradictory, tendencies of current leftish discussion of the filibuster. Some would like to abolish it. Some would like to talk about abolishing it. Some would like to maintain it. And some will go whichever way the political winds blow.

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